You’ve been up all night and now you’re passing the window of your favorite bakery. On display is a decadent flourless chocolate cake with your name on it. Before you know it you’re inside the bakery wiping the chocolate off your mouth with a paper napkin. What happened?
You probably want to blame your lack of willpower at this point. You’re a bit puzzled, but it just seems that you can’t muster the strength to fight your food cravings, along with just about everything else that you think you shouldn’t be doing.
Here’s the good news…your willpower is not finite. You didn’t get a certain amount at birth and you aren’t a bad person because you feel as if you never have enough willpower. Scientists are now validating ancient exercises that can actually increase your willpower.
I want to share one of the easiest techniques for increasing your willpower with you now. All it takes is for you to slow down the rate of your breathing to 4 to 6 breaths per minute. I read about the scientific research behind this technique in The Willpower Instinct, by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, but I didn’t have to read much to know that it works.
I’ve been using this technique in my yoga classes for years. I typically instruct students to aim for a breath count of around 6 seconds for their inhales and 6 seconds for their exhales. Do the math and you can see that it results in about 5 breaths per minute. Science is just now explaining to us why it is so effective.
When you focus your attention on slowing the rate of your breath you create a pause in the mental chatter of your mind. The ability to consciously bring your attention to your breath over and over again, helps train your brain to move toward the point of focus that you consciously choose. Not the point of focus that your instincts or old habits pull your brain toward – insert flourless chocolate cake here.
In addition to redirecting your focus, you are also working to balance both hemispheres of your brain when you balance both sides of your breath by keeping the length of inhale and exhale the same. Not to mention one of the key points that scientists are interested in when it comes to willpower, heart rate variability. When your heart rate slows down it creates a cascade of hormonal responses that move you away from your fight or flight response and into your relaxation response. The more you practice the technique of slowing your breath down, the more powerful your willpower becomes because you can more readily manipulate your heart rate.
Now for the real kicker, if you practice this consistently your willpower will actually be higher even when you aren’t consciously trying to activate it. Your body will simply make it a habit of pausing and planning the best choice of action when a non-life threatening piece of flourless chocolate cake enters your field of vision.
Go ahead and try it now. Inhale counting to six and exhale counting to six. Try this for about 10 breaths, approximately 2 minutes. If you feel good you can lengthen your breath a little more and aim for inhalations and exhalations of 8 seconds. While it’s great if you can practice this for 5 minutes or more, you can literally feel the difference after just two minutes of focused, slow breathing.
Finally if you can relate all too well to the opening sentence of this article “you’ve been up all night,” try this slow, balanced breathing technique when you lay down to go to sleep. It can help you fall asleep faster. Getting 7 to 8 hours of rest per night is also a major influencer on your willpower.
Let me know how this slow breathing technique works for you by leaving a comment below.