in Cognitive Wisdom

Training your Willpower muscle


What exactly happens in the brain when you crave something?

First you see or smell something you desire which is enough to activate the reward system in the brain. The system releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine which activates the areas of the brain responsible for attention, motivation and action. These dopamine releases can be triggered by anything associated with feeling good: 70-percent-off sale sign at a mall, the smell of samosas or an attractive face smiling at you.

And when this dopamine is released, the object that pulled the trigger immediately becomes very desirable – even if it’s against our long-term interest, like unhealthy food, internet binges or binge drinking. This is why we often engage ourselves in activities that seem to be irresistible at first glance, but afterward leave us feeling guilty and dissatisfied.

So what can you do? You can actually make this weakness your strength by combining unpleasant tasks with something that gets your dopamine firing. For example, bring your boring project-work to your favourite café and finish it over a delicious cup of hot chocolate.

Here’s a challenge: for the next five minutes don’t think about white elephants. Can you do it? Most people fail in this task. Even though we never usually think about white elephants, if you actively try to not think about them, it becomes almost impossible to stop.

The same is true for your cravings: though suppression might seem to work at first, it actually makes them worse.

This was shown by one researcher who believed that thought suppression compels us to do the very thing we are trying to not think about.

To test his hypothesis, the researcher invited women for a tasting test of two similar chocolates. Before bringing in the candy, he asked the participants to think out loud for five minutes. One group was instructed to suppress any thoughts about chocolate, while the other participants were free to think about whatever they wanted.

And as expected, the group that received the instructions not to think about chocolate reported fewer thoughts about chocolate – but also ate twice as much of the candy.

This is the primary reason why most diets simply don’t work. The more dieters try and resist a certain food, the more their mind becomes preoccupied by it.

There is this willpower exhaustion that keeps playing pranks with us all the time.

We generally don’t identify our daily tasks as willpower challenges – having to commute, sit through a boring meeting or choose amongst 10 different brands of shampoo – all drawn from our limited daily willpower reserve.

But although we are constantly draining our willpower, we can do our best to maintain it at a high level by keeping our blood sugar steady and our energy levels high.

Low-glycemic foods such as nuts, cereals, fruits, vegetables and high fibre grains all contribute in replenishing our willpower resources.

But there is another way of improving our willpower – by training the willpower muscle.
Just as it’s possible to train your body muscle through weight lifting, it’s possible to train your willpower muscle with willpower challenges.

By performing small but regular willpower challenges you can gradually improve your self control.

So When you’re on a diet, don’t deprive yourself of your favourite foods because it will only increase your cravings.

Instead of deciding “you won’t” eat fast food or pastry, devote your energy to the idea that “you will” eat more healthy food. A decline in unhealthy food will automatically follow and you’ll have a much easier time sticking to such a positive challenge.

Another way to overcome the surge of impulsive cravings is by merely observing them: When the unwanted urge appears, allow yourself to notice it. Observe your breath along with what you are feeling. Then imagine the urge as a cloud that dissolves and just passes: a technique of mindfulness.

Have you ever noticed that you behave and think differently depending on who you’re with? In fact, who we interact with influences our beliefs, goals and actions to a remarkable degree. Similarly it’s a no surprise that even characteristics like a strong or weak willpower can be “picked up” from our social context.

For example, studies showed that if we observe other people acting impulsively, we are more likely to be impulsive ourselves and neglect our long-term goals for a pleasurable moment. What’s more, the more we like the person observed, the stronger this effect is, and the more willpower we lose.

Luckily this mechanism can also be harnessed for good, for example, with dieting: research shows that having a close friend or family member who recently lost a lot of weight increases your chances of losing weight.
So how can you take advantage of this?

Ask yourself, do you know someone you admire for their willpower? Try thinking about them more often – because research shows that just thinking about someone with good self-control increases your own willpower.

Another way of harnessing the force of willpower contagion is to get friends and family involved with your willpower challenges. The power of this approach was shown in the weight-loss intervention at the University of Pittsburgh where people were required to enrol with a friend or family member. The participants were then instructed to support each other in pursuing their goals – for example, by writing encouraging messages or sharing a healthy meal from time to time.

The results were impressive: 66 percent of the participants had maintained their weight loss even after ten months. In contrast, the success rate of the control group – the participants that did not join with a partner – was only 24 percent.

So if you and your loved ones share a willpower challenge, make it a group project to reap the optimum benefit.


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