The Science of Self-Control: Can You Increase Your Willpower?

Does any of this sounds familiar:

  • You want to become an early riser, but once your alarm clock goes off,  you hit the snooze button, and go back to sleep.
  • You decide to eat healthier, but you find yourself  ordering a meal at McDonald’s.
  • You think that it would be great to hit the gym and shed those extra few pounds before the summer, but after a long way of work, you end up in a  couch in front of the TV.

Yes?

You are not alone. Most of us say to ourselves “I wish I’d have more willpower” on a regular basis.  However, is it really possible to increase our willpower, and if so, what’s the best way to go about it?

Science has some answers that might surprise you.

Why should we care about willpower?

Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers on willpower, notes:

Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of selfcontrol failure as a central aspect.

Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people”

The research on the topic strongly supports the idea that increasing one’s willpower positively affects all the areas of one’s life. People who have more self-control are healthier, they relationships are stronger and more satisfying, they make more money and are more successful at their careers. It’s not surprising that those who have more willpower are also happier.

It seems that making a commitment to work on your willpower might be one of the best decisions that you can make.

What is willpower?

In order to understand how willpower works we first have to define what we mean when we use this word. We all have an idea of what we think it is. However, what do scientists who study this subject define as willpower?

In her book “Maximum Willpower”, Kelly McGonigal, a professor who teaches  “The Science of Willpower” class in Stanford, talks about three different aspects of willpower:

  • “I won’t” power – the ability to resist temptations.
  • “I will” power  –  the ability to do what needs to be done.
  •  “I want” power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires.

According to McGonigal, willpower is about harnessing these three power of I will, I won’t, and I want in order to achieve your goals and stay out of trouble.

Why do we have willpower?

Willpower is a fascinating phenomenon. In fact, some scientists even go as far as saying that  it may be what makes us humans, well, human. That makes sense when you think about: there are no other animals that would have such developed ability to control their impulses. How come we are so special in this sense?

Early humans lived in an environment where the individual was very dependent on the group for survival.  One had to be able to control one’s  impulses in order to get along with those around him or her.  This put a lot of pressure on the brains  to develop ways to control impulses that might get individual in trouble.

Our current ability to control our impulses is a result of  thousands of years of adaptation  to an increasingly complex social environment.

Your brain on willpower: meet the prefrontal cortex

Prefrontal cortex is a part of  the brain right behind your forehead and eyes. Throughout our evolutionary history, it was mainly responsible for controlling physical movements (walking, running, lifting, etc.). Over time, it not only got bigger, but also became more connected to other areas of the brain and took on some new functions. Now, prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling what you do, what you think, and even what you feel.

There are three different areas of prefrontal cortex that control the three different aspects of willpower:

  • The left region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for  “I will” part of willpower.
  • The right region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I won’t” part of willpower.
  • The middle lower region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I wan’t” part of willpower.

Together, these three areas gives us our self-control and self-awareness, or, in other words, our willpower.

One of the best illustrations of the importance of prefrontal cortex are the cases of people who suffered injuries that affected this part of the brain. In 1848 Phineas Gage, a was a quiet, respectful, hard-working foreman. Unfortunately, he got into an accident which resulted in a very serious brain injury that damaged his prefrontal cortex, an injury that changed him forever.  Gage’s friends could not recognize him: he turned into an impatient, impulsive individual, virtually the opposite of his former self. Phinea’s Gage is one of the many examples of what happens when a person suffers from prefrontal cortex damage. This makes it clear that willpower isn’t something mystical, but rather one of the many functions of our brain.

Why our grandparents were more disciplined than we are

One of the most shocking discoveries regarding willpower is this: willpower is like a muscle that gets tired when you use it a lot.

Roy Baumeister ran many experiments in which he asked people to exert their willpower in a controlled laboratory environment (turn down biscuits, control their anger, hold their hands in an ice-cold water, etc.).  It turned out that the details of his requests didn’t matter much: people who had to use their willpower experienced a decrease in their ability to control themselves. This manifested in different ways: people who were asked to control their emotions were more likely to spend money on unnecessary items, resisting sweets led to procrastination, and so on. Finally, Baumeister came to a conclusion that willpower gets depleted when you use it.

Moreover, research indicates that there are many things that can deplete our willpower, some of which we probably  wouldn’t think of that way. Sitting through a boring meeting, trying to impress a date, not fitting in at your workplace – all these things drain your willpower. Every time you have to resist an impulse or make a decision, no matter how trivial, you are using your “willpower muscle” and therefore depleting your willpower reserves.

Kathleen Vohns, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minesota, notes:

“There is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations. Our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification.”

We might look at the people from previous generations and admire their self-discipline. As a martial artist, I remember how I  used to read the stories about masters of the past,   and beat myself up for not practising one punch for hours everyday like they did. However, it seems that the reason why our generation is not as diligent as the previous generations  is not necessarily the flaws of our characters, but rather the distractions that surround us. Would those martial arts masters have been as dedicated if they would have had Facebook, Twitter and Youtube? I guess we will never know the answer to that question.

Willpower on steroids: meditation

The good news is that we can increase our willpower if we commit to training our brain to be able to exert more willpower regularly.

Meditation has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways to increase willpower. Research on this subject indicates that three hours of meditation increases self-control and ability to focus and after eleven hours of mediation practice one can see visible changes in the brains. Why it’s so effective?

Meditation increases the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. It looks like the brain adapts to exercise the same way muscle do: you do  push-ups, your gain muscle on your arms, you meditate, you improve neural connections in the brain between areas responsible for self-control. What is the best way to meditate if you want to increase your willpower?

Kelly McGonigal says that the following meditation technique will get the blood rushing to your prefrontal cortex, which is pretty much the closest we can get to speeding up evolution  and making the most of our brain’s potential:

  1. Sit still and stay put. You can either sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or sit on the floor with your legs crossed. Try to resist the impulses to move: see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position. Sitting still is an important part of mediation because it teaches you not  to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind, say “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. When you notice that your mind is wandering, bring it back, and keep focusing on your breathing. This activates prefrontal cortex and quiets the stress and craving centres of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how the mind wanders. After a few minutes, drop the words “inhale” and “exhale”, and focus solely on the sensation of breathing.  Your mind might wander a bit more without these words. However, when you notice that you are thinking about something else, bring your attention back to breathing. You can say “inhale” and “exhale” for few rounds when you find it hard to refocus. This part helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.

You might find meditation very difficult when you first start practising it. That’s completely normal: in our daily lives, we often don’t notice how scattered and noisy our minds are, and sitting stills while trying to focus on breathing brings all that mess to our attention. However,  it doesn’t matter how bad you think you are at this: the research suggests that even five minutes of meditation everyday will give you  the benefits of increased self-control and self-awareness.  Don’t be afraid to start small.

Conclusion: don’t beat yourself up so hard!

I think one of the most important conclusions that we can draw from  the current research on willpower is that we should stop feeling guilty and blaming ourselves every time when we fail to use it successfully.  More often than not, it’s the chemistry of our brain that is behind our lack of willpower, not our inherent character flaws. The same way it’s not reasonable to expect your muscles to exert unlimited amounts of  strength, it’s not reasonable to expect your brain to exert unlimited amount of willpower.  You have to understand that you have to train in order to increase your willpower the same way you train in order to increase your physical strength.  Meditation for the win, people!

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Agota Bialobzeskyte is the author of “Relaxed productivity”, a book about getting things done when working from home. Tired of constantly feeling stressed out and not accomplishing as much as you would like to? There’s a way to get more done, in less time, with less stress. Get a FREE chapter “How To Increase Your Willpower” today!