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How to strengthen your will power and self-control

Will power seems like an old-fashioned notion to many people now - a Victorian 'stiff upper lip' thing. But having the ability to hold ourselves back from behaviours, a habit or a thought, is a tremendous skill and there are ways to improve it – build up your 'mental muscle'.

Recently I heard an interview with Professor Roy Baumeister – author of the book 'Willpower', concerning the science of self-control.

Regular readers of my newsletter will know the emphasis I place on mindfulness in my therapy; not just being in the present moment, but also to use the 'observational self' (as I call it) to make decisions about what we choose to do or think about in our lives – so in this context it could also be thought of as will power or self-control.

So what does science have to tell us about self-control?

Studies show that it takes energy to exercise will power or self-control, so you need to manage your energy including eating properly and getting a good night's sleep.

It also shows that our willpower/self-control wears off as the day progresses – also it becomes harder to make decisions. For example a study in Israel of sentences from judges regarding granting parole to those who are convicted, showed there was less chance of parole as the day he went on.

Why do some people just seem to have more willpower/self-control than others?

This is an interesting question. Science shows us that there is actually a gene for self-control (so it begins very early on in life) and that gene exists in about 50% of people. We have adapted this way because when we are low in energy we are vulnerable and so may need to fight or hunt – so modern humans can't suppress uncontrollable emotions and anger. Emotions and anger regulation are more difficult when energy is depleted (hence the saying 'tired and emotional'). It's interesting to note that in evolutionary terms genetically aggressive people had more offspring (survival of the fittest?).

The gene is nicknamed 'the warrior gene' (officially called MAOA). Those with a high functioning 'warrior gene' were found to have better emotion regulation; their connection between their limbic brain and their pre-frontal cortex was stronger, they were able to control this function better. This is sometimes called 'the inhibitory Loop' (an actual neural pathway in the brain).

Those having a low-functioning 'warrior gene' had inefficient emotion regulation and found it much harder to inhibit – or stop themselves from emotion or anti-social behaviour. But it's not only genetic, nurture plays a part too.

Those exposed to a traumatic childhood (victims of abuse for example), tend to have a lower functioning MAOA gene and are therefore more at risk of antisocial behaviour.

Dr Tom Denson (School of Psychology University of New South Wales) suggests a way to consciously build willpower/self-control through neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change). He suggests training yourself by forcing yourself to use your non-dominant hand (instructions below). This ability generalises from stopping yourself from automatically reaching out with your dominant hand to self-control generally. Professor Roy Beaumeister agrees. He says building willpower/self-control "alters your brain to control your responses".

Freewill/self-control could be an important skill to develop not just for individuals but society as a whole. Those without it tend to:

  • Be indecisive
  • Not do as well at school
  • Have more traffic accidents
  • Make less money
  • Be less popular
  • Get arrested
  • Express greater prejudice
  • Have more anxiety

These are all very good reasons to encourage willpower/self-control especially in children and young people. Just taking a deep chest breath and letting it out slowly when you're 'hot under the collar', frustrated or angry can make a big difference, as can teaching them Mindfulness.

Also, as Daniel Goleman pointed out in his book 'Emotional Intelligence', our limbic or emotional brain can tear everything away from our smart brain leaving us in a state of massive reactivity (Goleman called it an 'emotional hijack'). Until the rational brain kicks in again we can be at the mercy of this process (see below for the 6 second breath).

The ethical question: being genetically pre-disposed to have less willpower/self-control doesn't mean it should be used as an excuse for violent or destructive behaviour, and this is reflected in our rule of law.

Can you overdo willpower/self-control? Mastering this skill doesn't mean never letting your emotions out or expressing them. This can lead to distressing results. Expressing emotions (including anger) in an assertive, appropriate way is essential.

What to do

  1. You have more willpower/self-control in the morning – so if you have an important decision to make or have to exercise self-control for a particular task or a brave conversation – try to do it as early in the day as possible (especially when confrontation is involved – do NOT do it last thing at night). Professor Beaumeister says "You have the most willpower after eating and 'sleeping on it'".
  2. Don't try and give up more than one thing at a time (conserve your 'mental energy') – for example if you drink and smoke and you want to give them both up – decide what to give up first. Giving things up is stressful.
  3. Take care of yourself in the time leading up to menstruating, especially if you get PMS. Irritability and feeling unwell can weaken your willpower/self-control and you tend to have less energy at this time.
  4. You can build your mental muscle by doing this experiment:
    - Use your non dominant hand (by holding back from using your dominant hand you learn to inhibit or hold back from reaching with your dominant hand – this physically alters your brain and builds up your willpower/self-control
    - Do it for up to 2 weeks
  5. Improve your posture – this gives you confidence. A simple posture correction is to lift up the cleft between your collarbones (called the Manubrium). Body language not only affects others it affects us too.
  6. Meditation/Mindfulness - it helps you to:
    - Control the flow of your thoughts
    - Be in the present moment
    - Be still
    - Choose your response (instead of reacting)
    All of these require self-control.
  7. The six second breath. When you find yourself 'losing it' take a deep chest breath, hold it for three and let it out for three – this helps to reconnect the rational brain with the limbic brain.

So good luck with your mental gymnastics – build that mental muscle and improve your willpower/self-control.

More resources

Listen to Lynne Malcolm's interview with Professor Roy Beaumeister on ABC Radio National Sunday 28 December 2014, or read the transcript.

Roy Beaumeister's book 'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' with John Tierney, is published by Allen Lane, paperback by Penguin

Roy Baumeister's YouTube video on 'Willpower: Self-Control, Decision Fatigue, and Energy Depletion'.

'Change Your Hand, Change Your Mood!' - a podcast by Dr Thomas Denson from the University of New South Wales, School of Psychology.

'Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ' by Daniel Goleman is published by Bloomesbury Publishing