Willpower or lack of it is contagious

In the book Willpower : Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F Baumeister he talks about how willpower and behavior is contagious.  This can be detrimental because we take on the behavior of those people who are significant to us and with whom we have a close relationship.  Where I work this is very evident.  One person under extreme stress can influence everyone else and when one person snacks on something unhealthy it also inspires the same unhealthy behavior in others.  It is very difficult to say ‘no’ to a piece of cake when everyone around you is indulging.

Resultantly our individual choices are powerfully shaped by what other people think, want and do and what we think they want us to do.  We even have mirror neurons in our brain whose sole purpose are to keep track of what other people are thinking, feeling and doing.  Although this can be detrimental, it can also be used to our benefit.

Fitness Challenge

It was this principle that paved the way to the fitness challenge that I started at work three months ago.   The whole idea behind it was to motivate people in the office who are not very active to get more active and hopefully cultivate some healthier lifestyle habits. To make it accessible to everyone, we kept it very simple.  The guidelines were that each participant had to walk at least 3 times per week for a minimum of 20 minutes.  We did a few simple measurements at the start which incorporated the essentials of building core strength and gaining fitness.  Participants had to keep a diary of how much and how often they walked and had to report on that every week. They also had to keep track of any additional exercises they did.  The reasoning behind this is that we tend to do better in whatever we are doing if we know that someone is watching us and keeping tabs on our progress.

Measurements were taken every end of the month and again at the end of the challenge.  Participants also had to pay a minimal amount every month to participate which we used for the prize money. The challenge ended with a 5km race held in town by one of our local running clubs. Participants had to complete the 5km race to qualify for their prize money.

Our directors also got on board and sponsored T-shirts for all the participants, paid the entry fee for the 5km and even sponsored us for a breakfast afterwards.


Our winner lost a good amount of weight, dropped considerably on her waist measurements and overall look and feel healthier. She is continuing with the healthy walking routine she started and is even saving herself some money as she now walks to and from work whenever possible instead of taking a taxi. So, there are even hidden benefits to getting healthy!


This challenge not only improved the participants’ health but I think also brought a spirit of camaraderie into the workplace and improved work relations.  It has already inspired some family and friends to also join in and we now have a small group who walks after work twice a week.

Your challenge

If you work in an environment where people mostly sit behind computers all day, indulge in snacks and bad eating habits and work under a great deal of stress, I challenge you to start something similar.  I believe that little by little we can all make a change and it doesn’t always have to be earth-shatteringly big.  I believe just as bad habits are contagious so are good ones and why not start a new trend.

We already decided we will do the challenge again next year and also try to motivate some of the other firms in town to join in.

The basic principles are the following :

  1. You do better if there is some kind of reward – prize money is a great motivator or paying a penalty if you do not stick to your goals.
  2. You do better if you are being watched and monitored – called social accountability. A great website that can help you with this as well is
  3. Social sharing is motivating.
  4. When your willpower is very low it helps if you have someone to walk / run / exercise with. That way it is not so easy to find excuses.
  5. A lot can be also said for shared suffering.

So what is your challenge going to be?


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