Do you have the willpower instinct?

Why is willpower important? Research shows that people with stronger willpower are better off in almost every aspect of life: they’re happier and healthier, have more satisfying and long-lasting relationships, are more successful, make more money – and even live longer. In a nutshell, if you want to improve your life, your willpower is a good place to start.

In The Willpower Instinct, author Kelly McGonigal explains more about why you shouldn’t deprive yourself of your favorite foods when dieting, and you’ll discover why thinking that you hold no prejudices will make you act in a more prejudiced way.

Life is full of temptations: you may be offered a chocolate chip cookie right after you’ve started a diet, or find a pack of cigarettes just as you’ve resolved to quit smoking. These situations are willpower challenges – a challenge in which your immediate desires fight with your long-term goals.

So what makes you able to exert self-control in these situations?

The strength of your willpower, which consists of three powers: “I won’t,” “I will,” and “I want.”

First, your “I won’t” power is the ability to say no even when your whole body wants to say yes. This power covers the common conception of willpower: the ability to resist temptation.

Temptation comes to each of us in different forms, be it chocolate, cigarettes or a sexy stranger. And each temptation can be seen as an “I won’t” willpower challenge that asks: Do you have the strength to say no?

You can determine your most important “I won’t” challenge by asking yourself: Which habit that is hurting your health, happiness or career would you most like to give up?

The second element of willpower is your “I will” power – the ability to do what you dislike now for a better future.

Your “I will” power helps you accomplish those tasks that are both unpleasant and necessary to achieve your goals – for example, studying to pass exams and get a degree.

You can find your most important “I will” challenge by asking yourself: Which habit should you stop putting off in order to improve your life?

Finally, there’s your “I want” power – the capacity to remember what you truly want. What you truly want is what is best for you in the long term – despite present temptations. To resist the present you need a clear long-term goal that guides your actions. It’s this goal that fuels your “I want” power by reminding you what’s at stake.

You can find your “I want” challenge by asking yourself: What is the number one long-term goal you would like to focus more energy on? Which immediate desires are keeping you away from it?

These days, distractions are everywhere: there are links to click, series to watch, parties to go to. I’ll just check my email one last time, we say to ourselves.

But you’re running a larger risk that you think. That’s because when you are distracted, you are actually more likely to give in to other temptations.

When your mind is preoccupied, immediate temptation can more easily overshadow your long-term goals. But there is a way to deal with distractions – by raising your awareness through meditation. Meditation cultivates a moment-to-moment self-awareness which helps us realize when we are being distracted and refocus our energy back on the task at hand.

In fact, scientists have shown that it only takes three hours of regular meditation to improve self-control and develop a higher attention span, and after 11 hours of practice the changes are already observable in the brain.

But sometimes distractions feel overwhelming, and you feel like you just can’t stop watching that clip.

In such situations the fruits of meditation can help again: by taking a breath and refocusing your concentration on the long-term goal at hand, you can break the distraction cycle and regain control over your impulses.

When your mind is preoccupied you lose significant amounts of willpower. Avoiding decision making when distracted and increasing your self-awareness through meditation can help to save you from willpower failures.

What does a saber-toothed tiger have in common with a chocolate cookie? Each of them can interfere with your goal of a long and healthy life. That’s why evolution has given us the instincts to fight both the saber-toothed tiger and the temptation of a chocolate cookie.

You have probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, an instinct that kicks in when we face scary or life-threatening situations. Basically, it’s your body’s built-in ability to devote all its energy to getting your butt out of an emergency.

What most of us don’t know is that willpower itself is based on a biological instinct. One study showed that facing a willpower challenge can activate a specific state in your brain and body that gives you a willpower boost.

This state is called the pause-and-plan response, and as its name suggests, it is very different from the fight-or-flight response. So how can we strengthen this willpower instinct to better slow down our minds and make the best decisions?

By paying close attention to everything that places stress on our minds and body, like anger, anxiety, chronic pain and illness. All the things that stress you out interfere with your ability to get into a state of self-control by keeping you in that fight-or-flight state – and preventing you from achieving that slow, rational state of mind.

However, there are plenty of ways to improve your stress-resistance and thereby your willpower. Meditation, exercise, a good night’s sleep, healthy food and quality time with your family and friends can all help reduce your levels of stress.

And getting active outdoors for only five minutes a day will give you a quick willpower boost too – so get out there!

Check out my related post: How to make whining stop?

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