How to Improve Willpower: Train your Brain

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you improve willpower? Are there methods that can help you increase your level of self-control?

While it is true that some people are biologically predisposed to have more self-control due to the size of their prefrontal cortex, that doesn’t mean that those with a smaller prefrontal cortex are doomed. It is possible to improve your willpower ability with some training.

Keep reading if you want to know how to improve willpower.

For Better Willpower, Train Your Brain

No matter what your age, your brain is trainable. For example, if you play memory games, your short-term memory improves. Play the piano and your brain gets faster at reading music. You can also train your brain to get better at self-awareness, which gives you more willpower. One training method that’s particularly effective for how to improve willpower is meditation. 

Willpower Exercise: Develop a Five-Minute Meditation Practice  

If you want to know how to improve your willpower, try meditation. Meditation—a practice of quieting the mind and focusing on the act of breathing—is like a shortcut to willpower. When you develop a meditation practice and stick with it, your brain gets better at impulse control. And it only takes five minutes a day. 

The research: Studies show that people who meditate regularly actually have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Meditation increases blood flow to that part of the brain, which makes it grow and get more efficient at processing. A larger prefrontal cortex makes it easier to handle distractions and make good decisions.  

If you’ve tried meditation before and believe you’re “bad” at it, now’s the time to try again. Consider it an experiment in building willpower. People who believe they are hopeless at meditation are the ones who benefit the most from it. Here are simple instructions for a five-minute daily meditation practice: 

  1. Sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands in your lap and straighten your spine. Now focus on staying still, not fidgeting. Do your best not to adjust your sitting position or scratch an itch. By staying in this one position, you’re training yourself not to follow every impulse that your brain and body come up with. Think of this step as the physical foundation of willpower.
  2. Now that you’re still, close your eyes (or focus your eyes on a single spot on the wall). Pay attention to your breathing. Silently say the words “inhale” and “exhale” as you breathe in and out. Your mind will probably start to wander, but just lead it right back to focusing on your breath. Focusing on the breath ramps up power to the prefrontal cortex and takes energy away from the brain regions that create stress and cravings. 
  3. After a few minutes, stop repeating the words “inhale” and “exhale” as you breathe. Just focus on the sensation of breathing (your belly and chest expanding and deflating, air moving in and out of your nose and mouth) without giving it a name. Turn your attention to the ways your mind wanders, but don’t judge it. Just bring your focus back to your breath. Think of this step as training for self-awareness and self-control. 

Pro tips: When you’re meditating, the goal is not to eliminate your thoughts; the goal is to not let your thoughts rule you. As your mind starts wandering and you lose your focus on your breath, simply bring your focus back. Your brain’s training occurs in the practice of coming back to the breath—not necessarily in staying there

After a few weeks, you may want to increase your meditation time to 10 or 15 minutes a day, but if it starts to feel like a burden or obligation, go back to five minutes. Some people find it’s easier to pick a certain time of day for meditation, like first thing in the morning or right before bed, while others prefer to keep their schedules flexible. See what works best for you

Choose a Willpower Challenge 

Choose a specific willpower challenge that you’d like to tackle. We’ll refer to it as your Personal Willpower Challenge.

As you choose a challenge, keep in mind that self-control consists of three separate functions—I will, I won’t, and I want. Your challenge will fall into one of these categories: 

  • An “I will” challenge is something you aren’t doing now, but you’d like to make a long-term habit. What do you want to do—or do more of—because you know it will make your life better? 
  • An “I won’t” challenge is an existing habit you want to break. What do you want to do less of because it’s not serving your best interests? 
  • An “I want” challenge is a lifelong goal that you’d like to put more effort into, like improving your health or becoming a better parent. You can’t complete this effort in a short period of time—it’s more of an ongoing challenge—but you can take steps in the right direction. 

Learn Your Willpower Pitfalls 

If you want to learn how to improve willpower, you need to know your pitfalls. We’d all like to believe that we have control over our emotions, appetites, and behaviors, but the truth is that accessing our willpower is often a struggle. We’re at odds with ourselves—we want to achieve our long-term goals, but we also want to do what feels good right now. 

Traditional self-help strategies for gaining more self-control are not effective for most people. For example, goal-setting seems like a great strategy, but identifying what we want to achieve is only the tip of the iceberg. Each of us can name dozens of things that we know we should do, but we still don’t do them. 

Instead, take some time to figure out what causes you to give in to temptation and give up on progressing toward your goals. The foundation of all willpower is understanding your own self-control traps and pitfalls. Self-knowledge about how and why you fail at willpower helps you create strategies to succeed. 

Make yourself the subject of your own science experiment, collect your data, and draw your own conclusions about what works best. 

How to Improve Willpower: Train your Brain

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kelly McGonigal's "The Willpower Instinct" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Willpower Instinct summary:

  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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