Willpower and the Brain

Our Prefrontal Cortex houses our Executive Functions, which essentially allow us to manage our behavior. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is a part of this system - it is sometimes known as our conflict-monitoring system or reward-anticipation system. The ACC monitors our intentions and helps to inhibit behaviors that contradict them. You might say that it is where our willpower is located.

Your brain needs neurotransmitters to think. These are the electrical signals that jump from synapse to synapse. Your body creates neurotransmitters from the glucose stores in your blood. You get glucose from the calories you consume. Glucose is also necessary for a host of other bodily functions besides just thinking. When your glucose levels get too high or too low (watch out diabetics and hypoglycemics) your body must prioritize its glucose supplies. Typically it feeds essential automatic bodily functions first, then gives some to the parts of your brain that handle emotions (probably to make you more likely to go find something to eat), and then to other thought processes - like your executive functions. This means that when your glucose levels are down you feel heightened emotions and have less ability to regulate them. When your glucose levels are optimal your brain is good shape for producing willpower.

Sleep also plays an important role in glucose supplies. Your body does not convert calories to glucose as efficiently when you are tired, and it does not use the glucose in your blood stream as well either. Get enough sleep.

Willpower = A Gas Tank

So glucose provides gas for your ability to self-regulate... You only have one gas tank though. You don't have a willpower tank for dieting, another for exercising, and another for politeness. When you use fuel (neurotransmitters) to avoid eating fast food, you have less left over to get yourself to exercise or to prevent you from snapping at your friend. All willpower is derived from the same tank (the ACC).

Willpower = A Muscle

Your willpower can become fatigued, just like a muscle. When you are busy being good about making sure your chores get done, you are stressing your willpower muscle, and more likely to find something else to cave into (I deserve a entire pie since I did the dishes!). However, just like a muscle, the more you stress your willpower, the stronger it gets...provided it has time to recuperate.

Will = A complex system

Willpower, or self-regulation, is necessary for getting things done. Your desk is a mess because you have not exercised your willpower to organize it. You're five pounds heavier than you want to be because your willpower is fatigued. Here are ten aspects of self-regulation identified by James Maddux that play into willpower:

1. Goals - what you want to get done or avoid doing
2. Plans - your strategy for achieving a goal
3. Beliefs - your confidence in yourself and your plan
4. Standards of Evaluation - a means for measuring your progress
5. Goal-Directed Action - attempts to follow your plan
6. Self-Monitoring - observing your behavior and how it impacts your goal
7. Feedback - information about progress towards your goals
8. Self-Evaluation - judgments about your progress
9. Emotional Reactions - how judgments make you feel
10. Corrective Action - attempts to change your behavior to better reach the goal

While there are many areas that your willpower might break down, there are also many areas that it can be fortified. Set and monitor goals. Big goals broken down into smaller goals usually work best, provided the smalls goals allow for some flexibility and are not too regimented. Be optimistic about your ability to reach your goals, and avoid negative self-talk. Revise your plans when more information about your progress becomes available, making sure that you start with actions that you can do immediately (put on your running shoes).

Keep these things in mind the next time you want to get something done. If you find that you are having a hard time regulating yourself, make sure you are well fed and well slept.

Read "Willpower" by John Tierney & Roy Baumeister, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen, and this LIFT blog post by Robert Quinn

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