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Strengthening Your Willpower: Four Ways to Listen to The Angel On Your Shoulder

strengthening your willpowerWillpower is essential to your ability to accomplish anything worthwhile. It influences your health, your finances, your relationships, your professional success, and all other areas of your life.

And yet many people feel that they lack willpower. Right now, what goal are you trying to achieve?

  • Do you want to avoid food temptations so that you can fit into your skinny jeans?
  • Do you want to stay away from the mall so that you can chip away at your credit card debt?
  • Do you want to stop putting off your studies so that you can improve your grades?
  • Do you want to focus on high priority tasks at work instead of wasting your time on low priority activities?
  • Do you want to get up when your alarm clock goes off each morning–instead of hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep–so that you can go out for a jog before getting ready for work?
  • Do you want to start devoting an hour a day to creating a passive source of income?

Achieving any of these goals requires willpower. The good news is that willpower can be strengthened. It’s just a matter of listening to the little angel sitting on your shoulder, instead of succumbing to the little devil sitting on the other shoulder.  In this post you’ll discover four ways to do this.

Angel v. Devil

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University. A while back she started teaching a class at Stanford called “The Science of Willpower”. McGonigal explains that she started teaching that class because she discovered that a lot of people knew what they had to do in order to be more productive, healthier, and so on, but they just couldn’t get themselves to do it.

The class was very popular, and McGonigal gathered all of her material and wrote a book titled, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It”. In her book, McGonigal explains that willpower is a biological function that can be improved through various methods, including doing things such as exercising, improving your nutrition, and getting more sleep.

McGonigal defines a “willpower challenge” as a competition between two parts of yourself. The brain is anatomically divided into two different systems; that is, we have a dual brain. We’re completely different people depending on which of the two brain systems is active. The two systems of the brain are the following:

  • One part of the brain is reasonable, rational, and deliberative. This is the prefrontal cortex which is located just behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for willpower and cognitive thought. We can think of the prefrontal cortex as the angel sitting on our shoulder.
  • Deeper in the brain you have an emotional, automatic, nonconscious system which is regulated by raw sensual appetite. We can think of this part of the brain as the devil sitting on the other shoulder.

These two systems are often at war with each other. They compete to guide your behavior. For example, let’s say that you’re getting hungry and you decide to get a snack. You walk to the kitchen, you open the refrigerator, and you find yourself faced with the following two choices: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

  • One part of you is saying, “Great! I love chocolate cake! Yum. . . . look at all that gooey icing. And the little marshmallows .  .  . This is going to taste so good. Take it!” (Yes, this is the little devil.)
  • Another part of you is saying: “Well, I’ve been reading about how important fruits are for your long-term health. Plus, one of my goals is to lose twenty pounds. The fruit salad is definitely the healthier choice, and eating it will help me to reach my weight-loss goal. I’ll eat the fruit salad.” (Yes, this is the little angel.)

In the end, the choice that you make–whether to eat the cake or the fruit salad–will depend on several different factors, including things such as your mindset, your energy, and your stress levels.

McGonigal adds that during her research she discovered that most people identify with the little devil. That is, they feel that their default state, or their natural impulse, is to want to do the following:

  • Eat the chocolate cake (I see food, I eat it).
  • Max out their credit cards (I see something I want, I buy it).
  • Watch television instead of working on their passive source of income (I want a reward now).

They believe that their real-self wants immediate gratification and never wants to do anything difficult. Doing the right thing–such as choosing the fruit salad–is contrary to who they are. Therefore, in order to make the choices that will lead to the achievement of their goals, they have to fight constantly against their core-self.

However, McGonigal adds that you can switch this around. In other words, you can get yourself to start identifying with the little angel on your shoulder and begin to feel that your true self is the part of you that does the following:

  • Makes the healthy food choices (I’m mindful and aware of the choices I make).
  • Saves up for retirement (I think of my long-term goals).
  • Sets aside an hour each day on a consistent basis to work on creating a passive income source (I would rather get a large reward in the future instead of a small reward now).

So, how can you make the angel your default state? How can you think and feel like the angel on a continuous basis? In her book, McGonigal shares many different ways to do this. In this post I’m going to share with you four of the methods which she reveals during a presentation she gave for Authors@Google. The four ways are the following:

  • Sleep More and Get Better Sleep
  • Meditate For Ten Minutes a Day
  • Get Physical Exercise
  • Shift to Eating a More Plant-Based Diet or To a Low-Glycemic Diet

There’s more on each of these below.

Sleep More and Get Better Sleep

sleep willpowerMcGonigal indicates that an experiment was conducted which involved people who were recovering from an addiction to drugs. These are people with a very serious willpower challenge. Here’s what the researchers did:

  • Half of the participants in the experiment were assigned to take mindfulness meditation training which was designed to help them improve their sleep or sleep more.
  • The other half of the participants were the control group; they weren’t given an assignment.

Everyone started out getting seven hours of sleep. What the researchers found was that just doing a little bit of breath-focused meditation each day increased sleep time to just over eight hours a day. One conclusion is that if you meditate for a few minutes each day you’ll sleep better. But what’s really interesting is how that change in sleep time made the recovering addicts stronger against relapse. Getting an additional hour of sleep each night made it much easier for these addicts to resist falling off the wagon.

When you’re sleep deprived–which is generally defined as getting less than six hours of sleep a night–your prefrontal cortex is unable to do its job efficiently because it’s under-fueled. In addition, when your prefrontal cortex is under-activated, the mid-level layers of your brain–which are associated with impulses and instincts–are more activated. Therefore, when you get less than six hours of sleep a night your brain is unable to recruit the systems of your brain that you need in order to be that better version of yourself.

The more rested you are, the better your prefrontal cortex is able to function, and the better it is at regulating those parts of the brain that take you toward temptation. When you get the sleep that you need to function optimally your brain has the fuel that it needs so that the prefrontal cortex can keep your goals front and center, and it’s much easier for you to act in a way that is consistent with the achievement of your goals.

Meditate for Ten Minutes a Day

meditation willpowerA second finding from the experiment that we just discussed above was that the number of minutes that people meditated also predicted resistance to relapse. The recovering addicts who were meditating for a length of time between ten and fifteen minutes a day had more willpower than those who were not meditating, or were meditating for less time.

Meditation has been shown not only to make your brain more efficient at using your self-control systems, but it actually makes these systems bigger and better connected to the regions that they’re supposed to be controlling. In addition, the benefits of meditation are seen quickly. Studies show that when people begin to meditate for ten minutes a day, their brains start to change–for the better–in just a couple of months.

Get Physical Exercise

There are other things that impact the physiology of your brain, or how well your brain uses energy. Something else that strengthens the ability of your brain’s frontal region to help you control impulses is physical exercise. Studies show that when sedentary people begin an exercise program, in as little as a couple of months of getting regular workouts the prefrontal cortex is bigger, denser, and better connected.

Shift to Eating a More Plant-Based Diet or a Low Glycemic Diet

nutrition willpowerWhat you eat has a large impact on whether or not your brain is able to be that better version of yourself. Having large spikes and drops in your blood sugar levels has a negative effect on your brain’s ability to utilize energy. You need your brain to be energy efficient if you’re going to be walking around the world in that better-you mindset, rather than in that basic-impulse-you mindset.

Research shows that shifting to eating a more plant-based diet changes the way in which your brain functions, and helps to regulate your blood sugar levels. If becoming vegan isn’t feasible for you, then aim for a low glycemic diet (one that emphasizes whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, low-fat meats like fish, fruits and vegetables, beans and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts).


While it’s true that the activities listed above–such as eating oatmeal for breakfast instead of eating a donut, and meditating every day–require willpower, not doing these things weakens your willpower. Also, engaging in these activities ends up giving you far more willpower than it takes to perform these activities.  For example, studies show that exercising makes it easier to eat right, to spend less, and to stop procrastinating on those projects or tasks that are important to you.

The bottom line is, if you want to achieve your goals and live your best life, willpower is going to be an important part of your success. Start applying the four strategies described above in order to strengthen yours.

Related Posts:

1. How to Start Your Day the Right Way
2. 18 Powerful Tips for Overcoming Procrastination
3. Stop Procrastinating Tip: Practice Discomfort
4. 37 Tidbits of Higher Consciousness
5. 65 Happiness Quotes
6. Harvard’s Most Popular Course: Tal Ben-Shahar on How to Be Happier

I Recommend:

1. How to Live Your Best Life – The Essential Guide for Creating and Achieving Your Life List
2. Make It Happen! A Workbook for Overcoming Procrastination and Getting the Right Things Done
3. How to Be More Creative – A Handbook for Alchemists
4. The One-Hour-A-Day Formula: How to Achieve Your Life Goals in Just One Hour a Day

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