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In the last lesson, we talked about how willpower works. Specifically, we reviewed the difference between the fight-or-flight response and the pause-and-plan response.[1]
What is interesting is that your body can tell you about your willpower, if you know how to listen.  According to McGonigal, “The single best predictor of the pause-and-plan response is something called heart rate variability.”[2]
The process works like this. When we engage the fight-or-flight response, heart rate goes up, but heart rate variability goes down.  This is because the sympathetic nervous system has taken  charge. In contrast, when we engage the pause-and-plan response, the heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up. This is evidence that the parasympathetic nervous system is working to calm us. McGonigal explained that,
Heart rate variability is such a good index of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in. For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response—their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink—have  a greater risk of relapse.[3]
Remember, when the heart rate goes down and variability goes up, it is a sign that the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. The body is working for you rather than against you.

Increasing Willpower

McGonigal went on to explain that willpower can be enhanced or depleted by several factors. These are all factors that we intuitively understand, but you have probably not considered them in light of willpower before.
For example, one study found that after only two months of treatment, participants reduced smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake. They ate less junk food and focused on eating more healthy food. They also spent more time studying and less time watching television.  They procrastinated less and felt more in touch with their emotions.  What was the treatment that caused these incredible results? They exercised.
They didn’t have to exercise a lot in order to reap the benefits either. Participants in the study exercised just one time a week for the first month gradually increasing to three times a week by the end of the second.  Moreover, they didn’t need marathon sessions of exercise in order to reap the benefits. This 2010 meta-study  found that the greatest benefits are reaped  by exercising in five-minute bursts rather than hour-long sessions.[4]
The second key to increasing willpower is getting enough sleep. I understand this one well. I have six kids. I know what it’s like to have brain-fog due to lack of sleep.
The research shows that if you get less than six hours of sleep, you do not have your full reserve of willpower. “Your prefrontal cortex, that energy-hungry area of the brain,  bears the brunt of this personal energy crisis. Sleep researchers even have a cute name for the state: ‘mild prefrontal dysfunction.’”[5]  Researchers at King’s College London University found that missing a night’s sleep lowers your IQ by roughly 10 points. That is a greater margin than smoking marijuana. Incidentally, trying to work while checking emails temporarily has the same negative effect as sleep deprivation.[6]
The third key is reducing stress.  Chronic stress can lead to a host of issues from diabetes to heart disease to infertility. It should come as no surprise, then, that stress also has a negative effect on your willpower. As McGonigal wrote:
The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible… Stress encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.  Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.[7]

Review

Remember, your body is great at telling you when you are able to deal with a willpower challenge. If heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up, you are engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and your body is an ally helping you handle the will power threat. You can do a few things to increase your willpower—exercise, get enough rest, and limit chronic stress.
In the next lesson, will talk more about how willpower works.

What About You?

What will you do with what you now know about willpower?

References

[1] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.
[2] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (p. 37).
[3] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 38-39).
[4] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 43).
[5] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 46).
[6] Shipman, K., & Kay, K (2009). Womenomics: Write your own rules for success: How to stop juggling and struggling and finally start living and working the way you really want. New York: Harper Business. (p. 123).
[7] McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 51-52)