Pump Up Your Willpower Muscle
One of my New Year's resolutions was to cut down on (with a goal of cutting out completely) my late-afternoon Starbucks decaf iced mochas. Some days I hardly think about having one; other days I start craving one and can't stop thinking about it -- like an icy mirage in the distance, topped with whipped cream. When I give in, it tastes delicious, but then I feel mad at myself for having no willpower.
But from a new book by Kelly McGonigal (shown above), I've learned why my cravings are different, depending on the kind of day I'm having. In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, McGonigal spells out in layman's terms why my cravings and subsequent guilt are completely normal, and why taking better charge of my life -- and being kinder to myself -- will result in better self-control.
McGonigal, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford University, says boomers are particularly hard-hit by conflicts involving willpower. "In my experience, they expect a lot of themselves and are also under incredible stress," she said in a phone interview. "They are taking care of both their grown kids and their aging parents -- and stress makes self-care a lot more difficult."
McGonigal, who teaches psychology at Stanford as well as health education courses for the School of Medicine's Health Improvement program, discovered in her work that much of what people think about willpower actually undermines their efforts. Rather than seeing self-control as a virtue, like charity, she encourages her students to understand it as a biological function. Her research has shown that willpower is like a muscle, and therefore subject to fatigue.
How does your self-control wear thin? Of course, via the myriad moments of temptation that come in any given day -- avoiding the donut in favor of the bagel, not even thinking about flirting with that attractive co-worker. But McGonigal found we also lose our willpower because of more subtle pressures: decision overload, having too many to-dos on our lists, beating ourselves up after we fail, failing to sleep well, and, of course, failing to eat well.
"It's so much about eating," says McGonigal. "Proper food is what our brain systems evolve around."
Many people -- myself included -- are emotional eaters and use carbs (or that iced mocha) as rewards for a particularly grueling day.
"That is very common," she says, "but ultimately unrewarding. Instead of something unhealthy, we need more self-care or connection with others, or rest or recovery."
She also says that how we handle the guilt when our willpower fails us is critical to pushing on and continuing to strive for a better lifestyle.
"Most of us use guilt or shame to motivate ourselves, but there is ample evidence that when you're hard on yourself, it does the opposite. If you're on a diet and feeling bad about yourself for eating a donut, the brain makes you think you'll feel better if you do it again. And there is something about the stress, shame and self-doubt that also undermines the part of the brain that helps you think clearly about your long-term goals. The key to breaking the chain is being able to flip that switch. Just a brief moment of self-compassion will do it."
So what can we do to increase our willpower? Actually, quite a lot, she says. Some of McGonigal's recommendations:
Learn to meditate.
McGonigal writes: "Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness." And, fantastically, it doesn't take a lifetime of sitting zazen -- research has shown that the brain can mend itself and show improved attention powers after just three hours.
[Related story: New Book Reveals Surprising Benefits of Meditation]
Learn breath control.
This is one you can do even as you work. Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute -- slower than you normally breathe. This helps your brain shift away from stress to self-control mode. "A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm and in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges," she writes.
Get enough sleep.
If you're getting by on fewer than six hours per night, you are likely more susceptible to stress, cravings and other temptations. Lack of sleep also makes it more difficult to control your emotions and focus on your goals because it impairs your brain's ability to deal with glucose.
That iced mocha might give me immediate gratification and even focus, but, notes McGonigal, the downside is hazardous to my health. Giving in to a sugar craving can lead to "self-control crash-and-burn," she writes. "Blood sugar spikes and crashes can interfere with the body and brain's ability to use sugar." Instead, she recommends high-energy, low-glycemic foods like lean proteins, nuts and beans, high-fiber grains and cereals, and fruits and veggies.
[Related story: 5 Ways to Tame Your Sweet Tooth]
Think long-term consequences rather than short-term pleasures.
If you can think of whatever temptation you're considering as if it's a cigarette or something equally harmful to your long-term health, the temptation will be less acute.
Set small, realistic goals.
Whatever goal you set for yourself, cut it in half, McGonigal recommends. If you vow to lose 30 pounds, shoot for 15. Set a goal to exercise once or twice a week instead of every day if you're just starting to work out. "Setting small goals will give you small successes that will motivate you to continue," she notes.
OK, let me revamp my New Year's resolutions: I shall get more sleep; I shall breathe deeply. I shall meditate and try to de-stress. And then maybe that iced mocha mirage will disappear.
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