If you ask almost anybody who has struggled to start a new exercise program or implement healthy eating habits what their biggest obstacle is, the most common answer you’ll hear is one word: willpower.
More specifically, it is the LACK of willpower that we perceive to be the downfall of our health and fitness dreams. And while this isn’t a teaching on the types of willpower you can develop to support your efforts (yes, there are different types of willpower…more on this in a different article), we will take a deep dive into one of the simplest practices you can do to boost your willpower TODAY!
But before we jump into that, let’s start by breaking down willpower into a few parts. We’ll look at what willpower actually is, and where the urges that you have to overcome originate from in the brain. It’s going to be a fun ride, so let’s get going…
What is Willpower, Really?!
If you search “willpower” in the Oxford Dictionary, you’ll find the definition that follows: Control exerted to do something OR restrain impulses.
The main trait of willpower given this definition is “control”. In other words, willpower is simply your ability to control your behavior. Whether that behavior is showing up to the gym 3 days a week or passing on that piece of cake at your uncle’s birthday party, all of the behaviors that we strive to implement require some of level of control on our part.
The problem is, there’s much more to control than just…well…control. More specifically, when it comes to willpower, control is often dictated by another part of being a human: emotions. And many of us have strong emotions and feelings towards the things that we’re trying to either input into our lives or take out of our lives.
How Emotions Drive Our Willpower
One prime example of having to use your willpower to overcome emotions is in the case of sugar. It’s no secret that Americans in particular have developed a sweet tooth over the years. While a lot of our addiction to sugar has a physical component to it, there is also a big mental barrier we have to beat in order to say “NO!” to this white, crystalized powder.
For instance, if your goal is to lose weight, you know it’s in your best interest to stay away from sugary foods. However, when you’re confronted with that piece of cake from uncle Joe’s birthday party, you’ll certainly be confronted with a desire to eat it.
Desire, therefore, is one of the many emotions we have to overcome if we want to succeed at boosting our health and fitness. So, if we know that we need willpower to persist in our health and fitness efforts, and we know that willpower can be driven by emotions, then we need to figure out where our emotions come from and, even better, how we can tame our emotions so that they SUPPORT us instead of HINDER us.
Don’t Let the Lizard Brain Lead You
To find out where our emotions come from, we only have to look into the brain. More specifically, we need to exam the bottom of the brain, otherwise known as the lizard brain.
This area of the brain is known as the lizard brain because it developed many, many eons ago, before our more rational “human” brain came around. There are a few areas that make up the lizard brain, which sits at the bottom of the brain stem, but the area we’re mostly concerned with is called the amygdala.
This is because the amygdala is the master control center for emotions. Yes, your emotions can be directly linked to a tiny part of the brain, which is about the size of an almond. It’s hard to believe that so much of who we think we are is controlled by such a small structure.
And yet, even though it feels like we don’t have the power to overcome emotions, we can learn to control them and use even them to our advantage. The problem is, most of us realize that we should control our emotions only when it’s too late (maybe after you’ve eaten that piece of cake you realize that you should’ve controlled your desire to eat it).
Which is why we’re going to take a different path. We’re going to PRACTICE controlling emotions during downtime so that we will better be able to control them when we need to the most. And, although Allen Iverson may not think that practice is important, it’s only in our daily practice that we can achieve mastery of whatever it is we’re working toward improving.
Luckily, there’s a simple way to practice controlling emotions without having to constantly temp yourself with cake. And that’s through meditation.
Practicing Meditation for Emotional Control
WAIT! STOP! Don’t run away! Meditation is not as scary as it seems. Although you may conjure up images of bald guys sitting cross-legged in a room full of candles, meditation is not as woo-woo as you might think.
As a matter of fact, meditation is far from woo-woo. Over the decades, meditation has been backed by study after study showing its benefits. And, the cool part is, it’s absolutely free and has ZERO side effects (unlike other medications that promise to help you control your emotions).
For our purposes, though, meditation has been proven to help reduce urges and improve restraint, the 2 parts of willpower that we discussed above. The trick is, you have to do it regularly for it to be effective (which happens to be the case for all things health and fitness).
Luckily, we can make your meditation as small as you need it to be in order to make it a regular part of your life. All that you need is 5 minutes a day.
The 5 Minute Meditation Practice
Yes, you can start to see improvements in your willpower by simply meditating for 5 minutes a day. Of course, if you want other added benefits and more lasting results, it would be be smart to slowly increase this number over time. But you should not feel pressured into thinking that you HAVE to do more than 5 minutes a day in order to see improvement.
Here are 3 simple steps you can take to implement this 5-minute practice into your life. And remember, if you want the benefits, you should do it every day:
#1) Start by deciding WHEN and WHERE you will do you meditation practice. It’s best to meditate first thing in the morning, as this is a great way to get your day off on a calm, collected foot. However, you may choose to do it at lunch or right before bed.
Once you’ve decided WHEN to meditate, you can decide WHERE you’ll do the deed. If you want a higher likelihood of success, find a quiet spot that allows you to be alone and isolated. This way, all distractions are eliminated.
#2) Find a comfortable position and set a timer. It’s best that you’re sitting up straight, preferably without the support of a chair. This is because you don’t want to fall asleep while you’re meditating.
After finding a comfortable position, set a 5-minute timer on your phone or watch. This, of course, is going to signal the beginning and end of your meditation practice.
#3) Start your timer, close your eyes, and bring all of your attention to your breath…in that order. Here is the secret to meditation, if you will. Most people believe that meditation is about clearing the mind. However, as a species that had upwards of 50,000 thoughts a day, that’s a tough act to fill.
This is why you should realize that meditation is not about clearing the mind, but about controlling the attention of the mind. In other words, as you feel thoughts and feelings pop up during your meditation, you should bring your attention back to your breath.
The breath will always be the focal point of your meditation practice (unless you decide to pursue more advanced techniques). And a great way to keep your attention there is to count your breaths.
When you feel your mind wander (and you will feel that happen), simply become AWARE of the wandering, then put your attention back on the breath.
Meditation does not have to be complicated. And if you put it in your life, not only will you see your willpower improve, you will also see other aspects of your life become better, as well. Just remember, take it one day at a time, pursuing 1% improvement during each session.