How Meditation Restores Willpower and Self Control

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how to willpowerMost of our choices are made in autopilot - outside of our conscious control.

There’s an old adage: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”.

As much as 95% of our habits and behaviors are patterned in the first 5-7 years of life.

This is because our first learning is conducted by mirror neurons. These neurons mimic what we "see" in our environment - both consciously and subconsciously.

While you think that this form of learning disappears as we get older, it’s still there. Our subconscious continues to have  zero filter. It sees two things and, instinctively wants to make an association between them.

Our mind does not just make connections between people, places and things but also connects context. This is why it is incredibly important to pay attention to what we feed our minds in the first place.

How Do You Protect Your Subconscious Mind?

If only 5% of our activities are under conscious control, it would make sense first to focus on what's feeding the other 95% of behaviors that are subconscious.

You protect your subconscious mind by controlling what is streamed to it - to the best of your ability.

You can use the little conscious control you do have to systematically tune your environment to the station of your choosing.

You and only you control who you hang out with, the books you read, the radio stations you listen to, the television stations you watch. Only you control your morning routine, where you choose to eat lunch, and more.

Only you can control what you feed your subconscious daily.

But every decision can and will slowly eat away at your daily reserves of willpower and self-control.

By the end of the day, you find your reserves reach empty, and like a zombie, you find yourself reaching for the remote, and reaching for the ice cream. After all, you can go to the gym tomorrow, you can write that report this weekend, and you have until next month to finish that home project that has already been waiting for weeks.

So while protecting your subconscious mind is important, sooner or later you will need to optimize your limited capacity for willpower and self-control. And, what’s the one thing that is proven to help restore your willpower and self-control reserves?

Daily meditation.

What Does Daily Meditation Have to Do With Willpower?

On a basic level, daily meditation leads to mindfulness.

I used to attribute mindfulness to feel-good fluff. I always thought it was an abstract concept that just sounded nice and was kept alive by monks, yogis and hippies who were out of touch with reality.

Mindful individuals are simply more conscious about how their moment-to-moment decisions shape their reality. They have more self-awareness.

You can build that self-awareness with daily meditation.

Step 1: Choose to Take a Break
Step 2: Cleanse Your Thoughts
Step 3: Continue with your day
Step 4: Repeat at Least Once Per Day

Mindfulness is as simple as looking at a cookie, and agreeing to yourself that you want to eat it, but pausing and ultimately recognizing that it is your choice to eat it.

A less mindful person skips the pause and just eats the cookie. He or she is on autopilot. A mindful person has a healthy relationship with their future self. They ask, “Does this cookie fit in to the values of my future self?

Just the hesitation is often enough to put the cookie down and move on to something more purposeful - with practice of course. A mindful person does not just refuse to eat the cookie because it is the “good” or “right” thing to do, but because not eating the cookie is connected to a deeper rooted value or goal.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD an expert on the science of willpower from Stanford University writes: "When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses - not your long-term goals - will guide your choices".

Meditation clears the cloudy thoughts, so that our conscious direction can shine through.

How Do You Meditate and Build Mindfulness?

Meditation comes in many forms. It can include visioning, silence, mantras, prayers or other exercises that work to expand the mind and make it more “light” and “free”.

It doesn’t matter which technique you use.

It doesn’t matter how busy your mind feels at first. The mind is like a muscle, and it takes time for that muscle to grow stronger.

Imagine Bob and Bill.

  • Bob's mind is light, free and on purpose.
  • Bill's mind is scared, stressed, and frantic.

Who is more likely to eat the cookie?

The answer is Bill of course.

When you are in touch with who you are, your goals, and desires through daily meditation, it lightens the tension of your choices and it’s much easier to reject the “cookies” in our lives.

When you focus long enough on a small daily activity like meditation, it becomes mindless.

Mindfulness becomes a habit and decisions become more purposeful. The tiny habit just becomes who you are...mindfulness becomes your new state of autopilot.

With a single daily ritual such as meditation, you can protect your willpower capacity and use the capacity you have to drive your own dreams and desires forward.

You don't have to think it to happen, it just happens. That's the beauty of meditation. The less you try and control it, the better it works.

The Science of Meditation

While meditation is often relegated to the energetic, spiritual, or religious worlds - it is in fact quite scientific.

The science goes well beyond just stress relief, lower blood pressure, and more. The science that made all of the difference for me personally was this:

Just 5 minutes of meditation performed for at least 60 days has been proven to  improve willpower and reduce impulsive behavior.

You do not need to meditate for 15 minutes to an hour or more to see results. You do not have to sit indian-style and chant “Om” in a room for an hour either. All you need is just 5 minutes of meditation for at least 60 days.

Mindfulness for at least 5 minutes a day +  60 days = More Mindfulness + Less Impulsiveness + More Willpower and Self-Control.

Impulsiveness affects EVERY type of decision.

Impulsive decisions affect our career, health, finances, as well as our relationships with family and friends.

How would your life be different if you acted with less impulse and more mindfulness?

  • You might become more positive-minded.
  • You might see opportunity instead of risk.
  • You might just make more mindful decisions that are not rooted in fear, lust, hunger, fatigue, or stress.

How to Get Started

The easiest way to start meditating is to practice deep breathing. You can do this easily on the commute to and from work by simply taking the time to notice how you are breathing.

Start with 5 or 10 breaths for 5 minutes when you first get to the office, or in the first 5 minutes that you come home from work.

Ultimately, all you need is your mind and the intention to focus for just 5 minutes. While you can do more than 5 minutes, only keep yourself accountable for 5 minutes to begin. This keeps the habit from feeling burdensome - and it cuts out excuses.

Another easy way to get started is to try habit stacking.

Habit stacking is simply adding a new habit directly after an existing habit. You could decide to meditate for 5 minutes directly after brushing your teeth or after you take your nightly shower. Habit stacking throws a little momentum behind your new habit and gives you an automatic trigger.

If you want a little more guidance, organization and direction, I use Headspace.

Headspace is designed for meditation beginners and gamifies the experience for you. You can fit in the exercises even if you only have 5-10 minutes to spare. But it also is designed to open up longer time slots if you wish. The instructor speaks directly to the obstacles you may feel when trying to meditate such as the racing thoughts, the fidgeting, and the tension you feel when trying to control your thoughts. He talks you through it using proven strategies. Don't judge the exercises. Instead, trust the process.

While it is ultimately a paid program, it is extremely well put-together. You never have to worry about listening to the same tape over and over again. Most importantly, the strategies are structured on sound science without fluff. While the exercises can seem odd at first, when you dive into the research of experts, you understand that these strategies are spot-on with the science in the field.

If you are serious about reducing impulsiveness and restoring self-control in your life, please take the task seriously and do it for at least 60 days. It can be helpful to keep a running log of your meditation sessions - a simple check mark on a calendar may work, or for the technologically inclined, there are numerous apps that can help you. While you do not need technology, it can be an aid, so find what works best for you.

For Android devices, I use Habit Streak Plan for daily habits, and it's $2.99 paid version Task:Life Performance Tracker which allows  tracking for more sophisticated goals.

For Apple devices, the app is called Habit Streaks.

Other Self-Control Resources:

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Dr Alex Rinehart

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