Thursday, September 15, 2011

Increasing Willpower

The ability to resist impulses and delay gratification (or willpower) is highly associated with success in life.

What limits willpower? What enhances it? It might be blood sugar, an essential energy source for brain cells. Most cognitive functions aren’t affected by minor blood sugar fluctuations. Planning and self-control are. 

In essence, exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. This is how diet might play a role in will-power. Certain foods that help regulate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, may enhance willpower for longer periods.

Imagine you have a willpower budget – one that you can spend bypassing temptation or making yourself complete unloved tasks. How you spend your budget is up to you.

The good news? You can increase your budget. Willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, it seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks. Believe it or not, this can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity. People who do this can stick with an exercise program or diet longer. It also reduces impulsive spending, smoking, and eating junk food.

Also, people who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework.

The growth of willpower reflects a biological change in the brain. It could be that the neurons in the frontal cortex (responsible for planning behavior) or in the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with cognitive control) use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Perhaps the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another are produced in larger quantities after they have been used up repeatedly.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower.

May the force be with you.


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