Discipline and self-control are habits of willpower necessary towards achieving your goals and achieving success.
Firstly, let’s understand what parts of the brain influence our level of willpower.
There are two main areas of the brain that contribute to the mechanics of willpower. The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. These sections of the brain are closely linked together and their communication determines how well you can exhibit discipline and self-control.
The limbic system is the “emotional” part of the brain. It is associated with your motivations, drives and urges. The prefrontal cortex is the “logical” part of the brain which is associated with the cognitive function of rational thought and reasoning. Whenever an emotional response is generated by the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex then interprets the response. This allows the prefrontal cortex to (the best of its ability) produce a behavioral response most appropriate to the situation. Ultimately, it is what “controls” emotions. The more active the prefrontal cortex, the greater the emotional control and stability.
So what does this mean for willpower?
The behaviors that need strong willpower, also need a strong prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, willpower is a limited resource. It is often referred to as being a “muscle”, because it performs as such. Just like your bicep muscle has a limited amount of strength, so does your willpower. But, muscles can be grown and strengthened, and of course, the same applies to willpower.
We all know that exercising your muscles to their limits causes them to gradually grow and become stronger. By exhausting muscles in the short-term, they will growth in the long-term. Willpower can be exercised in very much the same way. The more often you exhaust your willpower temporarily, the stronger your willpower will become over time. Essentially, you will have to push yourself to do things you may not necessarily “feel” like doing (that’s the point).
Doing things only if you “feel” like it means the prefrontal cortex is not getting much exercise. Instead, the limbic system becomes stronger and your behavior is determined by your emotional response. The danger there is, we fall into the trap of indulging ourselves in short-term pleasures that lead to long-term disasters. The most common example of this indulgence is consuming large quantities of unhealthy food. It tastes great, and is no doubt satisfying in the short-term. But in the long-term, it leads to health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (and even mental illnesses). Not so satisfying. So why do we still choose to indulge ourselves with bad food?
It’s pretty logical to avoid the consumption of unhealthy food for the prevention of health problems. But the negative emotions associated with the discomfort of an unsatisfied urge win over when there is a lack of willpower. Ultimately, a greater level of willpower justifies the logic and reasoning behind the temporary discomfort of an unsatisfied urge, for the sake of benefit in the long-run.
Willpower is then simply the ability to discipline yourself and have self-control against the emotional responses that seek instant gratification. This translates to how well you are able to persist through life challenges and achieve success. An example of this is the “Marshmallow Experiment”, a study led by Stanford University professor and psychologist, Walter Mischel, throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these studies, a child was offered a small reward (marshmallow) provided immediately OR a second marshmallow provided they wait approximately 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. Here is a video of this experiment.
In follow-up studies into the children’s adolescence and beyond, researchers found a correlation of better life outcomes associated with the children who were able to wait longer. Those who were able to delay their gratification displayed a trend of better results in SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other measures. Furthermore, researchers scanned the brains of the participants in their adulthood, revealing greater prefrontal cortex activity in those who delayed their gratification whilst the brains of their counterparts revealed greater activity in the limbic system.
So how can you strengthen your willpower?
1. Be aware of your level of willpower.
Understand that your willpower is in limited supply. Thus, when you are mentally exhausted, there’s a greater chance of succumbing to instant gratification. It’s best to plan in preparation for your times of low self-control. For instance, don’t be near the TV or fridge after a long day of studying. It’s also a good idea to space out and prioritize multiple tasks, as trying to do too many things at once will drain your willpower quickly and will make you end up procrastinating.
This type of willpower management has a lot to do with the triggers in your environment that play a very powerful role in your productivity. I’ve taken Zach Browmans “Find Your Focus” program to help battle my own procrastination, and it has helped me immensely in managing my environment in such a way that my willpower is conserved and used appropriately. I recommend the program to anyone having trouble following through with their most important tasks.
2. Exercise your prefrontal cortex
This is done by pushing past the resistance of your emotional response. Try solving a difficult puzzle, and notice when you feel like giving up. Don’t. Instead, push past the resistance and complete the puzzle. Basically, do things (that are good for you) that provoke emotional resistance, and break through that with persistence. Meditation is my favorite. It’s a pretty boring exercise no doubt, but it has amazing benefits in the long run. Sitting quietly, doing nothing for 20 minutes isn’t something most people would enjoy doing, but again, overcoming the emotional response will strengthen the prefrontal cortex. Reading informative books (and comprehending them) is another good way to exercise the cognitive efficiency of your prefrontal cortex.
3. Consume healthy food and do physical exercise.
Food is fuel and the brain happens to use most of it. So, it is essential to have enough energy for your prefrontal cortex to function well. Optimum performance occurs with optimum fuel – i.e. foods rich in vitamins and nutrients help improve the efficiency of cognitive function and thus self-control. Regular physical exercise can be another way to persist against emotional resistance, however it also helps to regulate a balance of biochemistry within the brain that assists in proper brain function.
Hopefully you had enough willpower to read this far. If you want to continue reading about the science of willpower, I recommend “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. It further explores the why and how behind the psychology of willpower in great detail.