Should You or Shouldn’t You?: Your Brain and Self Control

Have you ever had the following conversation in your head?

I am going to eat that Hershey’s kiss. No, I shouldn’t. But I want it.. . I can resist. . . But why resist? It’s just one Hershey’s kiss after all – how much sugar could it possibly have?. . . I will not eat it. . . But I am STARVING to death. I HAVE to eat something or I won’t be able to concentrate.

Or how about this internal battle over writing?

I’m going to do my writing first thing today. Oh, wow, is it morning already?  Just five more minutes.  Oops!  Now I’m running late.  I’ll do the writing “later”.  [Later]  Oh wait. . . look at that. I HAVE to finish that, that’s so URGENT.  [An undetermined amount of time later] Back to the work – wasn’t I going to do some writing? Oh, right. I’ll just quickly check my email first to make sure there aren’t any fires to put out. Okay, now, I am going to write. Sit down, open file. . . WAIT! I just had a thought about something. I better Google it right now before I forget..(Many, many minutes later) – Okay, back to the writing. Oh, here comes a chatty colleague. Let me see how long I can talk to them so that I don’t have to write. But wait, I do want to write, but darn it I just can’t get out of this conversation. Oh, well. Okay, my chatty colleague is gone, but now I remember something else I have to do that’s making me anxious, so I better do that first. Oh, look at the time! I have to leave now. I’ll write tonight.

If either of these scenarios sound the least bit familiar, then you too have felt the battle that can go in inside you in the moment of truth – that precise moment when you need to either resist a temptation or engage in a difficult but rewarding behavior. You feel this internal conflict every time you resist the cookies in the break room, think about going to the gym or getting up early, or decide between writing or engaging in another less important but perhaps more urgent activity.

The Battle of the Brain

Kelly McGonigal in her book,The Willpower Instinct explains that in those critical decision making moments, two parts of your brain are in intense battle: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the emotional part of your brain – the part that houses your fight or flight response – your impulsive side. Think of it as the trigger-happy, short-term horizon part of your brain. See a cookie, eat a cookie. See your manuscript, check email. The amygdala turns your grocery list into a saber-toothed tiger – a threat you need to address immediately – and the writing into the equivalent of chewing on some grass while enjoying a nice, sunny day on the Serengeti.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is your rational side – the part of your brain that pauses and plans. The prefrontal cortex tells you that the cookie is not good for you and checking your email instead of writing is not going to help you achieve your long-term goals.

It might be a fair fight if it was just the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex, but unfortunately, the amygdala has a partner in crime in its quest to derail you from your long-term goals – the reward center of the brain. This is the addictive part of your brain and it thrives on dopamine and anything that can get it more dopamine. The reward system quite frankly is bored by writing, but loves to check email and cross off teeny, tiny tasks from your enormous to-do list. Why is that? No dopamine is produced by writing for 30 minutes. What did I get for that writing? More text? Okay, but if I open my email, there might be a real reward there – a nice, shiny unopened message just for me. And every time I check off a teeny, tiny to-do list item, I get another rush of dopamine. Bing – check that email. Bing- check another task off my list, Bing – there is another. Oooh, this is fun. I feel good. Oh-look – there is that manuscript  on my to-do list – not fun — can’t check it off — I’ll just ignore it.

Your Rational Side to the Rescue

Harnessing the power of your prefrontal cortex in the moment that your amygdala is activated and your reward center is searching for dopamine-inducing activities is the key to increasing your willpower reserves. And the key to harnessing that power is becoming aware of the physiological response from amygdala activation and dopamine, shutting them down and activating your self-control mechanism.

Remember that the amygdala is the freaked-out part of your brain, and the prefrontal cortex is the calm, rational side. When you are stressed everything feels like an emergency. You can’t work fast enough. Your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. You are essentially running from the saber-toothed tiger without even leaving your chair. And it’s a long chase. It could last all day. It’s exhausting.

To shut down this part of your brain and activate your rational side, you need to send a signal to your brain that everything is under control. And the best way to do that in the moment is to slow down your breathing. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Take a few long, deep breaths, focusing on drawing out the exhale as long as you can since the exhale is what is going to bring down your heart rate as well. [For more tips on breathing, check out this post.

When you slow down your breathing, you have essentially gotten off the hamster wheel. You can now engage your prefrontal cortex to remember WHY you need to write first so you can walk away from Google and email and get the writing done. All of this tells your brain – no threat here, don’t need to check email,  or do that teeny tiny task right now. I can just as easily do my writing and nothing bad will happen to me.

Building Up Willpower Reserves

Okay, that’s all fine and good as an emergency measure to get you out of freaked-out mode and into thinking mode, but how can increase your willpower reserves to begin with so that you can prevent, or at least reduce how often you get freaked out in the first place? Kelly offers the following suggestions:

Start a regular meditation practice. Meditation trains your brain to become more aware of moments when you may be slipping into that hyper state, and increases your ability to pause and plan. Engaging in a regular meditation practice can actually change your brain in ways that increase the working memory and executive decision making parts of your brain and decrease your automatic fight or flight response. And the good news is that you can start to see the benefits of meditation by devoting only 10 minutes a day to the practice.

Get regular exercise. Regular exercise has been shown to have similar effects to meditation in the long term. So, if you don’t like to sit still, you can move around instead. I find that getting out to take a brisk walk or indulging in 15 minutes of exercise in the gym is a great way to disconnect from email and get your day back on track. According to McGonigal, any amount or type of exercise can increase your willpower reserves, even a 5 minute walk around the block. You can even use exercise as a reward to keep your willpower reserves going all day long. Some of the other suggestions McGonigal provides include gardening, taking your dog for a walk, doing some simple stretches, playing with your kids out in the backyard, housecleaning or even window-shopping.

Get more sleep. If you are sleep deprived it is just going to be harder to stick to good habits and avoid bad habits. The effects of sleep deprivation are similar to being mildly intoxicated – all the time. So, you can imagine how that is affecting your willpower reserves! If you aren’t getting enough sleep at night, take a quick power nap in the day if you can to restore willpower reserves.

Take time for relaxation every day. Every day? Are you insane? Who has time for that? I’m not suggesting that you lounge around for hours, but just like a power nap can increase your willpower reserves, and slowing down your breathing can snap you out of fight or flight mode, just relaxing for a few minutes each day can make you more resilient in the long-run to temptations and distractions. This is true physical and mental rest, so put away that smartphone and turn off the tv. You just need 5-10 minutes.

Use Dopamine to Your Advantage. That big unhappy manuscript task that keeps staring at you from your to-do list? Break it down into small, bite sized pieces that can be accomplished in a 30 minute writing session and list those as tasks on your ginormous to-do list. In other words, create a dopamine-inducing environment with your writing. This is the feeling that you get as you near completion on a writing project- that drive that pushes you to the finish line. It’s hard to find that drive when you are on mile 4 of a marathon. But, if you turn your race into a series of 5Ks, you can induce that feeling over and over again and get to several finish lines rather than just one.

Mediate, get moving, sleep, relax and/or break it down and you too can improve your ability to resist those Hershey kisses and the shiny emails and get the writing done.

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