Hold up! If willpower functions like a muscle and gets fatigued like a muscle, can’t it be trained and strengthened like one? Looking at data from active brain scans of multiple patients, psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University asserts that while willpower may be elusive, it is indeed trainable.
Assuming one can actually achieve this concept of strengthening willpower, how does one go about it? Calming a frantic brain in the face of temptation and impulse is a pretty tall order. But McGonigal proposes that it’s not so much about if you have a lot or a little willpower, it’s how you think about it. How we choose to think about our future selves has an impact on the decisions we make in the present.
There’s a common disconnect between how we think of ourselves in the moment and how we think of ourselves in the future. In fact, we tend to view ourselves in the future as someone different altogether — someone who’s more patient, more organized, more self-controlled. Even functional MRI brain scans have shown that when we think about our future selves, the same brain regions activate as when we think about other people. As a result, we dump the issues that we don’t want to deal with now onto this “other” person — our mythical future self. In my case, I’ve been putting off training to run a marathon for sometime in the future when, somehow, my future self will actually want to spend four hours running. My right-now self doesn’t.
Emily Pronin, a psychology professor at Princeton University, proved this point by conducting an experiment in which students were asked to drink a liquid made from ketchup and soy sauce. They could choose their intake amount, but students were told that the more they drank of this disgusting concoction, the more helpful it would be for science. Half of the students were informed they would need to drink the liquid immediately, while the other half wouldn’t have to complete the drinking part of the experiment until next semester.
The students who had to drink the concoction in the here and now said they would down two tablespoons. Those who were told they could wait until next semester promised to drink about half a cup.
In a similar experiment where students were asked to volunteer their time tutoring, the same type of results surfaced. Those who were told they would have to tutor during the current semester signed up for a mere 27 minutes, while others who were offered the option of tutoring the following semester signed up for more than three times that amount; 85 minutes. Let the burden fall on the future self and deal with it, well, in the future!
So how do we keep our willpower up? McGonigal suggests meditation — practicing the power of paying attention. Being mindful of the present moment improves a wide range of skills, including attention, stress management, impulse control, and yes, being self-aware of feelings and urges. Not only does it change how the brain functions, it physically impacts the structure of the brain to support self-control. Even 15 minutes of daily meditation and deep breathing has been shown to increase gray matter in the prefrontal cortex.
Likewise, nutrition, exercise, and sleep play a huge role in increasing your resilience to stress and giving you a mental edge (I know, everybody put on your surprised face). By lowering your stress levels, you put your body into a calmer state. This leaves extra energy for your brain’s decision center to keep the big picture in mind.
OK. So, how do I actually stick to my resolutions without letting my impulses ruin everything by January 8?
Here’s a hint: The best resolutions are the ones that strengthen something you already are, but that you may not have been fully investing in. If you make a resolution based on something you think you should do, it’s guaranteed to falter.
When you accept that you are in the driver’s seat, your willpower is already stronger than before. We live in a society where there’s temptation at every turn. With so many choices, distractions, and a fast-paced lifestyle, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters. But the good news is that what starts out as difficult becomes easier over time. Awareness will translate into behaviors, new behaviors will morph into habits, impulses will be less intense, and temptations less overwhelming. Here’s to 2018. I’m going for a jog.
- “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” by Kelly McGonigal
- “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney
- “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.