When I introduced running into my exercise regime, I quickly realized that running was more a battle of the mind (will) than a battle of the body. There’s a LOT of self-talk that goes on … tuning in to the voice on the right shoulder saying “You can do it, just keep putting one foot in front of the other” and rejecting the voice on the left shoulder that’s saying, “Go ahead and stop short of your intended mileage. What does quitting halfway through your goal matter?”
The same can be said for making lifestyle changes, such as eating or exercise habits. There is a definite need to tap into willpower at points along the journey of change.
Stanford Medicine published a Q&A session in 2011 with Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, who studied the research on the science of willpower. According to the article, willpower is “a complex mind-body response that can be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition and that can be strengthened through certain practices (italics mine).”
According to McGonigal, research shows the following:
- When you exert self-control, it results in a “pause-and-plan response”. These are changes in the brain and body that help guard against temptation and urges. When the body and brain experience these changes, it actually sends additional energy to the area of the brain (prefrontal cortex) that is responsible for goal tracking and overriding impulses/cravings. “The result is you have the mindset and motivation to do what matters most.”
- “Learning how to better manage your stress – or even just remembering to take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tempted — is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.”
- Improve how much quality rest and sleep you get and you’ll increase your ability at self-control.
- “Something as simple as eating a more plant-based, less-processed diet makes energy more available to brain and can improve every aspect of willpower from overcoming procrastination to sticking to a New Year’s resolution.”
- “Any muscle in your body can be made stronger through exercise. If willpower is a muscle, even a metaphorical muscle, it should be possible to train it. That’s what the research shows.” McGonigal states that practicing self-control increases the strength and stamina of your self-control, thereby making it easier as time goes on. “New behaviors become habits, temptations become less overwhelming and willpower challenges can even become fun.”
- Meditation and physical exercise strengthen the brain’s willpower. “Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice — brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.” And physical exercise is similar. Regular exercise “also makes the body and brain more resilient to stress, which is a great boost to willpower.”
- McGonigal’s advice for meeting goals or resolutions? Think big: “Research shows that when you scale up to the big want, the biggest why, you automatically have more willpower. You’ll look for opportunities to make progress on your goal and be more likely to see how small choices can help you realize your goal. ” Think small:Allow yourself small steps toward your goals. “Sometimes we get frustrated when we don’t know exactly how we’ll reach our goals. We can’t imagine how what we’re doing now will ever get us where we want. Or we try to take huge steps all at once and end up exhausted and overwhelmed. Choose small steps you can take that are consistent with that goal. When those steps are easy, or have become a habit, look for next steps and keep going.”
I only summarized how you can improve your willpower, but I encourage you to read the entire article because it also detailed how willpower can be sabotaged. If willpower is as much about the mind as it is the body, then you need this information!