A celebrated Stanford psychologist shares her cutting-edge strategies for improving self-control.
This series by Brian Johnson, founder of PhilosophersNotes, features big ideas from leading thinkers on a wide range of personal-development topics. Find a summary video of The Willpower Instinct below.
Willpower — we all probably wish we had more of this character trait. The good news is we can train our brains to get better at controlling our behavior.
The Willpower Instinct by award-winning Stanford psychologist and lecturer Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is based on a course she teaches, and it’s filled with the latest scientific insights about self-control. It explains how we can “break old habits and create healthy habits, conquer procrastination, find our focus, and manage stress.”
Here are some of my favorite takeaways from McGonigal’s book.
Pause and Plan
You’re probably familiar with the human fight-or-flight response: You feel stressed and your body responds in a way that may have been crucial when your prehistoric ancestors were threatened by saber-toothed tigers.
But it’s not so helpful when you’re simply stressed about your day at work. This fight-or-flight response destroys our willpower, McGonigal explains, because it triggers impulsive reactions to everyday conditions.
To cultivate more self-control, it’s better to choose the “pause-and-plan” response. This method teaches us to notice our habitual reactions and consciously choose a more empowered one.
“Your brain needs to bring the body on board with your goals and put the brakes on your impulses,” McGonigal writes. “To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other automatic functions. The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”
Next time you feel the fight-or-flight response kicking in, see if you can shift to the willpower response of pausing and planning.
Take a Deep Breath
Slowing down your breathing is one effective strategy for shifting into pause-and-plan mode — it boosts your sense of self-control and allows you to respond more effectively to difficult situations.
“Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute,” McGonigal writes. “That’s 10 to 15 seconds per breath — slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart-rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”
Set the stopwatch on your smartphone to measure how many breaths you’re taking per minute. See if you can slow it down so you’re breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of six.
Don’t hold your breath (that just increases stress), and aim to make your exhale longer than your inhale (you trigger relaxation as you exhale completely). Doesn’t that feel amazing?
Another great technique for improving your willpower — in fact, the No. 1 way to boost it — is meditation.
“One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control,” McGonigal notes. “After 11 hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses.
“Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain. It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it.”
Do you have a meditation practice yet? If not, start simply: Just a few minutes a day can make a big difference.
Exercise is also a powerful way to amplify your willpower. “When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter — brain cells — and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other,” McGonigal writes.
Exercise takes time, but it also saves time by making you feel more energized and in control throughout the day.
We now have three scientifically proven, effective strategies to boost our willpower:
1. Slow breathing
Incorporate these strategies for training your mind and body, and you’ll keep willpower saboteurs like depression, anxiety, and chronic pain at bay. You’ll also reap the rewards of improved health and happiness.
About Kelly McGonigal, PhD: A psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal is the author of The Upside of Stress. Learn more about her work at www.kellymcgonigal.com, and read her recent Experience Life cover story “Making Friends With Stress: Kelly McGonigal.”