Everything You Never Knew About Willpower (and how to increase it)

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Remember your New Year’s resolutions? How are they coming along now that half the year has passed? Perhaps you promised yourself you’d eat better, get more exercise, or increase sales for your business. Have you accomplished your goals? Or, is the willpower needed to achieve them lying dead in a pile of dust somewhere? Believe me, I get it.

Willpower is known by many names — self-control, determination, perseverance, fortitude — but it basically boils down to doing what you need to do day in and day out to achieve your long-term goals. If you want a fit and healthy body, you need be disciplined with your eating and exercise routines. If you want to increase sales this month, you need to up your marketing game, make more phone calls, pitch your business to more potential clients, and so on. In other words, you must do enough little things everyday, and over enough time, in order to produce your desired result.

But we all know what happens, right? Willpower fizzles. You wished for that “perfect” body in January and were really good about getting up early to exercise and passing up the office donuts…for awhile. You hoped to increase sales, and you made lots of calls at the start of the new year, but then that awesome spring weather rolled around and it just beckoned you outside and…well, we know.  Accomplishing big goals requires the willpower to do mundane little tasks everyday.  And the problem is, it’s just so fleeting.

But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a way to make willpower stick around long enough to actually see something through? What if we could understand the complexity of willpower — what it is and why it disappears so quickly — and use that knowledge to increase our own self-control? How different would our lives and businesses look?

As it turns out, willpower is a little more scientific than we tend to think.  Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author, and professor at Stanford University, says that willpower depends on which systems of the brain are more active at any given time. How you respond to willpower challenges, the donut vs. no donut at work, the sales call vs. the stroll in the park, is actually dependent on the condition of your prefrontal cortex (the section of the brain right behind your forehead). Overstress that area, overtire that area, undernourish that area, and your willpower sinks. On the other hand, do the right things, and you can build up that prefrontal cortex so that exercising willpower, or self-discipline, is effortless.

Here are the 5 areas of your life you need to improve to increase your willpower.

Sleep


There is absolutely no way around it: You must get more sleep to help your brain manage energy better.

Getting enough sleep makes a big difference to how efficiently our prefrontal cortex works. Sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night) is a chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain use energy. Sleep deprivation hits the prefrontal cortex hard, and it loses control over the parts of the brain that create cravings and the stress response. But the good news is that the damage is reversible. The brain will begin to recover as it catches up on sleep.

Sleep=happy prefrontal cortex. Go to bed!

Meditation

Meditation has also increases our reserve of willpower, as well as improving attention, focus, stress management, and self-awareness. As little as 8 weeks of meditation practice can make a difference. Not sure how to start? Check your phone. There are several apps that can guide you through the process.

Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise, whether relaxing and mindful like yoga or intense like HIIT, will boost willpower.  Exercise has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, which are proven to help with muscle recovery and feelings of happiness. Get moving!

Better Nutrition

What you feed your body affects how much energy the prefrontal cortex gets. This is why nutrition is so important. A less-processed, low-glycemic diet makes energy more available and can improve willpower. For reasons unknown, McGonigal says, a plant-based diet achieves improved brain function better than any other.

Whether you decide to go meatless or not, get serious about improving your diet.

Self-talk

Eliminate the phrase, “I can’t.” Every time you say that, you create a destructive feedback loop that reminds you of your limitations. Instead, when your willpower is challenged, take control of the situation by using the phrase, “I don’t”. Think of the difference: “I can’t resist sweets,” vs. “I don’t eat processed sugar.” Which one can control the urge to eat junk?

Similarly, eliminate self-criticism and the sense of shame when you’ve fallen off the wagon. Studies show that people who are routinely ashamed and critical of themselves are more prone to repeated temptation, because they want to distract themselves from those feelings. Staying motivated largely depends on how you talk to yourself, and letting go of the idea that something is wrong with you and that’s why you failed.

Ironically, these 5 habits, particularly the first four, are things we think require lots of willpower. But, in reality, they are willpower builders. They give back more willpower than they take. Build up these areas of your life, and it becomes easier to exercise self-control in your life. Ignore them, and it’s virtually impossible to resist temptation.

Bottom line? Forget the notion that you’re weak and just don’t have willpower. You do have it. You just need to be mindful of it and purposeful in how you build it up.  

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