The Science of Willpower – How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters

The Science of Willpower

  • To succeed at self-control, you need to know how you fail.
  • The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.
  • Self-knowledge is the foundation of self-control.
  • Theories are nice; data is better.

I Will, I Won’t, I Want: What Willpower Is, and Why It Matters

To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.

Giving a name to the impulsive/negative version of your mind will make it easier to identify your detrimental habits as soon as you engage in them. You can then call on the wiser version of your mind and correct those habits so you can achieve your goal and be productive.

The Three Power Challenges to Test Willpower

  • An “I will” power challenge: What is something you would like to do more of or stop putting off because you know doing it will improve the quality of your life?
  • An “I won’t” power challenge: What is the stickiest habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of because it is undermining your health, happiness or success?
  • An “I want” power challenge: What is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on? What immediate want is most likely to distract you or tempt you away from this goal?

Motivation And Self-Control

  • I will and I won’t power alone do not constitute willpower. To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power. The ability to remember what you really want.
  • To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters.
  • People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.
  • Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence.

Meditation To Increase Willpower

When your brain meditates it gets better at attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.

How to meditate:

  1. Sit still and stay put.
  2. Sit in a chair with feet flat on the ground or cross-legged on a mat.
  3. Sit up straight and put your hands in your lap. Do not fidget.
  4. Turn your attention to the breath. Say in your mind, inhale and exhale.
  5. Notice how it feels to breathe and notice how the mind wanders. Drop the labels, inhale and exhale after a few minutes, notice how it feels to breathe.
  6. Start with just 5 minutes a day.

Pause and Plan

  • The pause and plan response are the opposite of the fight or flight response.
  • This starts with the perception of internal conflict, not an external threat.
  • The pause and plan response are also physical.
  • Keeps you from immediately following your impulses and gives you time for more flexible and thoughtful action.

Willpower Experiments

Willpower experiments: Increase self-control.

  • Slowing your breathing immediately increases self-control.
  • Try to reduce it to 4-12 breaths per minute.

Willpower experiment: the 5-minute green willpower fill-up.

  • Green exercise. Any physical activity that gets you outdoors.
  • Decreases stress, improves mood and increases focus and self-control.

Train your mind and body

  • Physical exercise, like meditation, makes your brain bigger and faster.
  • Studies showed that the biggest benefits can come from just 5 minutes of exercise.

The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake

When you are chronically stressed, your body continues to divert energy from long-term needs such as digestion, reproduction, healing injuries, and fighting off illnesses to respond to the constant stream of apparent emergencies.

Stress will cloud your mind and keep you from being productive. However, if you help rejuvenate your mind and body, you can get into the right mindset to do what you need to do.

The Self-Control Muscle

The self-control muscle can be exercised and made stronger.

It can be challenged by controlling one small thing you aren’t used to controlling. Or it can be committing to any small consistent act of self-control.

For example, creating and meeting self-imposed deadlines, or something like tracking spending, meals, eating less sugar, etc.

  • Use your non-dominant hand for brushing teeth, opening doors, etc.
  • Commit to doing something every day that you don’t normally do.

Too Much Self-Control

Insane levels of self-control have pitfalls too, like:

  • Dangers of chronic stress.
  • High energy expenditure.

Too much willpower (chronic self-control) could be dangerous. Trying to control every aspect of your thoughts and behavior is too big of a burden.

Choose your willpower battles wisely.

Challenge Accepted! Self-motivation

Change requires doing. For your biggest willpower challenge consider the following motivations:

  1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge?
  2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? How does your behavior influence your friends, family, coworkers, and community?
  3. Imagine this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult right now. Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?

When you find your biggest want power, bring it to mind when you want to give up.

The Promise of Reward

  • The reward system of the brain is not what we think it is. We make mistakes in wanting happiness.
  • When it comes to happiness, we cannot trust our brains to lead us in the right direction.
  • Dopamine plays a role in anticipating rewards not in experiencing them
  • The promise of happiness keeps us hunting.
  • Dopamine is how technology keeps us addicted.

Become a Dopamine Detective

  • We live in a world engineered to make us want. Pay attention to what captures your attention.
  • Daydreaming about unattainable rewards can get you into trouble.
  • The reward system of the brain also responds to novelty and variety.
  • Our brain responds to smells, advertisers and businesses use this to attract customers.

Dopamine Experiment

Dopamize your “I will challenge.”, being mindful of your dopamine triggers.

What gets your dopamine neurons firing?

  • Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward.
  • Notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety.

Test the promise of reward. Mindfully indulging in something your brain tells you will make you happy but that never seems to satisfy.

Examples: junk food, shopping, television, online time wasters.

Too Tired to Resist: Why Self-Control Is Like a Muscle

If you try to control and change too many things at once, you may exhaust yourself completely.

We use self-control for many things all day long. For example, getting out of bed the first time the alarm rings instead of hitting the snooze button, skipping dessert at lunch, choosing which brand of detergent to buy from the store—we have to use our self-control for all of these things! It’s no wonder that we feel exhausted at the end of the day.

License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad

“Progress can be motivating, and even inspire future self-control, but only if you view your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal.”

Rewards and punishments can help us stay on track with our goals, but they can also distract us from them. If rewarding or punishing yourself for certain behaviors causes you to forget what your actual goal is, or it causes you to indulge in bad behaviors as a “reward,” it’s time to stop doing that and remind yourself to stay on track.

Focus less on rewards and more on the goal you are trying to achieve.

What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In

We may think that guilt motivates us to correct our mistakes, but it’s just one more way that feeling bad leads to giving in.

Forgiving yourself for your failures is a step-by-step process. The first step will help you acknowledge what you are feeling, instead of running away from it. The second step will help you gain a healthy perspective on failure and remove the voices of unhealthy self-criticism (which don’t help you at all!) from your mind.

The third and final step will help you comfort yourself, so you can be up and ready to face another day.

Stress Busting

The most effective stress-relieving strategies are; exercise, playing sports, praying, attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating, doing yoga, spending time with a creative hobby.

The least effective stress-relieving strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the internet, watching TV or movies for more than two hours.

The Future You

Introduce yourself to you and you 2.0 (the future you!).

The future you is the person you imagine when you wonder if you should clean your closet now or later.

Meet your future self:

  1. Create a future memory. Imagining the future helps people delay gratification.
  2. Send a message to your future self. You can use Imagine what your future self would say to you today.
  3. Imagine your future self. This can increase your present-self willpower.

Putting the Future on Sale

All too often, we use our fancy brains not to make the most strategic decisions, but to give ourselves permission to act more irrationally.

All of us have experienced temptation for something counterproductive to our aims. For example, if you are on a strict diet, you might feel tempted to eat a burger. The good news is, this temptation can be fought! All you need to do is put some distance between you and said temptation.

Willpower is contagious

Willpower failures might be contagious, but you can also catch self-control.

It is very easy to fall back into old, negative habits when we are around others indulging in the same ones. Reminding yourself of your goals, and surrounding yourself with others who share your commitment to your goals, will keep you on track.

  • Both bad habits and positive change can spread from person to person like germs.
  • Thinking about someone with good self-control can increase your own willpower.
  • Go public with your willpower challenge.
  • Strengthen your willpower immune system. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your goals.

The Craving

Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel or do the thing you most want to avoid.

Four steps to handle cravings:

  1. Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving.
  2. Accept the thought or feeling without trying to distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white bear rebound effect.
  3. Step back by realizing that thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but you can choose whether to act on them.
  4. Remember your goal. Remind yourself of whatever your commitment is.

From the book:-
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works

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