Mindfulness – A Boon for Willpower
If you are sincerely working on your personal growth journey and have spent time already on the subject, I assume that you’d already be aware about the huge advantages of mindfulness meditation. Nowadays, mindfulness is not something that is restricted only to spiritual journey of some Buddhist monks meditating under the trees in some part of the eastern world. The role of meditation in our lives is proven to have expanded way beyond and is now encompassing the general well-being of human beings across the world. The western countries, through enough scientific research, have proven to have immensely benefitted from mindfulness in reducing stress and anxiety, and improving the functions of the mind and quality of human life.
If you are new to the concept, let’s briefly talk about it. Mindfulness, in simple terms, is a process of travelling inside your body and mind and enhancing your awareness about the ongoing thoughts and emotions within yourself. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and is accredited for bringing the concept of mindfulness to the western world defines it as below:
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
The benefits of mindfulness have already been proven by the neuroscientists in various studies. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, used MRI technology to look at very fine and detailed brain structures to observe the inner physical changes in the brain while a person is performing a certain task, including yoga and meditation.
For her study18, she engaged people who had never meditated before and put them through a mindfulness-based stress reduction training program, where they took a weekly class and were told to perform mindfulness exercises, including body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation, every day for thirty to forty minutes. Lazar wanted to test the participants for positive effects of mindfulness meditation on their psychological well-being and alleviating symptoms of various disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorder, insomnia, and chronic pain.
After eight weeks, she found that the brain volume increased in many regions:
i. Hippocampus: a seahorse-shaped structure responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotions.
ii. Temporoparietal Junction: the area where temporal and parietal lobes meet and that is responsible for empathy and compassion.
On the other hand, the one area whose brain volume decreased was:
iii. Amygdala: an almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response as a reaction to a threat, whether real or only perceived.
Above research literally shows the physical changes in the brain and how this can help to improve your behaviours and emotions, and thus the overall well-being. Now coming more specifically to the subject of this book, meditation turns out to be a really wonderful tool for enhancing willpower, as evidenced by the scientific research again. Kelly McGonigal, psychologist, researcher, and author of the book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, explains the benefits of meditation:
Neuroscientists have now found that when we make ourselves sit and instruct our brain to meditate, not only it gets better at meditating, but it develops a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Science tells that people who meditate regularly for longer periods have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as other regions of the brain that support self-awareness.
She further explains that you don’t need a lifetime of meditation to see the results and explains intense meditation for few hours shows great results. She states:
Some researchers have started to look for the smallest dose of meditation needed to see benefits.... One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain. It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it.
If someone has any myth or different beliefs about mindfulness or its benefits, there is enough evidence out there now to debunk any such false beliefs or myths about it. It only makes sense to develop a habit of mindfulness in our daily lives to reap the benefits of mindfulness for developing stronger willpower and improve the quality of our lives.
One of the most common techniques to do meditation is to sit silently with your spine erect and focus on your breath only as anchor to observe regularly. This practice slowly enhances your consciousness and calms your mind and you can start doing it daily for ten minutes only. For beginners, you can do it with some guided meditation available through many free smartphone apps like Headspace, Calm, and Welzen. In one of my books, The Mindful Mind, I have explained in much detail the various aspects of mindfulness, including debunking the myths related thereto, various philosophies from meditation and non-meditation perspective, the much detailed benefits as confirmed by neuroscience, and how someone can get started immediately.
Quality Sleep Boosts Willpower
There is enough research now to establish that if you consistently compromise and deprive yourself from the required number of sleep hours every night, you are already in the grip of stress and anxiety. You probably don’t know what full willpower looks like if you are in constant state of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation studies repeatedly show a variable (negative) impact on mood, cognitive performance, and motor function due to an increasing sleep propensity and destabilization of the wake state. Specific neurocognitive domains, including executive attention, working memory, and divergent higher cognitive functions are particularly vulnerable to sleep loss
Lack of sleep saps willpower because if you are sleep deprived then your cells feel trouble absorbing glucose from the main bloodstream. This lack of glucose makes them under-fueled and exhausted. You may want to compensate this lack of sleep through sugar or coffee, but since your cells are already tired, they can’t absorb the glucose out of this fuel. You’d have known by now that exercising self-control in the form of resisting temptation or otherwise is one of the most energy-consuming tasks of the brain. In such tired situations, our brain wants to conserve the energy for the body’s normal operations, as there is low stock of energy, and the brain wants to retain enough for any emergency situation.
Our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions like focus, memory, and making decisions, suffers the most due to this lack of energy caused by sleep deprivation. Physiologically, self-control happens in the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain and requires glucose as a fuel. Sleep deprivation has the similar effect as happens in mild intoxicated state of mind, and in this situation it is very difficult to exercise any self control. The studies also suggest that sleep loss produces temporary changes in cerebral metabolism, cognition, emotion, and behaviour that is something equivalent to mild prefrontal dysfunction19
There is also some study20 that shows that sleep-deprived people have tendency to higher level of unethical behaviour. The study showed that there was a shortfall of twenty-two minutes of sleep between those who cheated and those who didn’t. Also, in another study, researchers have found that a lack of sleep leads to deviant behaviour at work, similarly because of decrements in self-control. They found that a lack of sleep matters; those who slept six hours or fewer were more likely to engage in deviant work behaviours than those who slept more than six hours. Many of the deviant work behaviours they examined, such as falsifying receipts, would also be considered unethical behaviour. Thus, their research findings support the idea that sleep is crucial for ethics in the workplace. The reason is attributable to lack in willpower and self-control abilities due to lack of sleep, as already explained in the study above.
If you are truly sincere about boosting your willpower, focus on ensuring that you get the right quantity and quality of sleep every night. You would ask how much sleep you would need, and how to ensure a quality sleep.
Notably, National Sleep Foundation in its study21 about sleep time duration and recommendations came out with below results about the minimum number of hours of sleep requirement for people of different age groups.
The study panel agreed that, for healthy individuals with normal sleep, the appropriate sleep duration should be as follows:
◦ for newborns, between 14 and 17 hours;
◦ infants, between 12 and 15 hours;
◦ toddlers, between 11 and 14 hours;
◦ preschoolers, between 10 and 13 hours;
◦ school-aged children, between 9 and 11 hours;
◦ teenagers, between 8 to 10 hours
◦ 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults, and
◦ 7 to 8 hours of sleep for older adults.
How to get quality sleep
It is not only the hours of sleep that matter, rather you should ensure that you get a quality of sleep. Sleep is not a robotic process that will immediately get you to sleep. You have to create a right atmosphere to get quality sleep. Here is what Dr. Deepak Chopra, the author of best-selling book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, suggests some great tips22 for getting a restful night’s sleep:
• Eat only a light meal in the evening, before 7:30 if possible (while the timing portion may be difficult to follow for someone, at least for me, I agree that one should have lesser portion of meal, so that your brain is not spending all its energy on digestion of the food).
• Go for a leisurely walk after dinner.
• Be in bed by 10 p.m.
• Take down your thoughts from the day in a journal before going to bed so that your mind doesn’t keep you awake.
Also, in his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson has explained that the time between 10 p.m. to 12 midnight is the best time to get in your bed. After that time, you’ll find it very difficult to get into sleep mode.
Move Your Body & Generate Willpower at Will
You have already heard that most of the wonderful things in the life come at no cost or so inexpensive that anyone can afford it. Your breath, smile, walk, being mindful are all freely available to you. One simple habit of infusing physical exercise in your day to day life has the potential to improve your self-control to a large extent. Exercise’s effects are not merely restricted to keeping your body fit, they have overarching advantages for mental strength as well.
There was a study conducted by Australian scientist Megan Oaten in which she told a few men and women ranging from age eighteen to fifty to exercise regularly for a period of two months—nothing like a medical prescription or some other complex scientific experiment. The results after two months of exercise were more than stunning—these people reduced their habit of smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake significantly after the two months period. There were many other behaviour changes. They were spending less time on watching TV and studying more. They were able to control their impulse to spend money on unnecessary things.
Some research23 on Australian adults even say that people who don’t do physical exercise have chances of dying earlier as compared to people who do exercise. Now, this even gives you a much bigger reason to exercise, and it gives you double advantage—one, you will improve your longevity and secondly, it will improve your self-control abilities.
Kelly McGonigal in her book Willpower Instinct explains the wonderful benefits of exercise on the self-control:
Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac.
Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other.
Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.
McGonigal recommends moving out of your normal place regularly to develop your willpower muscle. She calls this a five-minute green willpower fill-up and suggests that just five minutes of green exercise reduces stress, improves mode, enhances focus, and boosts self-control. Exercising outside in short spurts have a more powerful impact than longer workouts in indoor gyms or healthclubs.
Use Cold Shower – To Strengthen Your Willpower Muscle
Taking cold showers is in itself an exercise of the willpower muscle. Of course, muscles get fatigued by exercise, but it is only through the exercise that they get stronger in the long run.
When you are about to enter into a cold shower for the first time, each cell of your body will scream and resist you from entering into the water. But you go ahead and get under the shower. This courage of getting into the shower in itself is your first victory of the day over your mind, and this is strong exercise for your willpower muscle.
Tony Robbins states that he starts his day by jumping into a cold water pool. There are scientifically backed up various benefits as well to this exercise. One study24 shows that cold showers help to relieve symptoms of depression. Due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, taking a cold shower sends an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which can result in an anti-depressive effect. Also, cold showers tend to improve the tolerance to the stress stimuli. Cold showers help to improve the quality of sleep and that’s the reason insomniacs are often recommended to take cold showers.
You see, cold showers give immense benefits for better mental health and helps you to sleep properly—with better sleep and reduction of stress (remember stress eats willpower), you improve your self-discipline muscles.
Don’t Break the Chain
Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian was once asked the secret of his craft and how he comes up with so many original jokes, as reported in one news article. The young reporter who asked Jerry wanted to know the secret of his productivity and creativity. Jerry took this person behind the stage after his performance. Then Jerry told him that in order to be a better comedian, one has to create better jokes and to create better jokes, you have to write jokes every day.
Jerry told that there is a unique way that helps him to stimulate the daily working on the jokes. He apprised the young man that he used a unique big calendar on his wall, which shows all the days of the year printed on it. Then he used a red magical marker. You will know in a second why this was a magical marker. Jerry further said that each day when he wrote his jokes for the day, he used to put a red big cross on that day.
"After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain." This is how Jerry explained the magic of putting big red crosss on the calendar and making a chain.
Above is such a small routine, but this creates a new neuropathway in your brain that triggers you to take that action everyday without fail. Because the consistent red big cross marks forming a chain gives you sense of reward, and you want to continue to enjoy that reward.
That’s how established writers use the principle of writing a specified number of words on regular basis. I know few writers, who maintain an Excel spreadsheet with dates of every month. They write on that sheet daily the number of words typed on a particular day. This specific practice, while on one hand develops a chain, as explained above, but the additional benefit of measuring their progress in specific number of words helps them to see the previous records. This motivates them to write more and create more quality work because quantity eventually creates quality.
With initial few weeks of self-control (that is needed to build any habit), you give yourself the advantage of seeing a continuity of actions in the form of chain. This chain ties not only your actions, but ties you as well to not miss marking that red big cross on your calendar.
Start Your Day by Eating the Frog
Brian Tracy, in his best-selling book, Eat that Frog advised that the very first thing in the morning that you should do is eat the ugliest frog. By ugliest frog, he intends to means your difficult but high-value activity, which, if done, will be a significant achievement for the day and other activities will seem comparatively of lesser importance.
In my journey as an author, one of the hardest parts is being creative and writing a massive number of words on paper. Therefore, I have chosen for myself to write a specified numbers of hours or a specified number of words on daily basis, first thing in the morning. After writing for a dedicated period or number of words, it generates a sense of satisfaction that now I have handled a difficult and one of the most important tasks; and therefore, I can start working smoothly on the other projects.
Why is it advisable to do that and not just simply start your day by checking your emails or social media posts? It is because when you wake in the morning, after a full night of sleep, your energy levels and willpower are at its peak. But, as you know the concept of willpower depletion, you lose willpower when you go further in your day. Therefore, the “eat that frog” principle is not a empty rhetoric, rather it has biological basis behind it.
You will get two benefits out of this habit of handling the difficult task first. You will develop your willpower muscle by doing the things that are most difficult (like cold shower example), but an important one. By some initial period of self-discipline, you will develop a habit of handling your most important tasks first. With that, you will see that the latter part of your days goes quite smoothly. You work on other projects fast, as you have set the momentum of the day, and don’t get into stressful environments.
You don’t need to immediately start on all of the strategies stated in this section. Just start building one or two habits that resonate most with you, as a part of your routine. You will realize some improvements in your self-control abilities in a matter of few weeks, as you see them in your behaviour and action.
If you are sincere and willing to learn the self-discipline strategies followed by one of the toughest armed forces in the world, the next section will unravel how these soldiers build their mental toughness and willpower to come out victorious in extremely difficult situations.