The area of the brain most responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for a lot of things other than just willpower; it is the main area that oversees executive function including complex processes like reason, logic, problem solving, planning, keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Various experiments have shown that doing things that otherwise engages the prefrontal cortex negatively impacts our willpower.
For example, a study at Stanford asked one group of students to remember a two-digit number and a second group to remember a seven-digit number. Students then were walked down a hall and given a choice of snacks: chocolate cake or fruit. Students in the seven-digit group were twice as likely to select chocolate cake as their snack as compared with the students in the two-digit group. Why the difference? The researchers postulate that remembering seven digits was a higher cognitive load than remembering two digits and this extra effort taxed the prefrontal cortex and left reduced resources for willpower.
In another study at the University at Albany, a group of students was asked to not think about a white elephant for five minutes while writing down their thoughts. This task is actually quite taxing mentally. A control group of students was given extremely easy arithmetic problems to solve. After their five minute tasks, the subjects were led to a beer taste test and told they could sample various beers but that their next task was going to involve driving a car. What happened? The group with the harder mental task (not thinking of the elephant) drank significantly more beer than the control group.
These and other experiments show that difficult mental tasks, including willpower, take real energy and if you use energy on one task you will have less mental energy available for other tasks.
Willpower Tips from Experts:
- Don’t plan your day/life so as to rely on willpower. You don’t have enough mental energy. Plan your day to avoid those situations that require willpower.
- Build good habits. Habits require little or no willpower.
- Get enough sleep. Studies show being tired negatively effects the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This also is why we usually have less willpower at night. Blood sugar levels drop at night and your brain, specifically your frontal cortex, is tired after thinking all day. This leads to reduced executive function, including willpower. So, if you’ve done a great job controlling your eating all day, it becomes a lot harder to resist that evening snack of ice cream or the like. In dementia and Alzheimer’s patients the likelihood of reduced executive function, including short-term memory and reasoning, in the evening is referred to as “Sundowner Syndrome.” Early in the day these patients may remember a lot more and be higher functioning with respect to various cognitive functions and then experience a big decline at night with a taxed prefrontal cortex.
- Practice stress management. Stress strongly depletes willpower. During times of stress we fall back on our habits. Stress management techniques include: meditation, breathing exercises, getting enough sleep, listening to calming music.