Increase Willpower by Training Attention!

Lady in scarf looking at the bakery window full of different pieces of cakes

You can increase willpower by training attention skills! Your default attention capabilities are very limited. What this means is when we have to sharply focus your attention on an object, that activity in itself is taxing your brain in terms of its energy needs. You struggle to sustain such attention more than a few moments.

Alternatively, when you have to forcefully exercise self restraint, or willpower, it is very exhausting as it depletes the resources in your brain. After having exercised self restraint once, if subsequently a need arises for you to exercise it immediately you perform miserably.

One of the key factors is the amount of glucose in the brain. Decision making or self-restraint, both of which involve willpower, needs substantial amount of glucose to be present in the brain.

This is the reason, we know it very well, we can’t make good decisions when we are hungry. This is why you should never haggle with a car salesman when you are hungry.

And this psychology is what precisely car salespeople exploit to the fullest, by leaving you waiting and hanging outside so that you will get hungry and fumble when it comes to key decision making.

Given this limited nature of the resource, it makes sense that our brains adapt a mode of superficial engagement as it is likely to conserve energy and glucose reserves and optimize our decision making in the long run.

But there is one more way of looking at the problem of willpower. The problem of willpower is really a problem of paying attention. As we said earlier, our default way of attending to things lack focus.

At any given time our attention is very fragmented. We are partially aware of multiple things, but not fully aware of a single thing or activity.

You may be sitting and thinking about something and you would also be aware of the background sounds present in the room. You may be aware of sounds coming from outside of your room. You may be aware of visual field or lights around you. You may be aware of the fan running in your bathroom.

So your attention is rather spread over multiple things. In a way you are multitasking your attention.

But we can never be fully aware of multiple things at once. We are in fact switching very quickly between things and in doing so we are only superficially attending to things.

This is an evolutionary adaptation. You want to have at least some awareness of your surroundings. And you don’t want to be completely absorbed into something where you are totally oblivious to your surroundings. At least not for long periods of time.

Although your attention is fragmented most of the time, you have a strong autonomous capacity to quickly orient your attention to changes in the sensory field. The changes in the lights and sounds for example.

And you’ll respond effortlessly and swiftly to the change in your surrounding and will sharply focus and engage our attention at least momentarily.

A loud sound will get your attention and you will focus on the source of the loud sound. The point is that the sharpness of attention is rather reactive as opposed to being proactive and is short lived.

You are habituated by such state of partial attention of what is happening in your surrounding. But this lack of sharp concentration creeps into everything that you engage in. As long as it isn’t something dramatic or flashy.

The consequences are that as the day passes, you float through the timespace with partial or little attention in general. In such a scenario your limbic system takes precedent.

You become slave of your impulses, desires and preprogrammed reactions. If you happen to sit next to a platter of cookies you do not even realize when you finished all cookies. Why?

Because surely you do perceive cookies to be there. You may take a glance at the plate. And at the back of your mind a thought may immediately cross: “I should watch out how many cookies you eat”.

But as soon as you try to engage yourself with something else, the aroma, the peripheral sight and the memory of cookies take over.

They trigger your reward driven brain circuits, which usually has a very strong reaction and it deploys its resources to trigger a chain of definitive actions to transfer cookies in your mouth. All happening swiftly and subconsciously.

But what about the thoughts of restraint? Where were they all along? Thoughts of restraint were overpowered by the reward driven circuits of the brain. You say that your willpower is weak.

One strategy, you may try is to tempt you with an alternate and a superior reward compared to the cookies. You may say to yourself: “If I don’t eat cookies, I will reward myself something else better than the cookie”.

You will notice that such internal strategies are very ineffective and even if they were to work, they don’t serve the purpose. It’s like penny wise and pound foolish.

What’s more likely to be effective is external policing. External policing is very effective at preventing you from doing what you are not supposed to do.

If someone else was watching you, it is very likely you will avoid the cookies. Have you noticed how much of a mess you create in your house, when you are temporarily on our own? You just are not able to restrain yourself intrinsically.

But what is really going on? You initially have a sense of self-restraint, but the impulse overpowers this initial conscious sense of self-restraint. Subconscious forces are much more powerful.

One of the ways to increase the self-restraint or the willpower is to actually improve our attention capacity. If you are able to sharpen your attention and sustain it over a longer period of time, it will help maintain better self-restraint.

As long as you are vigilant, meaning, sharply focused on the fact that you are not to get tempted by what is around you, it is more likely you will be able to ward off temptations.

In the case of sitting next to the cookie platter, as long you are focused on the internal dialogue that ‘I am not supposed to eat these cookies’, it is more likely that you will be able to maintain the self-restraint and won’t eat cookies.

From the perspective of the science of human psychology it is known, that the conscious thoughts about self-restraint are weaker compared to the subconscious urges mediated by the reward driven brain circuits.

But that’s only true with the default and unrefined attention. If attention is refined through meditative practices, the attention in conjunction with the conscious thought can actually gain the upper hand!

The problems start happening as soon as your attention wanders off and you start getting either lost in thoughts or get busy with other activities.

Once you don’t sharply focus on the conscious thought about restraining yourself, you get into this hazy, woozy mode of fragmented attention. Here your attention is essentially drifting from one place to another without any solid footing.

This continues to happen as long as there is no external flashy event, like a big sound or a change in light. As in the case of someone walking in the room or a sound of a vehicle passing by on the street outside.

And the breach in self-restraint is more likely to happen within this woozy mode of attention. The reward driven limbic circuits are very adept at exploiting this fragmented mode of attention.

It sneaks upon the earliest of such opportunity and you see the invisible hand at work, which forces you to walk up to the delicacy and consume it only to realize once you are done eating cookies.

Given this, if one has honed his attention skills and is able to focus sharply, one will be able to first off, sharply focus on the conscious thoughts that remind us about restraining ourselves. These thoughts can continue to dictate the action of restraining ourselves.

Secondly, if you are able to sustain attention on such thoughts, you are increasing the duration during which you will be able to restrain yourself. Less likely it will be for your attention to drift away and be exploited by the powerful limbic circuits.

In summary refining attention can help increase self-restraint and the willpower. Besides ensuring that you have enough glucose in the brain circuits, this can be a very fruitful way of dealing with subconscious temptations that dictate much of your behavior.

And how can you train attention? Through meditative practices. A specific type of meditation known as concentration meditation has been shown to be very effective at improving attention skills where you can not only focus more sharply on the object of attention, but you can effortlessly sustain the attention for long periods of time.

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