Want A Simple Way to Increase Willpower?
Low Energy and Willpower
Lack of energy is the most common reason for poor motivation. While most people think of low energy in terms of being tired, it’s more subtle (and consequently more sinister) than that. The most pervasive way that low energy affects your life is with low willpower. It takes willpower to chose that salad in the lunch line rather than the sandwich, to start working on that report, to iron that pile of shirts sitting in your bedroom or to go to the gym after work. Over the last twenty years, many studies have shown that willpower is an extremely limited resource that has to be managed. If you want to keep your good habits and get rid of the bad ones, you'll need to find a way to increase willpower.
To understand why willpower can be so scarce, we need to take a brief look at your physiology. Your brain is only about 3% of your body’s total mass but consumes 20 - 25% of its body energy! In the western world, glucose is one of the primary fuel sources for your body, due to the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet that many people consume. Unfortunately, glucose is not a very dense energy source. Fat, on the other hand, contains more than twice as much energy per gram. But fat has gotten a bad rap in the last thirty years. So, on a high-carb, low-fat diet, your brain can quite literally starve for fuel, which I’ll discuss further in a minute.
Your Three Brains
What I’m about to describe is admittedly an extreme simplification, but it helps to understand the way your brain manages energy consumption. Essentially, your brain has three primary systems that have evolved over time.
The first system, sometimes referred to as your "lizard brain", manages many of your automatic processes, like your heartbeat and breathing, and also your fight or flight response. It is always on "high alert" for threats in your environment, and it's responsible for things that are critical to your survival, so it’s first in line when it comes to your body's energy supply.
The next higher-level system, sometimes called your "mammal brain", manages your basic impulses, like hunger, reproduction and your emotions. It is responsible for making sure your basic needs are met, that you pass your genes on to the next generation, and that you stay connected to your "pack". These things are all vital to the survival of our species, so your “mammal brain" gets the next spot in line.
Last but not least, your highest-level system, often referred to as your "executive brain”, manages conscious thought and the ability to do things like plan and control the impulses that come from the other systems. Ironically, while the brain’s executive system is what has enabled our species to thrive and become so adaptive, it gets the leftovers when it comes to energy management.
The executive system is the largest consumer of energy in your brain (when there’s enough to go around, at least), which makes its position in the supply chain an even bigger problem. That’s why, when you put poor-quality, low-energy-density food in your body, your ability to do tasks that require willpower is reduced significantly.
When you're tired, your executive brain has a hard time controlling and resisting the impulses coming from other parts of your brain, and the more tired you are, the worse it gets. When your willpower is low, the behavior that requires the lowest energy and thought is what you will default to. When your executive brain is starved for fuel, your judgement is also impaired. Some studies have shown it has the same effect on your judgement as being legally drunk. You know the kinds of choices you make when you’re intoxicated, so it’s not surprising you have a hard time getting to the gym in the morning. This reality only compounds your inability to make smart choices that support your long-term goals and desired habits.
So how do you make sure you aren’t handcuffing your brain’s executive system? There are three areas that will greatly improve your energy level and your executive system’s ability to exert willpower when needed.
It’s no secret that consistent exercise provides a whole host of health benefits, including increased energy throughout the day. What is not so well known is its benefits for your mind. Getting at least 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise, 3-4 times a week has a tremendously positive effect on your nervous system. What that means for you is that you will see an improvement in three things.
First, it will improve your impulse control. You'll be more able to resist those urges to grab an unhealthy snack or check your Facebook feed when you know you shouldn’t. I discuss the idea of impulse control and how it specifically relates to motivation in another video, and you can check it out here. Next, your distractibility will improve. You won’t use up as much of your limited willpower because you' will be less susceptible to distraction in the first place. And finally, your mental stamina will improve. For those times when you do manage to dive into your work, you’ll be able to sustain focus and the mental energy to keep going longer than you usually do. All of these factors help you to increase willpower.
As you’ve probably been told since you were a child, if you want to be healthy and live a long life, you need to eat a well-balanced diet. And in general, if you follow the low-to-moderate carbohydrate, low-fat, high-protein recommendations in many of the popular diet fads of the last 30 years, you can achieve a pretty high level of health.
Of course, you also need to make sure you are eating mostly complex carbohydrates, including lots of different fruits and vegetables. You also need to avoid processed and high-sugar foods, foods that can increase your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, and foods that can cause hypertension or high blood pressure.
But even if you follow all of those nutritional guidelines, it will not optimize your brain function. One of the best ways to do that is to eat a diet high in what’s known as “healthy fats”. Not all fats are created equal and, while many of them cause a laundry list of both short and long-term health issues, some fats are actually very good for you, and in fact are essential for peak mental and physical performance.
In addition to long-term health benefits, these “healthy fats”, like medium-chain-triglycerides (MCT - found in coconut oil) and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (found in fish, fish oil and krill oil), provide a high-density, long-lasting source of energy, for both your body and your brain.
In today’s world, where technology means you are constantly bombarded by distractions, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to be “always on”, and even more difficult to get adequate rest. Many scientific studies have shown that your brain operates at peak performance when you get 7-8 hours of restful sleep every night, so your body can restore and repair itself from the stresses of your daily life.
Aside from the demands of modern society that constantly chip away at the amount of sleep you get, even when you do finally close your eyes, it’s very likely that you're sleeping in an environment that is not conducive to optimizing rest and recovery. Instead, you probably struggle to wake up on many days, rather than feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world.
This problem is what’s known as poor sleep hygiene, and it means that your bedroom (or wherever you sleep) is filled with things that actually prevent getting good sleep. Cell phones are a common problem, especially if they are able to make notification sounds and flashes throughout the night.
Like most people, you probably sleep with your phone plugged in on the night stand right next to you, where you can hear and see every notification it makes during the night. Anything else that produces even a small amount of light in your room, like streetlights, light from another room, cable boxes, DVRs or an alarm clock, will reduce the quality of your sleep too.
Televisions, tablets, and cell phones emit blue light that interferes with your body’s circadian rhythm. It confuses your brain into thinking it's daytime, which affects its ability to put your brain into the proper sleep state. While this problem is most pronounced if you stare at one of those devices within 90 minutes of going to sleep, just being in the room can result in poor sleep quality because some of that blue light is still entering your eyes.
The temperature of your room also has a significant effect on the quality of your sleep. While everyone has a different preference, generally speaking, cooler temperatures result in better sleep quality.
The good news is that, when you make a concerted effort to improve the quality of your sleep, it can dramatically improve your baseline energy level throughout the day. It also significantly improves both your distractibility and impulse control, just as exercise does, helping you increase willpower.
Optimizing performance to increase willpower
Looking at these three elements from a holistic standpoint, regular exercise and proper nutrition both enhance the quality of your sleep. Likewise, when you get adequate, restorative sleep, it improves your body’s ability to absorb and use the nutrients you put into it. Obviously it also gives you more physical energy, which makes it more likely that you'll exercise regularly, and more mental energy, which supports your ability to make good choices in all areas of your life.
As you can see, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate, restful sleep are closely linked. Essentially, they form the legs of a “tripod” of peak mental and physical performance and increase willpower. Each leg supports and enhances the effectiveness of the others. At the same time, If you neglect any one leg it can significantly reduce the effectiveness of the other two, and can even cause the tripod to collapse. Your motivation to do anything in life is directly affected by both the energy available to perform the activity and the willingness to use that energy on it (i.e. willpower). Improving the quality of your sleep, nutrition and fitness will give you more of both, helping you to increase willpower.