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The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions

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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The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions

The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions

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

positivepsychology.com

11

Key Ideas

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Get More Sleep

Sleep deprivation makes you weak and tired. It has a direct impact on your focus and decision-making, whilst slowly exhausting your source of energy.

Sleep between 7.5 and 8....

Meditate

Meditation improves your attention, focus, self-awareness, and lower your stress levels.

Meditating for even just a few minutes every day will help you to clear your head while activating the areas of your brain related to decision-making and emotions.

Develop Good Habits

When we are stressed, we tend to unconsciously fall back on ingrained habits, whether they are helpful or harmful.

Creating good habits helps you get through stressful situations without affecting your willpower.

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Why You Should Take Breaks
Why You Should Take Breaks
  • “Movement breaks” are essential for your physical and emotional health. A 5-minute walkabout break every hour can improve your health and well-being.
  • Breaks can prevent ...
When Not to Take a Break

When you are in a state of “flow” it is not good to take a break.

“Flow” is characterized by complete absorption in the task, seemingly effortless concentration, and pleasure in the task itself.

Good Breaks

A “good break” will give that goal-oriented Prefrontal Cortex of yours a good rest by switching brain activity to another area.

one more idea

Self-control

We all possess the ability to develop self-control. 

Instead of immediately responding to impulses, we can plan and evaluate our actions beforehand.

Master Self-control
  • Eat. Our brains need fuel to run properly, and when that fuel runs low, the brain has difficulty regulating our emotions. Eat high protein foods.
  • Meditate. Devote a few minutes a day to simply focusing on your breath and your senses. You will be calmer and your decision making will be sounder.
  • Sleep. Your brain’s ability to absorb glucose is significantly diminished without rest. Stay consistent with your sleep every night.
  • Exercise.
  • Force Yourself until a new habit is formed.
  • Get Others Involved. Find a support system.
  • Do Your Research. Whatever your struggle, make it your priority to be the master of it.