Willpower: how it really works, and how to improve it.

This ancient parable a perfect representation of what we call human willpower.

The sun is setting in the middle of the North American desert and an old man is sitting by the fire smoking his pipe.

The red light of the sunset highlights the scars of past battles and the signs of age and wisdom on the face of the old Cherokee. Sitting by his side is a young boy. After a long day the two are just enjoying a bit of rest.

The atmosphere is still and the boy is looking at the man silently waiting for a story.

The old man takes a big puff and while watching the clouds of smoke raising and taking shapes of mystical figures, starts stirring the boy in the eyes.

He knows he doesn’t have that much time left on this planet and he’s willing to teach all he has learned about life to the curious boy with dreamy eyes.

He clears his throat and starts his parable.

Feeding your strengths

“Tonight I want to tell you a story. A story of two wolves.”

“There are two wolves, constantly fighting each other. When the sun rises they meet at the same place and start a furious battle. The bite, pierce, slash and push each other every day until the sun sets, only to get some rest and start again when the sun rises again.”

“One wolf is dark as the night. He gathers strength from evil, pain, suffering, jealousy, resentment and madness. He is relentless and bloodthirsty.”

“The other one is white like mountain snow. He takes his strength from kindness, joy, mercy, calm, reason and wisdom.”

“The two wolves are in a constant fight with one another. Day after day they wake up in the morning and start their fight to only stop after the sun sets to get some rest and start the fight once again the next sunrise.”

“The two wolves are inside the heart of every man. They are inside you and inside me too. They are always there and they are fighting recklessly with one another.”

Shocked but curious the young boy asked the old man:

“And who wins?”

“The one you feed.”
 Answered the old man.

Willpower and the brain

If you read the previous articles of this series you already know that the human brain has three layers that I have named Snake, Monkey and Genius.

To quickly recap the Monkey brain is the center of emotions and temptations.

He likes to keep us entertained with drama, gossip, feelings of anger and frustration and, for some of us planning revenge towards our hateful bosses. The monkey also likes shiny objects, cars, watches, clothes and he loves all sort of quick foods to reward himself.

Guess what?

The dark and fierce wolf of the parable has evolved into the more sophisticated drama-­queen monkey.

On the other hand you have the Genius brain, or prefrontal cortex, which plays the part of the good white wolf that is always here to guide us towards acts of love, wisdom and kindness.

He’s the one responsible for long term planning and “doing the right thing,” even when the Monkey is messing around.

We can now define willpower simply as “the ability to control impulses and do the right thing.”

Scientists would say that the function of the Genius brain is to bias the brain. I personally like to think it as the Genius slapping the Monkey and putting him back to sleep.

Willpower challenge

Let’s take a closer look on what kind of challenges we are going to face in everyday’s life.

The Genius appears to be a resourceful one and armed us with the tools to face three different type of challenges the Monkey is constantly throwing at us.

I will do it

We all know this one. The monkey loves procrastination.

Staying on the sofa rather than going to the gym, ordering pizza rather than cooking, playing games rather than studying, browsing Facebook rather than working on a serious project.

Whenever we know we need to do something but we simply don’t feel like getting started we face the ‘I will’ challenge.

I won’t do it

Here the Monkey becomes a real monster.

Craving for cookies, gambling impulses, Whatsapp romance, keeping chill while the boss is shouting at you or simply going through that one more rep at the gym.

We face ‘I won’t’ challenges when we try to resist temptations or keep cool in stressful situations.

I want

This is a particular type of challenge is where the Genius helps us keep track of what are our long term goals, dreams and desires are.

This is the center of what we call motivation.

You recognize it when you go into dream mode and you know you should take action right now to come one step closer to the goal.

Every willpower challenge is literally a battle between two selves inside our head. You can feel it when a challenge is approaching. The body becomes rigid, eyes wide open and we feel unnaturally tense. The fight is on.

Who’s going to win?

When the Genius wins we feel a deep sense of satisfaction and relief. We feel in line with ourselves, whole and complete, calm and inspired.

When the monkey wins we enjoy the short term pleasure but we end up feeling frustrated, guilty, hopeless and derailed from our true self.

Before going into the practical exercise I need to make clarity about few points

Keep in mind

1) Your willpower depletes throughout the day: there is no escape from this, the longer the day, the easier is to fall into temptation and fail the willpower challenges that we might face.

You know how it goes. A cookie or a beer on the way home, watching tv instead of working on your assignments, going to the pub rather than hitting the gym.

2) A bad sleep will result in a half-full battery: if you ever had a horrible night sleep you know that the day will start on the wrong foot.

My favourite phrase in those days was “don’t talk to me today”.

3) Being ill, physically tired or chronically anxious dramatically decreases willpower. 

Now let’s step to the real deal. Assuming that we don’t have to face situation 1, 2 and 3 and we are in a normal state, there are some practical ways to improve our willpower battery daily.

Train your willpower

1) Rest: this might sound obvious but resting and actually doing nothing in the middle of the day will recharge your battery. No wonder smart companies like Google have napping rooms for their employees.

Here I’m not talking about reading the paper or browsing Facebook. I’m talking about sitting by a tree, reading a fiction book or simply sitting on a chair and do nothing.

2) Physical exercise: this might sound counter intuitive but actually breaking your day with a workout will increase endorphin and serotonin (happy hormones) and leave you recharged.

This assuming you feed yourself with good food straight after.

3) Meditation: it has been proven that meditation has a profound impact on our willpower battery and on the development of the prefrontal cortex. After only 3 non consecutive hours of meditation people have shown more self control and better calm.

After 10 consecutive hours of meditation we could see a thickening of the prefrontal cortex. People that regularly meditate show better reasoning, better self control and improved daily awareness.

Exercise: The breathing space

Rest and exercise are easy to apply for everyone but meditation is a different story. I personally like to take meditation carefully and implement it step by step during your journey towards becoming a high performance individual. A good starting point is the breathing space.

This is a simple exercise that you can do daily or even several times a day to quickly recharge your willpower and make better choices.

It goes like this:

– Stop whatever you were doing and sit on a chair.

– Close your eyes and move your body in a comfortable position with your back straight.

– Start feeling your body in all its touch points. Feet on the floor, hands on the legs, back on the chair.

– Slowly tune in to your breath with eyes closed and focus on the raising and falling sensation.

– Start counting the breaths up to ten. After ten start all again from one.

– When you notice your mind wondering around do not worry too much. Notice it and get back to counting the breaths.

– Repeat the count ten or fifteen times, or if you like better count up to 150. Generally is better to count ten by ten not to lose the count when a thought will arise in your head.

– Open your eyes, stretch and enjoy the sense of calm and peace.

You can use this exercise whenever you want. I personally use it on the tube, after my lunch, or even with eyes open during a long meeting if I notice I’m losing my focus and getting tempted by some sweets on the table.

Getting these willpower exercises into your life will strengthen your willpower battery.  Look out for the next installment in the series and continue reading fascinating articles into the mind and willpower.