You want more of it. You envy those who appear to possess more than you do. You hope that if you stare at inspirational photos long enough, that of others will seep through your skin and embody you whole.
You curse yourself as you fall for temptation, as you’re lured away from work by procrastination, as you’re once more a victim of your addictions.
This is the last time, you say. I’ll try harder tomorrow, you promise to yourself. Again.
But it just doesn’t work that way.
Dear reader, this is the start of a series dedicated to addressing our willpower conundrums*. No matter how attractive, rich, or successful we are, most of us still find ourselves wishing that we simply had more self-control when it came to this or that. You may be good at getting your work done on time, but what about all those nights when the TV seems more alluring to you than the bed? You’re diligent about exercising and eating right, but what about that ten-year smoking habit that you still haven’t kicked? The late night binges you can’t stop? The excuses you find not to call your family on a regular basis?
The first step in mastering your willpower is to understand under what circumstances you seem to lose control. Sometimes simply noticing what you didn’t even realize what you’ve been doing can highlight key troublespots about your own behavior. How, when, and why? Is there a pattern? It’s not just about finding ways to be successful and trudge forward, never glancing back; it’s about taking a microscope to our past behaviors to better grasp what went wrong and taking something away from it.
I’d like to distinguish between I won’t, I will, and I want power. To say no to something that’s been offered to you – closing the kitchen snack cupboards, opting for tea over alcohol, turning down an invitation to hang out with your friends in order to study for a test – requires that you recall what is it that you really, truly want. Not just for immediate gratification, but over the long term. The same goes for saying yes to something. Yes to waking up right when the alarm goes off, yes to going straight to the gym after work, yes to paying your bills on time. When you find yourself in a trying situation, remember your want.
What’s a challenge that you’d like to confront, once and for all? Whether it’s something you’d like to stop procrastinating on or an unhealthy habit that you’d like to kick, know this: you have it in you. It’s not a matter of who was born with a greater storage of inherent willpower than you were. You have it in you to conquer your inner demons and become the master of your own behaviors, not the other way around.
I encourage you to pick one challenge and only one. Putting too much on your plate at once can overwhelm you and may increase your chance of failure. For these next couple of weeks, we’ll invest much of our energies into this one challenge. Ready?
A little bit of background before we plunge ahead. Bear with me; it’ll be quick. So for any of you who are well-versed in the sciences or have taken even the most introductory psychology class at some point may recall that we humans have a part of our brains called the prefrontal cortex. This is the most advanced portion of our brains and allows us to do things like plan ahead and delay gratification. The self-control region, if you will. When we have to make difficult decisions – choosing one thing when we’d rather have or do something else – the prefrontal cortex kicks in. Unless you are conscientious and aware, your brain will want to default to what’s easiest; our primitive selves dominate. What’s scary about this is that we have to make hundreds of choices on a daily basis, yet most of the time, we’re so distracted that we don’t even realize that we’re making a choice at all. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal states, “How can you control yourself if you aren’t even aware that there is something to control?”
Your first task will be to spend a day taking note of all the decisions you make that are related to your willpower challenge. In the evening, sit down and examine the choices you made. Which ones brought you closer to your goal? Which pulled you away? What were the consequences of each? It may seem like a hassle, but I promise it will be worth your time. A little awareness goes a long way.
Additionally, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you come head-to-head with your challenge. I’m not asking you to do anything about it just yet. We’re establishing the foundation here – getting familiar with our own territory. You may find that you start panicking if you haven’t checked your phone in 4 minutes, or you feel anxious when a box of cookies is in close proximity. Just notice it and acknowledge the existence of said process.
I have some exciting news: the brain is incredibly responsive to experience and can adapt to change. If you continuously find your primitive self taking over, you can train your prefrontal cortex to take control when the need arises. Specific areas of the brain can become increasingly connected to one another based upon the demands you place on it. And you know what? Willpower is like a friggin’ muscle, baby! We’ll flex those willpower biceps and make ‘em stronger.
And lastly, if you don’t do this already, then I very strongly urge you to meditate. Some of you may recall that I wrote an article two months ago on this very topic (and in fact, you may notice that there are many similarities between that piece and this one. There are subtle differences, however, and I’d like to make the shift over to this direction, if I may). Dr. McGonigal writes:
“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.”
Are you convinced now? If you have just 5 minutes to spare in your day, breath focus meditation is a powerful exercise. Bringing this over from my earlier article, the steps are as follows:
- Sit in a comfortable place. Not too comfortable that you’ll fall asleep, but enough that you won’t be moving around restlessly. Try to stay still.
- Focus on your breath. Either with your eyes open or closed, concentrate your thoughts on your breath. Notice the physical sensations in your body as you inhale and exhale. How high do your shoulders rise, if at all? I know – you’re afraid your attention will wander. That’s completely expected. Simply notice that your thoughts have strayed and then come back to your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.
You may feel silly when you first try this out; I know I did. When five minutes becomes easy, increase the time incrementally. When it starts to feel like a chore, bring it back down a notch. Devote only as much time to this practice as you’re willing. This isn’t supposed to feel like homework. There’s no one right way to meditate; you need to find what works for you.
If you’ve made it this far and you’ve nodded your head in agreement with any of the things I’ve said, then congratulations, you may just be ready to make some positive life changes.
*My writing will be based off of the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. (a fascinating read for anyone interested in behavioral psychology). I’ll be extracting bits, and often chunks, from the gem to share with you all. It is my sincerest hope that you can find even just one small fragment of my writing useful to you as you go about your daily lives.