In “The Willpower Instinct,” by Stanford University psychology instructor Kelly McGonigal, she defines willpower as composed of three parts: “I Will, I Won’t and I Want.” These three functions reside in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—something we humans have more of than most other animals.
“I Will” is the function that allows you to get things done, even if they are hard. “I Won’t” is the function that prevents you from eating something unhealthy or spending more money than you should. “I Want” is the function that tells you what you desire—what you really desire. So when your sweet tooth is screaming at you to drink a chocolate frappucino, “I Want” can remind you that what you really desire is losing 15 pounds. These three elements combine to create what we call willpower—the ability to control impulses that tempt us to do things that may not be in our best interests.
Our willpower is often at odds with our impulsive self, rooted in a deeper, more primitive part of the brain. We still need that older, less sophisticated system because it also provides us with valuable instincts such as fear and disgust that work to keep us safe and healthy. But our baser selves are always urging us to act on impulse, so it’s a pretty constant struggle.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to increase willpower, according to McGonigal: meditation. Dr. McGonigal is a scientist, not a Buddhist nun or new-age guru, and she backs up her assertions with scientific evidence.
The enemy of impulse is mindfulness: being present and aware of what you are doing and which decisions you are making at all times. A lot of poor decisions can be made while you are thinking about something else. For example, how many times have you suddenly come to the realization during a meal that you have eaten more than you intended, or eaten something that you shouldn’t have? Maybe you were reading a book or talking to a friend, and “didn’t notice”. That was your impulsive self, slipping one over on the prefrontal cortex while you were distracted. When you are fully aware of your decisions, you are more likely to make the right ones.
Meditation improves mindfulness. Neuroscientist have discovered that meditation trains the brain to become better at self-control, including “attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness,” according to McGonigal’s book. Just three hours of meditation practice led to an increase in these benefits, and after 11 hours, novice meditators increased the neural connections needed for focus and impulse control. Eight weeks of daily meditation increased the gray matter of the prefrontal cortex and led to increased self-awareness, or mindfulness in the individuals studied.
Meditation is easy, and does not necessarily involve spiritual seeking or levitation, or any of those other weird things you sometimes hear about. It is a matter of setting aside a period of time to sit and be quiet (including the inner voice we always hear). Be quiet, don’t fidget, and focus on something neutral, like breathing. It isn’t necessary to turn off that inner voice entirely; just notice that you have become distracted, and return to your focus on breathing. Start with five minutes and work up to a longer period. Even distracted meditation is better than none and will have positive benefits, so don’t get discouraged.
For excellent and simple instruction on how to meditate, see page 26 of McGonigal’s book, “The Willpower Instinct”. There are also several meditation resources online—try Googling “how to meditate” and you’ll find something that works for you.