Willpower and Self-Discipline, part 1

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Nothing to do with Weakness
Just as we need to learn to crawl before we walk, or walk before we run, for most of us, we need to learn willpower and self-discipline before we’ll do most of the things we have to do. For a long time, this is something that we’ve viewed  through a kind of moral lens, where we feel we’re a better person when we exercise willpower. The converse of course is that we’re somehow “bad,” when we give in to temptation.

Good news has come from the scientific community, as willpower has recently been the subject of many studies in psychology, neuroscience, and transpersonal neurobiology. Although all the findings aren’t in yet, we’ve learned enough to take willpower out of this “moral” domain, and put it into the scientific domain. All the judgement and internal criticism around willpower comes from the old view. It’s not about being “strong” or “weak,”

but about our physiological state when we’re trying to exercise willpower. Since we can shift and impact our physiological state, we can be more in command than we may have thought possible.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about what we’re impacting and how. To integrate the needed physiological shifts and alter our willpower as a function of neurobiology, we’re going to integrate mindfulness, physical activity, and even diet. This is where the “Catch-22” enters. We’ll need a little willpower to take the actions that increase our willpower. The return on investment makes it easier and easier.

The subject of increasing our willpower is more complicated, and with more action steps than we can cover in our usual episode length, so we’re going to break it into two parts.  This episode will cover some of the fastest, easiest ways you can impact and increase your willpower, and the next part will cover even more action steps we can take to regain our Self Mastery.

As Easy As Breathing
First, studies have shown a direct correlation between increased willpower and a balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. So we just need a way to do it.

The simplest exercise to start with is a good old “focus on your breathing” meditation. Start small and it’s easier to keep up. Even 5 minutes makes a difference, and you can extend to 10 minutes or more as you get comfortable. You also don’t need to call it “meditation,” which can make some people feel pressured to “do it right.” For what we want, just focus on your breathing and really pay attention.

Since stress increases the sympathetic nervous system (it’s sympathetic to the stuff flying at you, so it hits the gas pedal) the balance with the parasympathetic gets thrown off.  And yes, parasympathetic is more like the brakes, going back to a rest state after the fight or flight.

Our heart synchronizes with our breathing; actually beating a little faster on inhale and slower on exhale. This is called Heart Rate Variability, or (HRV.)  A higher HRV is more responsive to demands, so it’s more of a survival advantage.  We can get into and out of flight or fight faster and more easily, and it’s now been shown as a prime factor in willpower and resilience to stress.

The fastest way to increase your HRV and willpower, is to simply focus on your breathing, and intentionally slow it down to about six breaths a minute. We want to make our inhale shorter than our exhale so as long as it’s comfortable, see if you can do an easy count of maybe 6 or 7 as you inhale, and 8 or 10 as you exhale.  Counting helps keep your mind focused on the breathing, and intentionally keeping that variance is what builds your HRV. A lower HRV has also been associated with poorer cardiovascular health and all kinds of problems along with less willpower and focus.  Maybe the poor willpower led to more donuts and less exercise?

Mental Barbell Reps
Another benefit of this focus meditation is building neural wiring around bringing your focus back when you’re distracted.  It actually works better when we’re “not good” at meditating. If your mind doesn’t wander, you don’t have to practice “bringing it back” to your breath. Each time we do that, we’re doing a kind of neural pathway re-training, like a repetition with a barbell.  Since this re-training requires our being distracted or having thoughts and feelings pop up, to bring ourselves back from, ironically it really is better for us when we’re not as good at meditating.

Neural pathways directing us to “bring our focus back” affect willpower and focus, but also train our brain to get back on track when we “wander” in areas like procrastinating, getting distracted, giving in to cravings that our higher self doesn’t want, and more.  It’s a kind of “global get back to it” habit.

Studies of individuals doing this kind of “focus meditation” show a significant increase in white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, governing much of our self-regulatory behavior.  The white matter relays and distributes the data between different brain regions. You can think of this as installing new cabling.  This is why building the anterior cingulate cortex is so useful.  As it’s associated with self-regulation, the more we can stay in charge of ourselves, the more we can go for what we really want; big picture, not merely immediate craving-level wants that can be either tangential or even in opposition to our big picture dreams.

Next Episode
In our next episode, we’ll delve even deeper into more ways for you to increase your willpower and increase your self-discipline.  We’ll look at how food impacts willpower as well as how your own attitude toward yourself can be the deciding factor in your success.

Want to learn more about how you hold yourself back or catapult you forward?  Come visit the web site, or better yet, contact me and see how we can design a program to fit your needs and desired outcomes.

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