The Science of Willpower

by | Dec 4, 2017 | Uncategorized

If you’ve ever tried to let go of an old habit, or create a new one, you’ve no doubt found how challenging it can be.   I’ve previously written about the six steps to changing a habit – they include clarity, noticing, self compassion, acting consciously, acknowledgement and repetition.

Dr Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and in her book The Willpower Instinct, she shares some brilliant insights on how to increase your willpower.  These tips below from Kelly’s book will help you to strengthen your capacity to change any unhelpful habits.

1. Get enough sleep

Sleep deprivation results in an energy crisis for our mind and body.  When we’re tired our cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the blood stream, which leaves us exhausted and our cells under performing.  This explains why we often crave chocolate or coffee when we’re tired, but even if we indulge in sweets, our body and brain doesn’t get the energy it really needs because it can’t use it effectively.

Our prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functioning and for quieting the alarm system of the brain.  This helps us to manage stress and cravings.  But when we’re sleep deprived, the prefrontal cortex looses control over the alarm system and we over react to ordinary every day stress.  And high stress results in less will power.

Interestingly, the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain are similar to being mildly intoxicated, and we all know how little self control most of us have when drunk!

2. Reduce stress

The physiology of stress is not conducive to willpower.  When we’re stressed, we go into a fight-or-flight response, and the body gears up to deal with an immediate threat.  This includes redirecting energy from the part of the brain that makes wise decisions, to the part of the brain that responds instinctively and in a very short sighted way.

Willpower requires us to see things from a bigger picture.  We might feel that a coffee would give us the energy we need in this moment, but is it really going to help us feel vibrant and healthy in the long term?

To make wise decisions that are in accordance with our heartfelt desires, we need to be a state of relaxation, or the rest-and-digest response.  This response sends energy to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self control.  So living a chronically stressful life and putting stress and guilt on ourselves to change a habit, is only going to make the habit more entrenched and harder to change.

Thankfully, we can reduce stress and engage the relaxation response through practices like mindful breathing and deep relaxation meditations.

3. Willpower workout

Willpower is like a muscle; you can strengthen it through training.  Starting small, and exercising your willpower muscle each day will strengthen it.

Interestingly, researchers have found strengthening willpower on a seemingly inconsequential task, like improving your posture or squeezing a hand grip every day, appears to improve willpower on more consequential tasks, like taking care of your health and feeling more control over your emotions.

The flip side is that willpower, like a muscle, can get tired.  So we need to choose our willpower challenges carefully and not bombard ourselves with too many willpower challenges all at once.

The time of day is important too.  Most of us have increased willpower in the morning, so making our willpower decisions in the morning, rather than in the afternoon can be more effective.  So if you’re planning on going for a walk or practicing yoga, you’re most likely to follow through if you do this in the morning, rather than waiting until the evening when you’re willpower muscle is tired from the day.

4. Willpower is contagious

We’re hard wired to connect with others, and our brains are designed to feel what other people are feeling.  If I see someone reach for a knife, the mirror neurons in my brain will automatically encode that movement.  Fascinating, isn’t it?

So if we’re hanging out with other people who are doing what we’re trying to stop, it can be very hard to change that behaviour.  If someone around us is smoking while we’re trying to quit, it makes it pretty difficult to resist the temptation to smoke.

But the converse is also true.  If we’re hanging out with people who are doing what we would like to be doing, we’re more likely to mirror that behaviour.  If our friend orders a cup of tea at a café instead of coffee and cake, we’re more like to ‘catch’ that behaviour and order a cup of tea ourselves, and say no to the high sugar and high caffeine alternatives.

5. The 10 minute rule

If you’re tempted to fall back into an old habit, try waiting ten minutes. Tell yourself that after the 10 minutes is up, you can have whatever it is you want.

It might not sound like much, but neuroscientists have discovered that waiting ten minutes makes a big difference in how the brain processes rewards.  Waiting ten minutes takes away the powerful impulse to choose instant gratification over longer term goals and desires, so you can make a more mindful and wise choice.

Time for action

Are you trying to change a habit?  Pick one one of Dr Kelly McGonigal’s suggestions and add it to your toolkit.  Trying to do them all at once might add stress to you life, which we know is the enemy of willpower.  So I suggest choosing the suggestion that feels the easiest to you and experiment with bringing it into your life. Over time, add another, and then another, and see the effect it has on your willpower ability.

I’d love to hear which willpower suggestion you’d like to bring into your life.  Sharing our intentions with others helps us to stay accountable, so leave a comment below about which one you’ll be bringing into your life.


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