From No to Go: How to Beat the Self-Control Battle

Jan 18, 2019 | Change

We are well into the new year, and I’m wondering if any of you are feeling a little depleted. If you’ve imposed any rules for yourself that require self-control (e.g., no sugar, no sleeping past the alarm, no procrastination), it wouldn’t be surprising.

When we approach change in a way that requires willpower, we can easily get tired of the battle.

Most adults spend a lot of energy trying to control their impulses, behavior, emotions, even thoughts. We say no to ourselves and tell ourselves what we should or shouldn’t do all the time.

Following rules, even self-imposed ones, can feel restrictive, especially when they require us to say no to something else we want.

So how else can we go about the change we want? If we look at the research and at how our brains work, we can make some shifts to get our brains more easily on board – so it doesn’t feel like a battle all the time.

Being in control is good

We definitely want to feel in control of our own lives. Most of us don’t like others to tell us what we can or cannot do. My 11-year-old reminds me of this every day.

This feeling of being in control, of having our own agency, is actually good for our health. Studies show that agency reduces stress and anxiety, and is also linked to longer terms of survival in cancer patients and lower risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Choice is a way to exercise our agency.

According to a study from Rutgers University, being given an opportunity to make a choice activates a part of the brain’s reward system called the ventral striatum, and is like a reward in itself. 

So is taking action towards something we want. When it comes to action, the brain has two options: “no” or “go.” The “go” response is linked to a part of the brain that anticipates reward. And research shows that we’re more likely to take action towards something good than we are to act to avoid something bad. (Tali Sharot, The Influential Mind, 65-68.)

So it makes sense that saying no to something that would feel good in the moment (e.g., cake) can feel like a punishment when we don’t have another option to say yes to (e.g., fruit salad).

Self-control: an energy or mindset?

When you’re depriving yourself of something you want in the moment, it is a bit of a battle. (For more on willpower, check out this post.)

Some say we that we need to build our willpower or self-control like we build our muscles. The more we exercise our willpower, the stronger it becomes and the easier our self-control. There is a truth to this, since we do strengthen the brain’s neural connections through repeated or continuous focus and attention (more on this below).

But the very word “willpower” suggests a battle, as if we need to tackle something with force and energy like climbing a mountain.

Roy Baumeister, psychology professor at Florida State University, says that willpower is the actual energy used towards self-control. This energy is finite, and can get depleted. His research suggests that our self-control is actually linked to our body’s glucose levels. So if our energy and glucose are low, we will be much less able to exert self-control.

Other researchers disagree. Psychology professors at Stanford University, Carol Dweck and Greg Walton, found that people only need the glucose when they believed their willpower or self-control was limited. In other words, if they believe that they have whatever willpower they need, they don’t need the glucose to exercise it. Therefore, they say, willpower is linked to a positive belief or mindset.

I think both can be true.

If we are hungry, tired or stressed – if our energy and glucose levels are low – our brains tend to focus on the negative, including a focus on self-protective behaviors because we’re not in an optimal state for responding to threats. (For further discussion on stress and negativity, click here.)  In a self-protective or negative state, the brain will want to conserve our energy to keep us safe, instead of using it on on self-control and taking new actions which requires more energy. 

If, however, we fully believe we have the energy and willpower to direct our actions as we would like, then it is very unlikely that at the same time the body is actually hungry, tired or stressed.

Because the brain is constantly reading signals from the body in a process called interoception, it would be very difficult to form a positive belief about our energy and self-control capacities if the body were in a very depleted state.

Likewise, if our body is in an optimal or even neutral state, it will be much easier to have a positive mindset and to act in alignment with that through self-control. (For more on the brain-body connection and feelings, click here.)

Self-control in the brain

One of the main networks of the brain is called the central executive network (CEN), sometimes also called the task positive network. As the name suggests, this network is responsible for executive functions such as directing our thoughts and behavior. The main part of the brain involved in CEN is an area behind the forehead called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).

Another brain network called the default mode network (DMN) is active when our mind is wandering. The middle part of the prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), is involved in this network.

Not surprisingly, it is the CEN, not the DMN, that appears to be active in regulating our actions.

In a study at CalTech, researchers observed the brains of dieters as they made food choices. They found significant differences in the brain activity of those who made healthy food choices versus those who did not.

Brain scans of both groups showed activity in a part of the medial prefrontal cortex, which indicates DMN activity. This DMN area seemed to only take the taste of the food – an immediate gratification – into consideration.

But for those who made the healthy food choice, scans also showed activity in dlPFC, indicating activity in our CEN for directing thoughts and behavior. This dlPFC was able to modulate the activity of the other area, allowing the second group to consider both taste and health benefits of the food at the same time.

In short, people were more likely to say no to an unhealthy food if they paid attention to the value of a healthy food.

If we can find ways to focus our attention on future values (e.g. reading food labels for ingredients, or thinking about the promotion we want), then we will activate the executive control network which puts us in position to choose more wisely. 

Training the brain

The brain can create new neural pathways and rewire itself through the quality of neuroplasticity. Neural pathways are created by our attention and our actions. That is, through our directed attention and actions, we can change the brain’s neural pathways.

And the more we follow a neural pathway, the more hardwired it becomes.

So, by continuously focusing our attention on a future value such as health or a promotion, and by taking certain actions that support that, we will rewire our brains so that such focus and actions become easier and more automatic (like building the muscle).

Then, when our energy levels are low, the brain can still go down those pathways because they are more hardwired and will not require the extra energy that taking a new neural pathway requires.

Research has also shown that mindfulness training as well as other mind-body techniques can help to change the brain’s central executive network (CEN) and improve our self-control.

5 tips for creating change without the struggle

Where does all this leave us? To distill it down, here are 5 practical tips for creating change without depleting your energy:

  1. Work towards rather than against something. Shift the rules from negative to positive. For instance, instead of a rule like “I will not be distracted by emails and texts,” shift it to something like “I will dedicate 2 hours to focus only on writing my book.”
  2. Give yourself a choice. If you’re trying to avoid a behavior, it would be easier if instead of just saying no or restraining yourself, you had something you can say yes to instead. For instance, instead of just saying no to alcohol, give yourself an option of choosing something else like a cup of tea.
  3. Practice mindfulness, breathing and mind-body techniques to strengthen the neural pathways in the central executive network for greater focus and control.
  4. Be mindful of your body’s energy needs. Get rest and feed your body healthy food so that you don’t feel depleted. Our brains are unlikely to forge new neural pathways if we are hungry, sick, tired or stressed.
  5. Identify the future value you are honoring with your choice or action. What is the change you want, and why? Keep asking this until you get to the heart of what really matters to you. This real value, and the emotion of it, will strengthen your attention and the neural pathways for the change you seek.

Remember to practice and repeat, and with time the neural pathways will get stronger, the attention and actions easier, until they become automatic.

And if you’d like more information, feedback and support, shoot me an email.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash 


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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