The keys to strengthening willpower

By helping clients train their brains to get better at forgoing immediate gratification, we can assist them in reaching their long-term goals, writes exercise scientist Dr Morwenna Kirwan.

KEY POINTS
  • We all have a short-term mind that cares only about immediate gratification, and a mind that is willing to tolerate discomfort in order to reach long-term goals
  • By appreciating this constant state of inner conflict, we can understand why clients often behave in a manner that is contradictory to their stated commitment to their fitness goals
  • Willpower is the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of us doesn’t want to
  • Certain behaviours can be managed to strengthen the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for willpower
  • Reducing alcohol intake, hunger, stress, and poor quality sleep can strengthen willpower, as can exercising and meditating.

One brain, two minds

Researchers have long considered that although we have only one brain, we have two minds. That is, it can be helpful to think about our behaviour, and our choices, as if we have two independent ‘minds’ that function with different motives.

We have a mind that only cares about immediate gratification. This short-term focused mind cares about maximising pleasure and minimising stress, pain and discomfort. When this mind is most dominant, we have a narrowed focus and often make impulsive decisions, such as choosing the chocolate cake for a snack, rather than the handful of almonds. We don’t consider long-term consequences.

Conversely, we have another mind: one that sees the bigger picture, that cares about long-term goals and is willing to tolerate discomfort in order to reach them. When this mind is most dominant, we think through our decisions carefully, we weigh up the pros and cons, we consider the consequences of our choices and we check in to ensure that making a certain choice aligns with our long-term goals. When we decide to go for a run rather than sit on the couch and binge-watch Netflix, we are tapping into this long-term focused mind.

It’s helpful to consider that these two minds interact constantly in the brain, resulting in a state of ‘inner conflict’. We want to reward ourselves now, but we also want to attain goals that require us to forego immediate pleasure.

Admittedly, this ‘two-minds’ explanation is an oversimplification of the complex systems of the brain, but it helps in understanding why your clients may tell you how committed they are to losing weight, getting fitter, and making healthier choices, but within a week fall off the wagon, eating pizza and drinking beer on the couch all weekend. We are all human, and we all feel conflicted at times in making good choices.


What is willpower?

Willpower is the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of us doesn’t want to. To be successful in reaching our health goals, we need to align ourselves with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals, rather than short-term needs or desires.

The good news is, we can train our brains to get better at forgoing immediate gratification. Neuroscientists have identified the area of the brain associated with this – considered the willpower centre of the brain – namely the prefrontal cortex (PFC).


Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the area of the brain that lies directly behind the eyes and the forehead. Evidence from brain imaging studies has found that when an individual attempts to control their impulses or behaviour there is heightened activity in this area of the brain. The PFC is responsible for many executive functions, including: decision making, considering the future consequences of current activities, planning, working towards a goal, predicting outcomes, evaluating those outcomes and self-regulation.

Before we focus on how you can strengthen this area of your brain, it is important to understand what behaviours and mind-states impair the PFC functioning.

Alcohol

The first and most obvious is alcohol. When you drink alcohol, you decrease the activity in the PFC. This explains why drinking alcohol can cause us to act without thinking and to make poor choices. When you are hungry after a night of drinking, you are unlikely to choose a salad!

Stress

Researchers have found that chronic stress can actually shrink the PFC and increase size of other areas, such as the amygdala – highly responsible for our basic survival mechanism: fight, flight, or freeze. The purpose of our stress response is to be impulsive, react quickly – assess the threat and fight it or flee. This stress response serves us in times of real danger, however it can undermine our ability to pursue long term goals. Adding to this is the fact that we often turn to not-so-desirable habits when we feel stressed to make ourselves feel better – eating a doughnut, scrolling Facebook, smoking a cigarette. We can get stuck in a cycle of feeling stressed and then needing to soothe ourselves.

Sleep

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know that being sleep deprived undermines your ability to be a willpower machine. Research shows that sleep deprived individuals are more likely to give in to impulses, have less focus, and make other questionable or risky choices. Lack of sufficient sleep (less than 6 hours) has been shown to decrease the ability of the PFC to uptake glucose (its fuel source) and use it efficiently. This also explains why when we are sleep deprived, we often experience sugar cravings.

Hunger

You have probably had clients that have ‘skipped’ a few meals in their effort to lose weight. You may have also noticed that many of them have a willpower failure soon afterwards and eat everything in sight. Your PFC is attuned to the level of glucose in your blood – when it drops your brain panics. It takes you out of the PFC and into the more impulsive areas of the brain responsible for seeking food for survival. We have all heard of the advice to not go food shopping hungry. In such circumstances it is difficult to make healthy decisions when you don’t have the full capacity of your PFC to support you.

So, drinking alcohol, feeling stressed, being deprived of sleep and feeling hungry will undermine the capacity of your PFC to fire on all cylinders. Before we can explore some strategies to strengthen your PFC, and thus your willpower capacity, it is important to understand how willpower works.

Researchers have been fascinated by willpower since the 1960s and have made a few important findings around how it works.


Willpower is like a muscle

Our capacity to utilise willpower is similar to that of a muscle – it varies in strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Even well-developed quadriceps fatigue after a hard workout, so to your willpower reserve can be depleted if it experiences too much strain. If you have slept well overnight, you might start your day having fully charged your willpower capacity. Over the course of the day you exert willpower, making decisions, fighting distractions, resisting the urge to punch someone in the mouth, holding your tongue, pretending to like your colleague, and laughing at inane jokes. It makes sense then, that our willpower failures often occur in the afternoon and evening, and usually result in cheating on our diet and skipping the gym.

The news isn’t all doom and gloom. Your willpower capacity resembles a muscle in more ways than one. Not only does it show fatigue, it also gets stronger by doing certain activities. The fatigue effect is immediate, the strengthening is delayed, just like with resistance training.


What strengthens willpower?

Two researchers conducted a study using a technique to improve willpower. At the end of the study the participants reported the following:

  • improved attention span
  • improved ability to tune out distraction
  • less smoking, drinking, and caffeine
  • less junk food, more healthy food
  • less television
  • more studying
  • saving more money, fewer impulse purchases
  • more in control of emotions
  • less procrastination, and better at being on time.

So, what was the miracle drug? Physical exercise! Now I realise I am preaching to the converted, but it is important to keep in mind how powerful exercise is. Physical exercise induces structural and functional changes across different brain regions, including making the PFC larger.

In the research conducted on this topic, participants started off slowly with exercise – going to the gym once a week for the first month and slowly increasing frequency and intensity after that. To start getting all of the benefits listed above, support your clients in making an exercise plan that is consistent, and not overwhelming.

Physical exercise is the first strategy to strengthen willpower, the second strategy, and the one you may not have tried, is meditation.


The holy grail of willpower

If you aren’t familiar with meditation – it is essentially a practice of sitting still, focusing your attention on one point and when your mind wanders (which it will), noticing that it has wandered and coming back to the one point of focus. Often this one point of focus might be your breath.

Meditation is without a doubt the most direct way to strengthen your willpower capacity – it is a practice in willpower. It is well established that meditating activates your PFC and leads to an increase in the concentration of grey matter in that area of the brain over time.

Meditation improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support willpower. For example, regular meditators have more grey matter in the PFC. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice, brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.

The following meditation technique will get the blood rushing to your PFC, which is pretty much the closest we can get to directly strengthening your willpower capacity.

  1. Sit still and stay put. You can either sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or sit on the floor with your legs crossed. Try to resist the impulses to move: see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position. Sitting still is an important part of meditation because it teaches you not to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind say ‘inhale’ when you breathe in, and ‘exhale’ when you breathe out. When you notice that your mind is wandering, bring it back, and keep focusing on your breathing. This activates the PFC and quiets the stress and craving centres of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how the mind wanders. After a few minutes, drop the words ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’, and focus solely on the sensation of breathing. Your mind might wander a bit more without these words. However, when you notice that you are thinking about something else, bring your attention back to breathing. You can say ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ for few rounds when you find it hard to refocus. This part helps to train both self-awareness and willpower.

It’s interesting to note that being bad at meditation is good for willpower. The more your mind wanders, the more you get to bring it back to your breath.

By helping your clients develop an exercise habit that is enjoyable enough to become consistent, and encouraging them to introduce even small elements of meditation to their day, you can equip them with the tools to strengthen their willpower and achieve their goals.


Dr Morwenna Kirwan, PhD

Morwenna is an exercise scientist focusing her research on motivation and behavioural health psychology. With 20 years’ fitness industry experience, her passion lies in translating the latest scientific evidence into highly practical ideas that help people improve their health. morwennakirwan.com / twitter.com/mkirwan