On a daily basis, I witness my roommates consistently making wrong decisions even when they know what is “right” and make excuses about their actions. These are not weak or incapable individuals, but their lack of willpower has always somewhat interested me. Indeed, the vast majority of the population knows what activities are healthy or enriching for their mind or body and yet they ignore them anyway. Until fairly recently I was not a whole lot better, either. Last summer I spent nights drinking with friends and wasted countless hours in the hangover that followed. I tried to eat right, but I had no motivation to cook or the willpower to consume the foods I needed.
Willpower is More Tangible Than You Think
The term “willpower” is often used in an abstract way to define an ability to resist certain urges. I never considered a scientific approach to willpower until I learned about research performed by Kelly McGonical at Stanford laid out in “The Willpower Instinct.” One of the most interesting findings was the correlation between willpower and sleep deprivation.
In the study, McGonical created two separate groups of hard drug addicts (perhaps the hardest willpower challenge) and performed an experiment to test relapse rates. One group of drug addicts slept for 7 hours, while the other slept for a solid 8 hours. By a correlation of 0.7, the group that slept for 8 hours were able to avoid relapse when compared to those who had only 7 hours of sleep. Analysis of the subjects’ brains indicated that the region most affected by the lack of sleep was the section most responsible for distinguishing between short-term instant gratification and long term goals. Therefore, the weakened brain (due to lack of sleep) was susceptible to making poor choices. In some situations it may be impossible to get 7-8 hours of sleep, but keep in mind what you may be sacrificing if you can’t.
Meditation and Mental Noise
A similar study by McGonical utilized meditation instead of sleep and determined that the relapse rate was further decreased with the addition of this practice. Therefore, it seems at least plausible that willpower is more than an abstraction, but can be physically changed with our habits.
As if the benefits of weren’t evident enough, practicing meditation every day allowed the test subjects to sleep a larger number of hours during the study versus those who did no meditation. As you can see from the previous section, a slight increase in sleep can have profound effects on your willpower portion of the brain. Therefore, practicing meditation has a dual-pronged benefit for improving willpower and motivation.
Still, one may ask why it is that sleep or meditation might make the brain less susceptible to lapses in judgment or willpower. In a presentation entitled “Life with Meaning, Purpose, and Wisdom in the Digital Age,” Eckhart Tolle describes the mental noise that people in the 20th and 21st centuries have become accustomed to. The digital age has made information and knowledge available in great abundance, but this noise can often disable people from accessing primordial parts of the brain that are responsible for creativity and other functions.
This mental noise often manifests itself in responsibilities that have a very real impact on the way people live. From an evolutionary perspective, the adrenal cortisol “flight or fight” response should be turned off and on. Cave men would use the response to survive, but would then allow the body to flush the cortisol out of the system. Modern humans always maintain an underlying level of this response, which is detrimental to our body’s chemistry (not to mention adds weight!).
Helping Solve the Willpower Question
These days there are more responsibilities and a higher access to information and knowledge than ever before. This prevents the brain from getting ample time to reflect, access creative and primordial segments, and organize thoughts / events throughout the day. Sometimes the difference between focused studying, working hard, or maintaining your exercise regimen could be whether or not you get enough sleep. Take a step back from the noise, strengthen your frontal cortex with a few minutes of meditation and willpower will be much easier to maintain. In my experience, it works wonders.