Well, good news! Your Inner Saboteur is absolutely wrong. According to willpower expert Kelly McGonigal, inside your very own brain there’s a whole complex system designed especially to keep you on the right track. And you can actually build that system’s strength with only a tiny bit of effort.
Your Magical Pause and Plan Response
You’ve heard of the “fight or flight” response, right? When your brain spots a threat in your environment, it automatically sends messages to your body to prepare it for action.
Well, it turns out that you have another automatic brain response that’s triggered when you’re about to do something that’s against your best interests, such as yelling at your boss, or putting a charge on your credit card when you’ve sworn off. University of Kentucky professor Suzanne Sergerstrom calls it the “pause- and-plan response” response.
It gets activated when the threat to your well being isn’t something outside of you, but a conflict going on inside you between the short term satisfaction of an impulse and your long range good.
Instead of sending a rush of chemicals to your body, the pause and plan response directs resources to the decision-making part of your brain. It works to calm you, giving you an opportunity to make a better choice and exercise self-control.
The pause and plan response isn’t, however, a super power. All by itself, it won’t stop you from giving in to your impulses. But it will give you a real edge—some space for making a deliberate choice. And you can do a lot of things to ensure that when it points to right door, you have the willpower to walk through it.
1. Tweak Your Health Habits
Everything you can do to enhance your overall health helps build your store of willpower. Health is a state of dynamic ease, where you’re moving through life with an abundance of energy and a minimum of stress. So consider giving some attention to the basics: sufficient sleep, more wholesome nutrition, less junk food, adequate hydration and exercise. All of these contribute to your ability to be more resilient and to experience less stress. Use a little of your willpower to begin tweaking those areas that you may have been neglecting.
2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
“Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making,” says Deborah Kotz in her article on willpower for US News.
Just sit quietly with your eyes closed and let your attention rest on your breathing. You can focus on the way air enters and leaves your nostrils, or how your chest rises and falls, how your belly moves in and out, or to your whole body breathing. When you notice that your attention has drifted to your thoughts, gently let them go and return your attention to your breathing.
McGonigal suggests that you begin practicing for 5 minutes one to three times a day, then building up to 15-30 minutes at a time once or twice a day. If you do, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the pause and plan response with a clear, calm mind.
3. Know What You Want – and Don’t Want
Knowing what you want to achieve and why you want it is a primary key to developing your willpower. When you remember what’s important to you, and when the picture of what you want is clear in your mind, you’re more motivated to consider making the changes that will turn your dream into your reality.
Knowing what you want and value lets you become aware, too, of what you don’t want in your life any more. And research shows, says Kotz, that when you think about the long-term consequences of doing the things you don’t want, you’re much more likely to resist the immediate temptation of a negative habit—like grabbing a gooey candy bar, lighting up that next cigarette, or putting that impulse item on your charge card.
Invest some time in creating vivid pictures of two possible futures for yourself—one where you move toward your ideal outcome, and one where you stay mired in your current habit. Then flash the pictures alternately in your mind when the pause and plan response offers you a choice.
4. Share the Love
One of the most pleasurable ways to strengthen your ability to make right choices is to spread some love around. Spending time with friends and loved ones increases our stores of happiness and well-being. And doing an act of kindness for someone is one of the most powerful happiness-builders around.
When we’re happy, we’re not only less stressed, but our perspective broadens and we’re better able to see more possibilities for ourselves. We’re better able to envision the positive consequences of choosing the better path for ourselves, and to take advantage of the pause and plan response it’s triggered in our brains.
A Yahoo health article tells about a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that demonstrated additional strength and physical endurance in subjects who either donated a dollar to charity or imagined themselves doing good deeds.
How about that! Even thinking about doing something nice for someone else makes you stronger.
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