We’ve all had the feeling of struggling against our own self-control, whether it is to get an important presentation done at work or resisting dessert at a dinner party. The problem, science has discovered, is that we really are of two minds about keeping our diet or eating the cookie.
In her book, “The Willpower Instinct,” Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. shares the latest research behind willpower, which shows that evolution did not toss out our old system of urges and instincts when we needed to develop self-control; it just built in the new willpower system into a different part of the brain.
We now have two competing systems: fight-or-flight and pause-and-plan. “The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively, and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision making,” explains McGonigal, “The pause-and-plan response sends that energy to the brain—and not just anywhere in the brain, but specifically to the self-control center, the prefrontal cortex.”
It turns out that willpower “struggles” are really like wrestling – the willpower “muscle” gets exhausted and we are left with less and less ability to resist temptation or buckle down and get our most important tasks done.
And just like professional athletes learn how to push beyond their limits, there are ways to “hack willpower” and temporarily boost your self-control for when you need it most.
HACK #1: SLOW BREATHING
Slowing your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute, about ten to fifteen seconds per breath. This shifts your body into self-control mode by activating the prefrontal cortex. Just a few minutes of slow breathing will boost your willpower reserve.
HACK #2: SUGAR RUSH
Need a quick burst of willpower? Eat a small piece of chocolate or a drink a sweetened drink. Research done at the University of South Dakota shows that when the brain detects a rise in blood sugar it figures energy must be in abundance and is willing to give more to the energy-guzzling task of self-control.
HACK #3: NATURE WALK
As little as five minutes outside in a green environment helps to reduce stress and serve as a willpower fill-up.
HACK #4: ROLE MODEL
Because of the “mirror effect” in our brains, if you think of someone that has a lot of willpower and ask what they would do in your situation; it will actually give you a willpower boost yourself.
HACK #5: CATCH SOME ZZZZs
Studies show that being even mildly sleep deprived has about the same effect as being mildly intoxicated – not a great state to be in when you need willpower. So take a nap or make sure to take time for extra sleep the night before when you know you will need your self-control.
HACK #6: EXERCISE
Even 15 minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings and shifts the mind away from the stressful fight-or-flight response. Exercise has been shown to be as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac and helps prime the mind for the pause-and-plan state willpower needs.
HACK #7: MEDITATION
You don’t have to be a Tibetan monk to benefit from meditation. One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain.
HACK #8: ACCEPTANCE
Stop beating yourself up! Trying to suppress cravings actually backfires. It just eats up your willpower reserves, and you usually end up giving in and doing what you wanted to avoid. Instead, notice the craving, imagine it dissolving or passing by – just don’t act on it.
HACK #9: TURN OFF AUTOPILOT
Psychologists know that most of our decisions are made unconsciously. Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has shown that people who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptation. So, spend time tracking each decision in your day.
HACK #10: RISE AND SHINE
Willpower starts out strong. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, has shown that self-control is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day. Take a lesson from the early bird and do the important things first.
Just remember that stress and self-control are biologically incompatible, says Dr. McGonigal and her colleagues. So the biggest hack you can do is to avoid stress – once you hit fight-or-flight mode willpower turns off light a switch.