How to build your willpower
According to a recent article in Time Magazine*, the CEO of your brain is the prefrontal cortex, which is right at the front of the brain. This “higher brain” has to control the “decadent” appetites of your midbrain which sits on top of the spinal cord….. eating, shopping, gambling, sex, or drinking. The things that bring pleasure for a moment. However, the higher brain has a powerful resource on its side: willpower. The midbrain governs desire. The higher brain governs control. The midbrain is about short-term awareness, while the higher brain is into long-term considerations.
When willpower gets shunted aside, it can be costly. 45 million adult Americans smoke, and 67% are overweight or obese. Alcohol and drugs excite our lower brain, but also make fuzzy the consequences as viewed by the prefrontal cortex…..a double-whammy.
But willpower can be trained, as illustrated by the following:
1. Insert a new routine in place of the old one. For example, if arriving home is a cue to flop in the armchair, munching on potato chips, and watch TV, put a pair of jogging shoes by the front door. Decide to substitute a new routine — a short run — for the chips, but keep the TV reward. Repeat this a few times, and you will have a new and healthier habit.
2. You will never have enough time to complete all your goals. Set realistic targets and a reasonable schedule. The closer you feel to the you of tomorrow, the better you will become at planning.
3. Avoid the “What the hell effect”. You are on a diet, but you arrive home on a summer afternoon, and the Ben & Jerry’s carton of Cherry Garcia is soft and squeezy, so you decide to have just a few teaspoons. But then, after a few more teaspoons, you realize you have lost the day, so you eat the entire carton. Bad idea.
4. Tonite Gal can go drinking, because next morning is Tomorrow Gal’s problem. This is one reason why some folks save too little for retirement. Create a future-self image to help you work towards that.
5. Avoid the “Halo effect”. You work out for an hour, and argue that you have lost 400 calories, so you can afford to have a burger and fries for lunch. Bad choice……you just canceled your gain.
6. Adopt a Pause-and-Plan strategy. A craving narrows the mind’s focus, until the powerful urge is resolved. If you pause and plan well ahead of the anticipated crisis, this provides options to bring the rational higher brain in to the situation.
Ideally, the midbrain can still have fun, but the higher brain can decide how much fun. In reality, we all wrestle with cravings, and this may be why Paul the Apostle wrote these words a couple thousand years ago:
“….when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have….. This makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me…? This then is my condition: by myself I can serve God’s law only with my mind, while my human nature serves the law of sin”.
But Paul goes on to provide a way out:
“There is no condemnation for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death…..Those who live as the Spirit tells them to live have their minds controlled by what the Spirit wants”.
This is rich and encouraging information, which includes the concept of freedom in the Spirit, and a way to overcome our cravings without feeling condemned by them. It harks back to the Grace of God, who loves us just as we are, and takes pleasure when we walk close to Him. As Jesus demonstrated when he wandered the earth, the spiritual life is not performance-oriented, it’s grace-oriented, and this is an enormous relief.
** The Bible quotations are from Romans chapters 7 and 8.
* The above contains excerpts from the article by Jeffrey Kluger, “Getting to NO – The Science of Building Willpower”, Time, 5 March, 2012.