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WillpowerHave you ever wondered what makes the difference between whether or not we are successful with our goals? Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It, offers valuable insights into the science and practice of willpower that you might find not only interesting, but helpful as well.

It turns out willpower isn’t something you either have or don’t have. It’s more like a muscle you can train and strengthen and it’s rooted in our brain. Our brain actually changes depending on what we focus on, what we practice and what we think. As health psychologist Rick Hanson said, “Neurons that fire together – wire together.” If you ask your brain to practice worrying, for example, it will get better at worrying. Ask your brain to practice impulse control and your impulse control will improve.

It’s also helpful to understand the different ways our brain can work in general. McGonigal explained that “we have one brain and two modes”: fight-flight-freeze mode, and pause-and-plan mode. When the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, is dominant, our internal alarm system is activated and stress hormones are released. This is fight-flight-freeze mode and relies on very primitive, automatic, unconscious instincts.

The amygdala, or lizard brain, as it is often called, actually hijacks our brain and draws blood flow away from our pre-frontal cortex and affects all systems within our body. In many ways it makes sense why the amygdala might temporarily take over all our body’s systems to ensure we do whatever we need to survive in the moment. However, if we remain stuck in lizard brain mode after the threat has passed, we won’t be accessing our wisest and most skilled self. Many people experience fight-flight-freeze mode activation for non-life threatening emergencies and this has become a habitual way the brain responds to day-to-day annoyances or frustrations. This can be changed with practice, however. In extreme cases involving post-traumatic stress disorder, support from a professional trained in trauma work is highly recommended.

The second mode of our brain, pause-and-plan, lies in our pre-frontal cortex. When this part of our brain is most dominant, we are the best version of ourselves and have the best impulse control, focus, concentration, emotional regulation and memory. This is the part of our brain that helps us remember and be guided by our most important intention even in the midst of conflicting drives or pressures.

This is the home of our willpower. McGonigal described willpower as an ability to remember what matters most, a willingness to do things that support what matters most, as well as an ability to navigate conflicting pressures and impulses. This requires activating and strengthening our pre-frontal cortex – the CEO of our brain.

Ways to practice activating and strengthening your pre-frontal cortex:
According to F. Baumeister, Ph.D., “The main thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions.

“I invite you to experiment with the examples below:

  • Wait 10 minutes before giving in to an urge.
  • Experiment with using your non-dominant hand for one or two of these everyday activities:  brushing your teeth, using a fork, opening a door, or operating a computer mouse. This requires an increase in focus and concentration and may wake up parts of your brain that might otherwise have gone offline. You will have to pay more attention to keep yourself from automatically shifting to use your dominant hand. The more you practice using your non-dominant hand during everyday activities, the more you strengthen your impulse control and improve your willpower.
  • Learn about and practice mindfulness. There is a robust amount of research showing mindfulness increases and strengthens our pre-frontal cortex.

No matter what your willpower goal is, remember the three R’s:

  • Recall your intention frequently throughout the day. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., we have a limited amount of space in our working memory so it is wisest to repeatedly recall and name our most important intention so it doesn’t get buried or forgotten. 
  • Return to your most important intention whenever you noticed you’ve slipped. Slips are an expected and natural part of the process of growing and learning. Research shows shame actually weakens willpower. Responding to slips with acceptance, kindness and then returning to the goal is most effective. Every time you take a breath, it is an opportunity to return to your goal.
  • Resolve not to give up. If you find you are struggling, reach out for support, information, guidance and comradery.

McGonigal also offered these additional recommendations:

  • Self-awareness is power. Practice dissecting where you get derailed and strategize to help yourself manage potential derailing in advance.
  • A good night’s sleep is power.
  • Self-compassion is power. Self-shaming actually weakens willpower.
  • Make little choices throughout your day that support the change you seek.
  • Forgive and accept setbacks as a normal part of the process and just return to your goal.
  • Envision your future self as happy and well, grateful for the healthy choices you made.
  • Seek out a likeminded buddy.

Anna DeLong is a licensed clinical social worker and has been teaching mindfulness since 2001. She works as a consultant for the University of Virginia Faculty and Employee Assistance Program.