Many of us seem to think that willpower is a moral trait. We tell ourselves that we are “bad” because we just can’t seem to control ourselves when we want to. But research is now showing us that willpower is much more like a muscle — that we can train it to get stronger.
Meditate. Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day has been found to boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making. “Paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, what’s going on in your body, your mind, and all around you, can make it easier to tune in to choices you make several hundred times a day when it comes to eating,” says health psychologist Kelly McGonigal who teaches a class on the science of willpower at Stanford University.
Breathe. Kelly also suggests that one way to immediately boost willpower is to breathe. Breathing slow breaths — taking 10-15 seconds per breath — helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. Try this for a few minutes and see if you don’t feel calmer, more in control and capable of handling cravings or challenges.
Exercise. Another big boost to self-control comes from regular exercise. In countless studies, exercise has been shown to improve self-control, reduce cravings and act as a powerful antidepressant.
But what do you do if you are trying to use your self-control to start meditation or keep exercising?
It is important to remember that willpower is a limited resource — each of us only has so much of it. Like a muscle that gets tired, our self-control strength gets sapped by the many decisions, distractions, and stresses we face. You may need to think about what you need to let go of before you think about adding something new.