I know there are people who actually think that we have collectively lost our willpower and self-discipline during the last decades. The reason that is usually offered is that life is too easy these days: we have grown soft and gained boatloads of weight! I disagree, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it.
But let’s put my philosophizing aside and concentrate on how to gain self control.
I have been thinking about self control a lot lately, because I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s book Willpower Instinct. (It’s an excellent book – one that everyone should read.)
It’s a captivating read because it helps you to better understand your behaviour, but at the same time it teaches you things about self control and willpower you didn’t know. (In my opinion, that’s an ideal combination in a book).
According to Kelly McGonigal, self control is an instinct just like the fight-or-flight instinct (aka stress response) we are more familiar with. Instead of running away from a saber tooth tiger or consuming a piece of chocolate cake, it makes us pause and plan before we act.
Our willpower instinct is called on when we have an internal conflict – usually between something that would give us an immediate reward (like a piece of chocolate) and a long-term goal (like losing weight). How likely we are to resist temptation depends on our physiological state –whether we are in a state of calm or stressed out. Stress is the #1 enemy of self control, because stress response inhibits the functioning of prefrontal cortex.
I was really intrigued to find out that there actually is a physiological measure – heart-rate variability – that is a good measure of our capacity for self control. In Kelly McGonigal’s words:
For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they se a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response – their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink – have greater risk of relapse.
The key to gaining more self control is to do whatever needs to be done to keep our heart rate variability high (i.e. in a state of calm instead of stress).
How to gain self-control – four practical tips
Here are four tips from the book that can help you improve your self-control. They tips are all pretty easy to put into action too.
- Practice mediation: Practice meditation for 10-20 minutes per day, focusing on the sensations of your breath. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. (Brining your wandering mind back again and again is the point of this exercise).
- Breath slow: Breathing slowly increases the heart-rate variability and brings you back to the state of calm. Try slowing your breath for 4-6 breaths a minute (don’t hold your breath though).
- Take short exercise breaks: Even better news is that short bursts of exercise help more than long ones, especially if you do them outdoors. I love this tip because it’s easy to take a short 5-minute exercise break even during a workday.
- Take on a small willpower challenge: Committing to some small, consistent act of self-control increases your general willpower. The small commitments can be things like straightening your posture every time you notice yourself slumping, saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’, stopping swearing, opening doors with the non-dominant hand etc.
I was excited when I realized the Kaizen challenge I talked about in breaking bad habits is an excellent way to train my willpower muscle. Yay! 🙂
I’ve been so impressed with McGonigal’s book that I’ve started meditating or slowing my breath for 10 minutes every day. I used to meditate regularly years ago, but I gave up the habit at some point because it felt so pointless.
I reasoned that if meditation and slowing your breath will help with self control, I’m ready to give 10 minutes of my day to it. I don’t want to be a willpower wimp for the rest of my life – one that fails to reach important goals in life because of a lack of willpower.
I don’t think I’ve transformed into a willpower ninja quite yet, but maybe in a year… 🙂
Use the comment section to tell me when your willpower caves in….