How’s your willpower?
Do you find that your willpower comes and goes?
Do you want to focus on your goals and achieve all that you want to in life?
Willpower – determination, resolve, drive, self-control, strength
Willpower is the internal conflict of the mind and body, when we want something but know that we shouldn’t have it, for example the slice of cake because we are on a diet or a cigarette when we are wanting to stop smoking or another glass of wine.
When faced with temptation we often go down the self-criticism route. This leads us to consume more of our forbidden fruit, often on autopilot, with barely a moment’s notice as to what we are doing and then we compound this with feelings of shame and guilt. The situation becomes a vicious cycle.
What takes away our willpower?
Willpower is not infinite, each day it gets used up and it is often compared to our phone battery, fully charged in the morning, and fading away as the day moves forward.
Let us firstly look at what takes the power away.
3 things that drain our willpower
· Stress – This is when the body is overrun with adrenaline and cortisol, the fight, flight, and freeze pattern is released. This stops the brain from making decisions and works from the survival mode where short term goals and instant gratification are a priority.
· Self-criticism, guilt & shame – If we make a mistake neuroscientist have now been able to see that all these self-critical behaviours only encourage more of the negative behaviour. If instead we said, ‘it’s ok to make a mistake, this is the process we go through with change,’ then we would be more likely to not make the same mistake again.
· Temptation – The chocolate cake on the table or the friend offering you a cigarette are all difficult to resist as we have this mind, body battle going on.
More about willpower
As humans we have always had willpower and we can take this back to the caveman times when we lived in tribes. Living in this safe community was great for our survival, hunting, shelter, and company but we also needed willpower or self-control to stop us taking things from other people just because we wanted them.
Our inbuilt survival system was often on high alert during our cavemen days due to the threats that were all around us and its job was to jump in to save us.
So, let us imagine for a moment that you go to your front door now and when you open it there’s a polar bear! You would immediately go to your primitive mind, where the primitive survival instincts would take effect, the fight or flight response would kick in. Your heart rate would go up, hands would get sweaty, stomach would churn, and you would probably run and hide.
This reaction is great if it’s a polar bear but not when it’s the stresses of a day at work, kids running late, car needs fuel, getting cut up on the road and so many other scenarios of our everyday lives. The problem with all this stress is that it robs us of our ability to be rational and goal focused.
How do we stay in control and focus on our goals?
What we need to be doing is looking for a way to build greater self-control. This is done through working out our typical responses and reactions to situations so that we can then consciously make a decision that doesn’t undermine our end goals.
Kelly McGonigal explains in her book ‘The Willpower Instinct’ how we can train our brain to choose willpower through the “pause and plan” response rather than the “fight or flight”.
It’s all about recognising when we are hitting that primitive response of fight or flight. We start going down the rabbit hole of anxiety, our breathing speeds up and we feel our body reacting. It’s about learning to do the opposite. Stop and breath, remember to breath, as not breathing is only going to makes us more tense, rather than letting our muscles become tight we encourage them to relax, we take slow deep breaths and focus just on slowing down.
This is not something that’s going to happen over night and it needs time and practice just like any thing that we want to be better at in life, we have to practice it many times to be able to perfect it. Its ok if it doesn’t always work, remember that when we are self-critical or feel guilty, we are only perpetuating a negative cycle. “We are humans and change can be hard, we make mistakes and that’s ok”.
Check out the best ways to build on your willpower and remember to practice them so you can avoid temptation and reach your own personal goals.
5 ways to strengthen our willpower
· Exercise – Regular exercise helps to build a steady heart rate which in turn helps to develop and strengthen willpower, it also lowers stress and encourages self-awareness
· Meditation – By meditating for 10 minutes a day the grey brain matter is developed in our prefrontal cortex and this supports our decision making and planning. Meditating also helps us to slow our breathing down.
· Breathing - Inhale for 4, then exhale for 6, continue this until you feel calm. This allows for the increased heart rate variability to occur. This is where the heart is beating at a steady pace and is aligning the whole body in a calm mode. Supporting us in a more relaxed state, provides time to ‘pause and plan’ rather than react.
· 7-9 hours of sleep – A goodnights sleep allows for the brain to be rested and refuelled as willpower uses a lot of blood glucose in the prefrontal cortex, where planning, organising, and thinking take place.
· Eating well – We need to eat quality foods high in nutrients to provide the brain with the energy it requires to fulfil our goals and keep us on track
· Self- awareness – This is the first step to ensuring your willpower is on track. By making conscious decisions about the food, clothes, and behaviours you are going to display you will keep focused on the end game, rather than the haphazard reactions that are usually made on autopilot.