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The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions

https://positivepsychology.com/psychology-of-willpower/

positivepsychology.com

The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions
Willpower: the ability to resist temptations in order to meet long-term goals. The scientific understanding of how to work with instead of against it.

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What willpower is

What willpower is

Willpower is the ability to resist or delay short-term desires to achieve long-term goals. Other names for willpower are self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, determination, drive. Willpower consists of three things:

  • "I won't" power - Saying "no" to temptation.
  • "I will" power - Saying "yes" to the things you know will lead to long-term satisfaction.
  • "I want" power - Remembering your goal.

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Benefits of willpower

  • Self-control appears to be a better predictor of academic achievement, a determining factor of effective leadership, and essential for marital satisfaction.
  • People who harness their willpower more effectively are happier, healthier, have better relationships, are further ahead in their careers, are more able to manage stress and deal with conflict.

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The neuroanatomy of willpower

  • The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brains situated right behind our forehead. It is responsible for abstract thinking, analyzing thoughts, and regulating behavior.
  • The PFC controls what we think about, what we pay attention to, how we feel. Studies point out that this part of the brain is only fully developed around age 25.
  • The "I will power" is controlled by the region near the upper left side of the brain and helps you start and continue with not so fun tasks.
  • The right side handles the "I won't power," preventing you from acting out on every impulse.
  • The "I want power" sits in the middle of the PFC and keeps track of your goals and desires.

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What happens to a damaged prefrontal cortex (PFC)

When the PFC gets damaged, it can alter your personality and interfere with your willpower. One recorded case of damage to the PFC was in 1848, when an iron went straight into the skull of Phineas Gage, blowing away his PFC. He survived, but had a complete personality change, became irreverent, indulging at times, impatient of restraint or advice.

States that inhibit our PFC are being drunk, sleep-deprived, or just distracted. It can lead us to focus on our impulses, rather than our long-term goals.

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The impulsive system and the cognitive system

  • The hot system is the impulsive, emotional part, and manage your responses to certain triggers.
  • The cool system is the cognitive, thinking system that reminds you to tame your impulses and focus on your long-term goals.

A willpower challenge is a conflict between these two systems, where one eventually will triumph.

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Improve your self-awareness by tracking your daily choices

Once we understand the root cause of our behaviors, it is easier to work towards our goals. One way is to improve our self-awareness. How many food choices do you make a day? While most people would guess around 14, studies reveal the average number is 227.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognise what we are doing as we're doing it. One way to increase your self-awareness is to keep track of all your choices on a given day, then analyse which ones supported your long-term goals and which ones didn't.

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Meditation increases self-control

Meditation can train your brain for better self-control. Meditation increases your attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.

When we practice a certain behavior, we strengthen the neural connections for that behavior, making it more accessible and likely to occur. Practice worrying, and you get better at worrying. Practice concentration, and you'll get better at concentration.

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Physical exercise can be a great tool to enhance self-control

One study found that participants who focused on consistent exercise for two months ate less junk food and more healthy foods; they watched less television; they studied more; they saved more money; they procrastinated less.

Instead of considering how much exercise you need for results, focus on how much you're likely to do. Start with realistic goals.

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Glucose levels and willpower

Our brain's normal functions, such as thinking, learning, and memory, relies on glucose. Exerting our willpower uses a considerable amount of this fuel, leaving our brains in a state of alert trying to attain normal blood sugar levels. The drop in blood sugar will generally leave us more and prone to reach for sugary foods. But high fructose corn syrup can increase levels of stress hormones in the brain.

To prevent this, eating whole foods regularly and avoiding refined sugars will keep your glucose levels stable and equip you with increased willpower.

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Stress weakens self-control

When you're stressed, the sympathetic nervous system takes over - also referred to as the "fight or flight system." It enables your body to respond quickly to perceived threats or stress. When this happens, your heart rate goes up and stays high, leading to feelings of anxiety and anger.

People with high levels of stress are more prone to poor self-control and focus. Stress will also shift your brain to a reward-seeking state: Whatever will make you happy at the moment will become a fixation. That is why people who are stressed are more likely to smoke, gamble, play video games, surf the internet or watch TV. The most effective stress-relief strategies include exercising, reading, listening to music, and spending time with loved ones.

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Weakening your willpower

Two other major hindrances to self-control are:

  • Self-criticism: Feeling bad makes it harder to resist temptation because we want to cover our shame and guilt with instant gratification. Instead, be compassionate with yourself, especially when confronted with failure.
  • Temptation: Environmental cues create tempting environments that can trigger your impulses. It is important to reflect before you act.

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SIMILAR ARTICLES & IDEAS:

Self-Control

 ... is the ability to regulate and alter responses in order to avoid undesirable behaviors, increase desirable ones, and achieve long-term goals.

Research on Self-Control

  • A 2011 survey found that 27 % of respondents identified a lack of willpower as the primary factor keeping them from reaching their goals. 
  • One study found that students who exhibited greater self-discipline had better grades, higher test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive academic program. 
  • The study also found that when it came to academic success, self-control was a more important factor than IQ scores.
  • A health study found that people who were rated as having high levels of self-control during childhood continued to have high levels of physical and mental health in adulthood.
  • Research has found that self-control is a limited resource. In the long-term, exercising self-control tends to strengthen it. 

Motivation and Monitoring

A lack of willpower is not the only factor that affects goal attainment.

  • There needs to be a clear goal and the motivation to change. Having an unclear or overly general goal and insufficient motivation can lead to failure.
  • You need to monitor your actions daily towards the achievement of the goal.
  • You need to have willpower.

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Self-Control Failures

Self-control is basically restraining yourself from doing something that may feel good in the short run, but may not be in your best interests in the long run. This includes not gorging on cookies ...

Willpower: Discovering the Strength Muscle Of the Mind

Self-control is a kind of mind muscle that if used continuously, tires out just like the physical counterpart.

Difficult days that rob our energy also sap us out of our willpower, make us psychologically weak and unable to resist the temptation to give up on our plan. We are more likely to skip the evening gym session if we were occupied the whole day, mentally and physically exhausted.

The Four Stages That Lead To Giving Up To Temptation

  1. Situation Stage: The overall situation where we are at the mercy of giving in to temptation.
  2. Attentional Stage: When our attention is towards the ‘sinful’ activity that is the main temptation, like gorging on cookies.
  3. Appraisal Stage: When we imagine how good the forbidden activity would feel.
  4. Response Stage: When we finally give in to the temptation.

What willpower is

The willpower response is a reaction to an internal conflict. You want to do one thing, but know you shouldn’t. Or you know you should do something, but you’d rather do nothing.

How willpower works in the brain

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us with things like decision-making and regulating our behavior, needs to be looked after.

Feed your brain with good-quality food so it has enough energy to do its job and get enough sleep.

Willpower is finite

Willpower is like a muscle—it can get exhausted by overuse, but we might be able to strengthen our willpower by training it.