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Science

Building Willpower: Do Something Difficult Every Week

There’s a pattern in the places that you attend regularly (the gym, yoga classes, grocery store, local bakery, etc.)

There are the people who look at you, smile and say hello because you see them frequently, and there are the people who don’t, who avoid all eye contact, but know that you exist because you see them frequently.

Of course, there is a reason for this.

Here’s the pattern that I noticed in my gym the other day. The people that acknowledge me, and vice versa, engaged in a conversation of some kind where we were no longer absolute strangers. For example: Last year my car had a random flat tire, and I didn’t notice it until I parked. A woman that I see everyday came up to me and we started talking about it. Ever since that day, whenever we’re in the same vicinity, we smile at each other and say hello.

This kind of human interaction has always been difficult. As Seth Godin says in the post that I linked to above:

This is an internal debate, not something that comes from outside. When we look for rejection and reasons to hold back, that’s exactly what we will find. On the other hand, if we seek possibility and look for people that need us as much as we need them, there they are.

Everyone is, at some level, shy. Everyone has the instinct to hold back, because that instinct is baked in. Those that overcome it aren’t born gregarious, they are people who realize the self-fulfilling truth of finding what they’re looking for.

There is a guy in my gym who says hello to every single person—I repeat, every single person.

My guess is that his experience of going to the gym is better than most people because the energy he surrounds himself in is friendly and human. These aren’t strangers to him, but rather human beings that he sees everyday who share a common goal. In passing, I overheard a guy walk up to him and say, “Hey, you’re the nicest guy in here, and no one does what you do. I just wanted to let you know how much I look up to that.”

They shook hands, introduced themselves, and walked away with a subliminal reassurance that if they were to walk into the gym tomorrow, there would be a friendly face.

So as an experiment, I wanted try it on my own: If I started to smile and say hello to the people I see everyday, would they do the same  whenever I walked into the gym or saw them at the water fountain?

There’s a woman who I see all the time. Her body definitely has changed, and she looks great. One morning, as I was walking towards the entrance, I held the door for her and complimented her. “I see you here everyday.” She laughed and agreed. “You look great by the way; keep up the amazing work.” She smiled and said thank you.

The next day, as I was walking in, she didn’t have tunnel vision or look down at her phone as if I wasn’t there.

She smiled and said hello.

Every week, do something difficult

Saying hello to people you see everyday—whether it be in your gym, grocery store, yoga classes, classroom, whatever—is actually daunting. But do this often, and it can help you build willpower.

In Manage Your Day-to-Day, Erin Rooney Doland shares an awesome insight on how small tasks can build willpower, and how it can spread to other areas of your life [emphasis by me]:

For his book Willpower, psychologist Roy Baumeister analyzed findings from hundreds of experiments to determine why some people can retain focus for hours, while others can’t. He discovered that self-control is not genetic or fixed, but rather a skill one can develop and improve with practice.

Baumeister suggests many strategies for increasing self-control. One of these strategies is to develop a seemingly unrelated habit, such as improving your posture or saying “yes” instead of “yeah” or flossing your teeth every night before bed. This can strengthen your willpower in other areas of your life. Additionally, once the new habit is ingrained and can be completed without much effort or thought, that energy can then be turned to other activities requiring more self-control. Tasks done on autopilot don’t use up our stockpile of energy like tasks that have to be consciously completed.

My first difficult task was waking up at 5:30 am on a Friday to go and do Bikram yoga with someone who—because I eventually introduced myself—became a good friend. The idea is to be conscious of what you’re telling yourself when doing this difficult task. There were plenty of times when I would wake up, look at the clock and say fuck no. I did it once and I regretted it hours later. From that day on, I never did it again. And here’s the catch: Every time I woke up at 5:30, it was always difficult. There was always—as Steven Pressfield calls it—resistance. That’s the point.

Once I got comfortable doing that—because you will habituate to it the more you do it—I sought new challenges; that’s when I decided to start being more friendly to the the people I see everyday in the places that I enjoy going to; that’s also when I realized how difficult it is to speak up and be seen. But more important, how you can change how you feel about a place or event just by taking a small initiative, like introducing yourself and saying hello.

Pick one thing—anything. The idea is that you probably hate doing it, it’s daunting, it’s not “normal” to you, and all your insecurities will rise to the surface without you being conscious of half of them.. The idea is to embrace that challenge and overcome it—to arrive at a new understanding about yourself and the world.

Comfort never leads to growth. The purpose of growth is conscious discomfort. As Marcus Aurelius once said: “Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”

— PAUL JUN