Around New Years, we make a lot of promises to ourselves—less procrastination, more exercise, less junk food, more study, and so on. Most of these resolutions involve greater will-power and self control, something we always seem to have in short supply.
Guess what research shows is the number one most powerful technique for strengthening that willpower? A certain kind of simple meditation. And it works even if done badly!
If you are most people, the idea of meditation as a willpower boosting strategy sounds like just about the most unlikely and at the same time, the most difficult technique you can think of. It’s unlikely because meditation conjures up the thought of letting go, relaxation, thinking about nothing—the very opposite of the kind of teeth-clenching, strenuous effort that would seem to strengthen willpower. And it seems most difficult because it seems so contrary to the hyper-scheduled, multi-tasking lifestyle most of us have.
Meditators notice clear improvement in their ability to choose more productive behavior and resist distractions.
But it turns out that the practice of this meditation, even when we are terrible at it, enhances self-awareness and focus, and helps us manage stress and impulsiveness. In fact, this mindfulness meditation measurably increases the grey matter of the part of the brain that we associate with rationality and decision making, the pre-frontal cortex. Ongoing practice seems to continuously heighten blood flow and build it up over time, like a muscle.
And it does this relatively quickly. After about a month of daily practice, new neural pathways connect the relevant parts of the brain. Meditators notice clear improvement in their ability to choose more productive behavior and resist distractions. After two months, there is consistently more self-awareness, and thus more freedom to choose responses and build desired habits, rather than blindly reacting in unwanted ways.
The simple but powerful technique trains the mind to better deal with distractions from outside, like sights and sounds, and from inside, like worries and urges. It also enhances the capacity to cope with pressure.
Here is a basic way how to do it:
Sitting still is the physical side of the training. Avoid squirming and fidgeting. If you feel an itch or other discomfort, try crossing your legs differently or rearranging your arms; see if you can feel an urge or sensation but not give in to it. This simple practice trains you to notice feelings and impulses from the body and brain but not necessarily follow them.
Focus on the breath.
Close your eyes or focus them on a spot on a blank space in front of you. Bring your attention to your breathing. Silently say, “inhale” and “exhale,” as you breathe in and out.
After a while, you can drop the inner verbalizing and just notice the sensation of breathing, the air flowing in and out of your nose and mouth, and the expansion and contraction of your chest and diaphragm. When needed to keep focus, return to the recitation of “inhale” and “exhale.”
Bring the mind back as it wanders.
Inevitably, your mind will wander. When it does, just gently bring it back to focus on the breath.
This is the mental side of the training. The practice of repeatedly corralling the meandering mind by returning it to the here and now, the reality of the breath, is what dramatically strengthens the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of willpower. This grounding practice weakens cravings and anxieties.
The simple act of noticing your mind getting off track and bringing it back is valuable training in self-awareness as well as self-control.
Do this for five minutes a day. You can gradually build up to 10 or 15 minutes, but the important thing is frequency—doing it daily or thereabouts—not duration. Try pairing it with another daily activity if you can, like before coffee or after a shower.
Noticing is the key
You may find that you seem to be bad at this, at least at first. Even while dutifully labeling your inhaling and exhaling, your thoughts may be everywhere else. That’s okay, because it is still having a positive effect. The very act of noticing your wayward thoughts while being mindful of your breathing will help you better recognize what you are thinking and doing throughout the rest of your day. This will lead to making better decisions that align with your goals rather than letting impulses take over.
Kelly McConigal, PhD, shares this story in The Willpower Instinct:
“Andrew found that even when his meditation felt distracted, he was more focused after practicing than if he skipped it. He also realized that what he was doing in meditation was exactly what he needed to do in real life: catch himself moving away from a goal and then point himself back at the goal (in this case, focusing on the breath).
The meditation was perfect practice for when he was just about to order something salty and deep-fried for lunch, and needed to stop and order something healthier. It was perfect practice for when he had a sarcastic comment on his lips and needed to pause and hold his tongue. And it was perfect practice for noticing when he was wasting time at work and needed to get back on track. All day long, self-control was a process of noticing that he was off-goal and redirecting himself to the goal.”
Purpose of Meditation
The purpose of this meditation is not to completely empty the mind, but to learn to notice where the body and mind are. To pause and more consciously respond to the moment rather than mindlessly reacting according to old patterns.
The intention is to train ourselves to be better able to choose what we want to think about and choose our behavior, so that they are in concert with our goals and values. This is the essence of willpower.
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Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.