Boost that Willpower

Boost that Willpower

This past month many of you have most likely taken time from work to go on holiday, catch up on household projects and simply be with family and friends. In addition, you may have reflected on what you would like to do differently in 2015 and set your New Year’s Resolution.

Setting a resolution is one thing, holding it is another. The statistics tell us that only 8% of those who set New Year’s resolutions succeed in keeping or succeeding at their goal.

A key factor associated with straying off course is willpower and self control.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, and author of The Willpower Instinct says willpower is a response that comes from both body and brain. Willpower is not an innate trait. Rather it’s a “complex mind-body response that can be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition and that can be strengthened through certain practices.”

Willpower can be defined as the ability to do what matters most, even when it is difficult or there is internal conflict towards positive action. You want to do one thing, such as eat healthy, yet those donuts your colleague brought in for morning tea are so tempting. Or you know you should go to the gym as you had planned, yet sleeping in right now seems the better option. What you often notice is that it is a battle between short versus long term gain. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals rather than short-term needs or desires.

The prefrontal cortex (that section of the brain right behind your forehead) is the part that helps us with things like decision-making and regulating our behavior. Self-control, or willpower, falls under this heading, and thus is taken care of in this part of the brain.

The research shows that the resources in our pre-frontal cortex are finite and in turn we only have so much willpower and it runs out as we use it. There is a famous experiment involving marshmallows and children. Each child is told that they can eat the marshmallow now or hold or for a larger prize of 2 marshmallows later. What would you do? The video is worth a watch (and a lot of fun!)

To be effective at controlling our urges and making sound decisions, the prefrontal cortex needs to be taken care of. What we do know from neuroscience is that improvement can be made through focused attention. Just like a muscle, researchers believe can strengthen it through training.

So what options do we have?

  • Align your goals with your values and something YOU really WANT as opposed to a SHOULD do or MUST do. And something that is not imposed by another.
  • Start small – Find the smallest change that’s consistent with your larger goal, and start there.
  • Learn how to manage stress – Stress depletes the resources in our pre-frontal cortex. The fight or flight response shuts off the ability to make wise decisions. Stress encourages short term responses. Stop and take a few deep breaths and learn to manage emotions better.
  • Get enough sleep – Sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night) impacts on how efficiently the pre-frontal cortex operates. It is likened to a form of chronic stress. And if you’re wondering how much sleep is enough, here’s a rough guide: one of the most acclaimed sleep researchers, Daniel Kripke, found in a recent study that “people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive.”
  • Meditate – Meditation has also been linked to increasing the reserve of willpower we have available. Brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.
  • Develop Greater Self awareness – be aware of what could and does prevent you from success. Plan for it, develop better management strategies. If you cannot define them on your own, seek assistance.
  • Nutrition and Exercise – Eating right and exercise support resilience and wellbeing. Supporting resilience boosts willpower. What you feed your body affects how much energy the prefrontal cortex has to work with. This is why nutrition is so important. When it comes to moving our bodies, there has recently been much focus on brain training. The jury is still out in a number of scientific camps as to its value. The one form of training, however, that has been shown to maintain and improve brain health is physical exercise.

What can you start to do differently to impact on your willpower?

Kelly McGonigal PhD – The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, 2013