Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Mindfulness, willpower and achieving our goals


I can resist everything but temptation.

Oscar Wilde

Most of the people I know believe that their lives would be better if they had greater willpower. We all find it far too easy to sit down and watch the telly when we know we should be going out to the gym, or undertaking some other improving activity. There are lots of things that we would like to do more, and others that we would like to do less. Yet somehow, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves unable to find the motivation to keep going when we set out to make some new changes in our lives.

Willpower is one of the things that makes it possible to bring about successful change much more easily. A lack of willpower is the main reason cited when we do not follow through on positive changes in our lives. The American Psychological Association’s annual “Stress in America” survey published in 2011, showed that 27% of respondents reported lack of willpower as being the most significant barrier to bringing about change in their lives. The majority of respondents also believed that willpower was something that they could increase and develop through practice.

This belief has been supported by some recent research. Willpower can be described as the ability to resist short term temptation in the process of reaching for a long term goal. Lack of willpower alone can sometimes be the problem, but there are other elements that are in play when bringing about change.

First, we need to have the motivation to bring about the desired change, we need to see the advantages of making such a change and have the desire to bring it about.

Second, we need to have clear-cut goals which are easy to define as our immediate targets for change.

Finally we need to act in ways that make our goals more likely. It is when we wish to carry through on this goal orientated activity that willpower is brought into play.

Experiments, such as the marshmallow test,have helped to show differences between those people who possess more self-control and those with less. When the University of Pennsylvania conducted experiments on self-control with eighth grade school students, using the option of a dollar now or two dollars later, they discovered that those who had higher scores on these tests of self-discipline had better grades, attended school more regularly, and achieved higher scores on standardised school tests.

Consequently these students were much more likely to be admitted to competitive high school programs and to achieve their educational aims more easily. The researchers discovered that self-discipline or willpower, was much more important a predictor of academic success than the students’ scores on IQ tests.

Interestingly, in another study carried out at Duke University, 1000 inhabitants of Dunedin in New Zealand were tracked from birth to age 32. Those individuals who showed higher levels of self control in childhood matured into adults with greater physical and mental health, greater financial security, and much lower incidences of substance abuse or legal involvement. A third study of college students correlated self-control with higher grades, lower incidences of alcohol abuse, and much better relationship skills.

The evidence would suggest that willpower and self-control underlie many of the behaviours and skills needed to perform well  in many areas of our daily lives. It is the lack of such self-control that leads to many of our customary problems with sitting on the couch, staying up too late, eating too many chocolates, and generally doing things we know are not in our best interests.

Much of the research suggests that willpower is a limited resource. We all have a certain amount of self-control available to us at any particular time, and this needs to be used sensibly. There are many experiments that demonstrate this, one of my favourites is the radish/cookie experiment. In this experiment the subjects were divided into two groups, each of which had to sit in front of a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. Each group had to look at, taste, smell, and generally examine the plates that they were allocated. This meant that one group of people got to eat the biscuits, while the other was required to do the same for the plate of radishes and at the same time had to resist eating or smelling the biscuits.

They were then asked to complete a difficult task solving a complex puzzle. The group that had already had to exert more self-control in resisting tasting or eating the chocolate biscuits, gave up more easily, with less perseverance on the difficult problem. Several studies of a similar nature have also supported this finding.

This is a useful fact to remember, especially when we are tired, or have had a difficult day, as it means that we are more likely to be in a situation where we make decisions based on our reduced willpower. One of the reasons it is never advisable to go shopping in the supermarket when we are hungry. This may also explain why many people act out of character, becoming aggressive or sexually impulsive when they are under stress.

So it would be sensible to exercise our willpower deliberately, and to anticipate those periods where our self-control may be impaired, and to put in place plans for dealing with this. It is interesting to discover that the more we exercise our willpower, the greater our ability to use it becomes. In many ways willpower acts like a muscle, short-term intensive use may lead to the muscle becoming temporally weakened due to exhaustion, but with repetition the strength and endurance of the muscle becomes enhanced.

For this reason, it may be sensible to exercise our willpower in a deliberate fashion. Perhaps by stretching ourselves by trying to solve difficult puzzles, and encouraging ourselves to keep going at them. Tis his perhaps why people attempt  fiendish Sudoku. It is also important to have a sensible balanced diet, glucose being one of the main fuel sources of energy for the brain and is necessary if we are to exert sensible self-control.

In developing willpower, it can be helpful to choose one area of our life on which to practice. It is a great help to involve friends and family, in a supportive way, to help us adjust or create new habits. A public commitment is one way to drive forward our intentions.

Willpower is a resource that comes from both the brain and the body, and represents a reaction to an internal conflict. The conflict lies between a short term demand or desire and a longer term outcome. Often it is the balance between something we know we shouldn’t really be doing, at the cost of something we need to do. Which may explain why a lot of us would rather watch the television than fill in our tax returns.

Willpower is one of the brain’s executive functions, and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, unfortunately it is a resource that is limited at any one time. We can use it up on many things from deciding not to have another cigarette to deciding not to speed when driving.

There are several steps we can take with the intention of giving ourselves a greater supply of willpower.

1. Concentrate on learning how to manage stress more effectively. High levels of stress use up the brain’s energy, and by generating higher levels of anxiety leads to a focus on a much shorter time scale and we make decisions based on short-term outcomes. After all the stress response, is designed to keep us alive when we are under threat by triggering a fight or flight response. Even stopping to take a few deep breaths or to look out of the window when we start to feel overwhelmed can be a great start in helping to reduce stress and therefore in increasing our available willpower.
2. Encourage ourselves to stick to our plan. There are two ways that are particularly useful here. As I mentioned earlier, letting friends and family know our intent, can make it harder for us to let either ourselves or other people down. This can greatly strengthen our resolve and make success more likely. A second way that helps, is to change the way we talk about ourselves. Instead of saying “I can’t have a cigarette,” we should instead say “I don’t smoke”. Instead of trying to practice meditation every day we should describe ourselves someone who meditates every day. By using a more positive phraseology, we encourage our brain to see things in a more positive way.
3. Getting more sleep will help our brain function more effectively. Fatigue contributes to poor decision-making, and this is one of the main contributors to road traffic accidents and other industrial errors. Even a few nights poor sleep causes impairment of the prefrontal cortex which recovers once we have repaid the sleep debt.
4. Regular meditation has also been demonstrated to improve the reserves of willpower. This has been demonstrated after practising for 20 minutes a day for as little as eight weeks. One study has even suggested meditating or practising mindfulness for as few as four occasions can also show some benefit. This will also contributes to improvements in our focus, attention, self awareness, and stress management.
5. Looking after ourselves with better nutrition and regular exercise is perhaps one of the most ignored ways of improving our general mental health and psychological functioning. Brisk walking for as little as 20 minutes three or four times a week, has shown benefits to our resilience, willpower, and ability to manage stress the old saying of a healthy mind in a healthy body is here. Part of the benefits may well be due to endorphin release leading to a greater sense of well-being resulting in improved concentration.
6. Choosing deliberately, to postpone doing something that we know we should not be doing, can be particularly effective if we are trying to break a bad habit. The popularity of so-called Fast diets relies on our being able to do this to a greater or lesser extent. As the diet allows us to eat normally on non-fasting days it makes it easier to eat less on two days a week.

Being mindful, that is becoming aware of our emotions and thoughts, and the interrelationship between them, helps us to become more able to spot the relationship between our mental states, our ability to exert willpower, and our general experience at the time. Practising mindfulness will help us stay more relaxed, will make it much easier to get a full night’s sleep, and reduce the effects of stress on our bodies.

With regular practice we will become much better at controlling our impulses and can train our willpower to be both stronger and more effective.

Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

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