Last night, as I was once again reaching for that last piece of chocolate and thinking about the gym session I should have attended that morning, I was struck by the thought that what I am really craving in life is willpower.
That elusive quality I imagine élite athletes, Nobel Prize winners, prolific artists, and great leaders have in spades.
So I decided to spend today researching willpower, what is it, are you just plan lucky and born with it, how do I develop it, is there a limited supply of it, and is there anything I can take when I’m in need of it. Here’s what I discovered.
Willpower by all accounts is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals or put another way the ability to resist the allure of the snooze button and hop out of a warm bed on a cold winter’s morning to fit in that run before work.
I came across willpower expert Professor Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. As I suspected, Baumeister explains that those people who have ‘effective use of willpower’ are demonstrably ‘more successful in school, work, relationships’ and life in general. In fact he goes even further and argues that the success of our culture is due in large part to our ability to restrain our impulses and adhere to society’s rules.
According to Stanford Health Psychologist ,Kelly McGonigal, contrary to popular belief willpower is not something you are born with or without. It is a highly complex mind / body response that is compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition. When you are confronted with an internal dilemma such as to smoke or not to smoke the brain reacts to this need for self control by setting in motion a set of changes both in the brain and the body to help you resist temptation. This set of changes is known as the pause and plan response and results in a calmer physical state. Extra energy is sent to the pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain that keeps track of long term goals and helps override impulses and cravings.
When we are under stress however, and that stress may come from sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, or just plain stressful situations, the body and in particular the pre-frontal cortex is impaired and loses control over the areas of the brain that creating cravings. Bingo – snap goes that extra piece of chocolate.
Not only that, but apparently willpower is a finite resource. The more we use of it the less we have. Study after study has found that any act of willpower, leaves the individual with less will power for subsequent challenges. It also declines during the day (now this explains why if I don’t go to the gym in the morning it just doesn’t happen). Like a muscle, willpower seems to get exhausted from effort.
Thank goodness just like body building, it is possible to build our willpower muscle. Both meditation and physical exercise (yes there’s no escaping it) or in fact any stress reducing activity have been shown to increase the brain’s resilience to stress thus improving its ability to exert willpower. Certain brain training exercises such as Tools of the Mind’ when carried out at the developmental sweet spot age of 4 – 6 can also lead to long-term increases in willpower functions.
Finally and this really excited me I discovered that willpower can be restored in the short-term by increasing an individual’s glucose level. Time for that last piece of chocolate!!!!
Guest Post by: Martine Beaumont
Founder & CEO at Select Counsellors