“If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.”
That’s how Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal concludes her phenomenal book ‘The Willpower Instinct.’
I decided to pay extra close attention as I was reading, and distilled what I learned into 10 pieces of ‘willpower wisdom’.
1. Understand the (evolutionary) role of willpower
Willpower developed as a survival mechanism, to help us resist temptation, build long-term relationships and prioritise long-term plans. This advanced self-control system was built on top of our brain’s more primitive layers.
And this is where internal conflict and friction come from:
- The prefrontal cortex, the newest part of your brain, responsible for impulse control, long-term thinking and decision-making
- The oldest, more primitive parts of your brain, focused on desire, impulse and immediate gratification
It’s completely normal to have these two opposing voices in your head; so go easy on yourself. You’re not battling against yourself; you’re just navigating between two different parts of the brain — one focused on short-term rewards and the other on long-term goals.
Think of willpower as improving your skill to side with the part of your brain that has your Future Self’s best interests in mind (see #9.)
2. Realize that willpower isn’t just a mind game. It’s rooted in the body.
If you struggle with self-control and discipline, understand that this is not some innate weakness of character. It’s a lack of understanding of how our brains and bodies work.
The underpinnings of willpower are physiological. There are many willpower traps we can avoid simply by taking better care of ourselves. Your body plays a crucial role in your ability to exert self-control, so make it a priority. Focus on the fundamentals: good sleep, regular exercise, proper nutrition, and mindfulness. Get your body strong and your mind will follow.
3. Believe you can get better at it
Current neuroscience research agrees on a game-changing concept: neuroplasticity. The extraordinary ability of our brains to grow and adapt based on our thoughts, actions and experiences — no matter how old we are.
So your willpower is not fixed. You have the power to train your brain, to improve your willpower and to make choices that align with your long-term goals.
4. Try meditation to improve willpower
Don’t dismiss meditation as woowoo or soft. Meditation has been proven to sharpen attention, enhance focus, manage stress, and reign in impulsiveness. This simple practice creates real, physical changes in the parts of your brain that control willpower.
You can start with a simple breath meditation. (Short video where I talk about how and why this works.)
And if you find your mind wandering… don’t worry. It’s not only entirely normal — it’s good! The practice of catching yourself drifting and refocusing, over and over again, is precisely the skill you need to improve your willpower.
5. Strengthen willpower with exercise
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) — the variation in time between heartbeats — has been shown to be the best physiological indicator of self-control.
A higher HRV indicates a body that can adapt quickly to changes (whether they’re emotional or physical), making you more resilient and better at handling stress.
And guess what boosts your HRV and as a result, your willpower? Exercise. And you don’t need a fancy fitness regimen to do this. The body and brain don’t discriminate between different forms of exercise. Whether it’s walking, playing with your kids, or even cleaning — any form of movement helps. Just need to get your heart rate up!
6. Use the small, trivial moments to help you in the big, important moments
Studies show that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control can increase your overall willpower in other areas of life.
Think of things like not polishing off the entire bag of crisps, or opting for the stairs over the elevator.
Sure, these small choices aren’t life-changers on their own. But what you’re really training is your self-awareness. The habit of noticing what you’re about to do versus behaving reflexively, and making a conscious decision.
The more you practice these small challenges, the better your brain becomes at hitting the pause button before you act. And that will benefit you in the big moments that truly matter for your long-term goals.
7. Stop labeling your actions as good or bad
There’s this sneaky mind trick called moral licensing, where when you do something “good”, your brain gives you permission to then do something “bad” because you feel like you’ve earned a reward.
It’s like saying, “I’ve been frugal all week so now I can splurge on these $300 linen bed sheets.”
Moral licensing often stems from framing our willpower challenges as “moral dilemmas”, labeling an action (and ourselves) as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Drop the labels. This is not about being a good or bad person. Just ask yourself if what you’re about to do lines up with your long-term goals. Let that guide you.
8. Understand the promise of happiness ≠ happiness
Whenever your brain spots an opportunity for a reward, it releases dopamine to motivate you to move and to act.
Dopamine makes you crave and pursue things, but fulfilling those cravings doesn’t guarantee happiness. That’s because this in-built reward system doesn’t necessarily care about making you happy, it just cares about your survival.
Nowadays, tons of things can set off that dopamine system (snacks, social media, advertising — you name it) fooling us into thinking they’ll make us feel good. So, become hyper-aware of these false promises. Notice when your dopamine levels spike and you’re giving in to your impulses. How do you feel afterwards? Did it live up to the hype? Are you really feeling satisfied?
The more you understand how dopamine affects you, the easier it becomes to control your desires and turn to “real happiness” strategies — aka things that release brain chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, GABA. Think of exercising, playing sports, meditating, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, dancing, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, and so on.
9. Get close to your Future Self
Your Future Self is you. The decisions you make today and tomorrow impact that future version of you. Sounds obvious but we don’t always act like we get that.
One way to strengthen your “future-self continuity” or the degree to which you feel connected to your future self, is using visualisation. Get close and familiar with that version of yourself. What’s important to them? What are they working on? What are they proud of?
Then whenever you’re faced with a willpower decision, bring your Future Self to mind — and I mean that literally. Close your eyes and picture that person. What would they want you to do? Be aware of mental traps like in #7. Avoid good-or-bad labels. The single deciding question is: does it help my Future Self?
10. Remember what you really want
Write down your long-term goals and the deeper “why” behind them. Describe your Future Self in detail. This makes it 100x easier to stick to your plans and resist the pull of immediate desires and impulses.
Especially in moments of stress, this is important. When our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, our dopamine neurons are more excitable. We get more sensitive to whatever substance our brain associates with the promise of reward.
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