Power of will
Do you set resolutions after New Years? Do you make plans and promises to yourself that you will quit smoking, start exercising on a regular basis, or eat better? Do you create a perfect, foolproof plan and set a starting date, but never actually get on board, or quit after just a couple of days? Have you ever said something like: I would like to do this, but I don’t have enough willpower to do so? I am sure you have done it, we all have. There is nothing wrong with you. Before you start calling yourself names like useless, lazy, unable to commit, or just straight up stupid, keep reading. We all can achieve anything we put our mind to, we just need to learn how to adjust our mindset and cultivate our habits. Willpower is like a muscle in a way. The more you use it and train it, the stronger it gets. Some people say it takes approximately 30 days for an individual to actually create a habit. But it all starts in the brain.
There is a part of our brain, located just behind the forehead, called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain has a few specific and important functions. All the information about our personality is located in this area. It is also linked to our decision making process, the ability to determine right from wrong, good from bad, and important from insignificant things and situations we face every day. Also, our prefrontal cortex holds something we can simply describe as a pool of willpower. Every single decision we make each day requires some mental energy. Unfortunately, this imaginary pool is not bottomless.
Getting up in the morning can be a challenge for some people. Think about how often you use that five-more-minutes mantra before you drag your body out of your warm, cozy bed. If you are assigned with an unpleasant task at work, you might feel like you really want to punch your boss in the face, and it also takes a lot of willpower not to do so, because we just don’t do such things. On your way home from work, you pass the candy store and it really really tempts you to go in and get a bag of your favorite candy, but you promised yourself you are done with sugar, so you resist and keep walking, but even this drains a bit off your tank. You arrive home, tired from work, with no motivation left, and you eat all the cookies in the pantry while watching TV instead of the yoga class and stir fry you planned to go to earlier in the day when your reserve of willpower was higher.
There is no extra willpower for dieting, extra willpower for work, or an extra special portion of willpower for exercising. There is just ONE tank of it in your brain and when you run out of it that given day, you have no more left to stop you from indulging more comfortable habits and cravings. It is not your fault, but it is in your control. Your willpower pool refills during recovery and rest periods, and most significantly during sleep. That is why the next morning you are able to get up and go to work again; your imaginary tank has been refilled. When you are stressed, sleep deprived, work a job you hate or push yourself into a diet you don’t enjoy, you burn through your supply of willpower very quickly, and without an adequate amount of quality sleep, your willpower supply gets weaker, and your brain and body both suffer.
As mentioned earlier, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our personality expression, and when its overworked and tired out by long-term deprivation, our personality may change significantly for a certain period of time. People with a brain injury after an accident might find their personality permanently altered if their prefrontal cortex was damaged. We are no longer nice and sweet, patient and optimistic; we can become angry, depressed, hypersensitive, hating the whole world, and even make poor decisions and choices. An overworked prefrontal cortex could be responsible for you being out of control with the cookie jar, for those two cigarette packs you went through last night, or for yelling at your boss hysterically, even though you are known as a quiet and polite person in your office. When I was sleep deprived for four days a few years ago, I was depressed and desperate, and as a result of that I went to the bathroom and cut my bangs off completely (oh, those impulsive, bad decisions; it took me so long to grow them back out!). I regretted it instantly, but it was so out of my control. Some people compare this chaotic state of mind to being drunk. Your behavior is more or less altered and you tend to do things you would not normally even think of doing. Just because you haven’t had enough rest to properly recharge!
You might be nodding to yourself and thinking this is so me! You are not alone in this, this is a fight many of us struggle with. It might seem like you have to fight with your own brain, but you actually have to stay on its side in order to win yourself some peace of mind. First of all, you need to address your sleeping habits. As little as three nights in a row of poor sleep can mess with your brain. And no, you can’t catch up on your sleep later or sleep in advance. Just like you can’t let your body starve for days and think you will eat later and make up for it, you can’t deprive your brain of the precious rest it needs. If you study and stay up late to cram as much information as possible in your head, you are robbing your brain of the important NREM sleep it needs to actually store that knowledge, converting it from short to long-term memory. In our last post about sleep, we looked into some tips for sleep-deprived people; make sure to read it and apply those tips to your everyday life. Sleep is so underrated and overlooked, but it might be the key ingredient that is missing in many peoples recipe for good mental and physical health.
Another thing you might want to look into is actually working on creating a habit. With tough decisions we have to make every day, adding more changes into the equation can be difficult at first. If you have a hard time getting up in the morning, try going to bed earlier at night; getting enough sleep could make your morning routine not as challenging for you. Try creating a habit from those activities you don’t necessarily feel like doing. You brush your teeth automatically, right? Washing your hands comes naturally to you. Both of these were things you were probably trained to do as a child. Rather than pushing yourself to do something uncomfortable, find something you will actually enjoy and look forward to, so you don’t have to talk yourself into it every day, pushing yourself into that specific task, not having fun with it. You would like to move more, but you hate running? Don’t push yourself into marathon training! Pick something more fun to you instead, something you think you might enjoy. It can be yoga, weight lifting, rock climbing, playing a team sport, dance lessons, or a trampoline class. Try it for a while and if you hate it, don’t sweat it and change your training program. If you don’t like exercise that actually feels like exercise, but you still want to get some physical activity, get yourself a canine friend (or ask your neighbor if you can walk his dog) and take him for a walk every day. Quitting smoking cold turkey might work for some, but if you spend all day thinking about how much you miss lighting a cigarette with your post-lunch coffee, and this mental image consumes your energy and blurs your mind all day, maybe slowly reducing smoking will work better for you.
The same thing can apply when cultivating healthy eating easing into it can help you create a healthy habit step by step. Start with healthy options for breakfast, after a week add lunches, and in two more weeks, dinners. Getting used to something different takes time and jumping head first into a change doesn’t work for everyone. Find your own pace. Even if you go slow, you are still lapping all those who are just sitting, doing nothing. Slow progress is progress too, and it is not any less important or impressive than rapid changes (especially rapid changes that don’t last). Don’t try to change too many things at once, especially if you failed many times in the past. Know your limits, your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to step out of it from time to time. You never know what you can find out there a new form of exercise you never thought you might enjoy, new food you always wanted to try but didn’t know how to cook, or new friends you might find while engaging in some group activity.
Our brain reacts to certain chemicals our body produces. We know how melatonin helps with our sleep, how insulin manages our blood sugar levels, or how adrenalin release can raise our blood pressure. There are many feel-good chemicals and hormones our glands are able to release, and some of them are very helpful for energy enhancement, mental well being, positive mood, focus, and concentration. One of these chemicals is called Phenylethylamine (PEA) and it is a neurotransmitter (a substance that carries a signal from one nerve cell to another) which helps our body to release dopamine and norepinephrine, substances that naturally enhance our mood, giving us that natural high feeling, as well as a new sense of well being, creativity, and awareness. If you ever heard the term positive thinking, this is exactly what you are going to get. If you think positive and your mood is balanced, then diet, fitness, and lifestyle habits will be not only easier to create, but much easier to sustain. Because if you enjoy something you do, you don’t need to push yourself into it anymore, and it will become a part of your everyday life, a part of who you are. This PEA substance can be found in small amounts in dark chocolate, for example, but there is a proprietary extract that contains a significant concentration of PEA that is going to give you an instant energy boost, increase your concentration, and balance your mood. BrainON by E3 is an organic, gluten-free, and Vegan product that will bring you one step closer to your goals, no matter how hard to reach they seem to be.
If you know why you are failing, you can learn how not to fail. Are you interested in reading more in-depth about willpower and brain science? Check out this amazing book called Willpower Instinct by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, that goes into detail about willpower, self-control, and training your brain to have more of those skills. If you take care of your brain just as well as you do your body, you are capable of anything. And chances are that soon you will hear something like: I wish I had willpower as you do! I could never be this disciplined, and all you will have to say is: You could let me tell you how.