Keeping to New Year’s Resolutions: Less about will-power and more about brain physiology

Ngā mihi o te tau hou! Happy New Year! At the beginning of 2016 we are faced with choices. Carry on, business as usual, or step out of the usual rhythm of our lives and really expand ourselves. By now you may have set your New Year’s resolutions. Also, by now, you may have already given up or contravened that resolution list.


Trying to get motivated I watched some interesting clips on Youtube. One caught my attention on the topic. Here are some ideas for those who have fallen off the wagon but were willing to get back on.


According to Kelly McGonigal, “The willpower instinct” offers four things you can do to have more willpower and strengthen your ability to achieve your goals. She called these four things the “Physiology of Willpower” and they include:

  1. Sleep
  2. Meditation
  3. Physical exercise
  4. Low –GI (glycemic) or plant-based diet


Well these just happen to be the four things on my list. The good news is, you don’t need to do all four of these things. Just doing one of them is enough to see a difference. McGonigal suggests that making some TINY changes could lead to some huge results. That’s what captured my attention. This was my kind of action plan.


Hang on… Wouldn’t I need some ‘willpower’, to my cross legs in meditation pose; or put on my gym shoes for other than fashion; or force myself to switch off the devices and retire early; worse still forgo the sweet treats opting for the green leaves and fibre? It’s like a catch 22 apparently. Not doing these things is what makes it so difficult to start doing these things!!! Finding enough willpower to start sends us on an upward curve with the tipping point that ends up giving us back much more willpower than we take. Finding willpower to start up the learning curve leaves us with more to spread around not only these four things but all challenges!


Research showed that starting with even 10 minutes a day of breath-focused meditation had all kinds of benefits. I don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of meditation. I’ve done the Vipassana 10 day silent meditation retreats at Kaukapakapa twice. At the end of the course, guru Goenka-ji encourages us to do an hour in the morning and an hour at night to maintain our Vipassana practice. I always managed for a couple of weeks before falling back into my old lifestyle habits and dropping it all together. So the idea of just 10 minutes, in comparison, is certainly doable. Research participants enjoyed an hour more of quality sleep with this small input of meditation. Two for the dedication of one! Both these small interventions of meditation and extra sleep had a positive effect on the participants’ willpower.


I always considered sleep a bit over-rated. Turns out, sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours a night) leaves parts of the frontal cortex of the brain under-activated and unable to function efficiently. The mid-brain section which is associated with basic impulses and instincts becomes over-activated with sub-optimal sleep. This means that a lack of sleep prevents us from engaging the parts of the brain that remembers long-term goals and core values. Both are needed if we are planning on becoming the ‘next best version of ourselves’ in 2016.


Now, with 10 minutes a day of mindfulness training through meditation, our brain is better fuelled, which has a ripple effect of an extra hour a day of quality sleep. Might the extra brain energy bring about more will-power to improve diet and exercise? The two goals have appeared on my resolution list since I can ever remember making one. This might be the year, and improved brain physiology might be the way.  McGonigal asserts, sleep, meditation, exercise, or eating a more plant-based diet, improves your brain function to be more motivated and become a “willpower machine”.  Where last year my brain directed me towards temptation and immediate gratification, this year could be the one where I remember who I am, in alignment with my values and help make a difference in the world.


By now, we all know the benefits of exercising more regularly.  Research showed that finding the will power to do exercises, combined with meditation for even 10 minutes a day correlated with changes to the pre-frontal cortex and associated systems. They grew bigger, denser, and better connected to the regions of the brain they are supposed to be controlling. These benefits could be seen within a couple of months of starting. And starting to exercise not only made it easier to exercise but also made it easier to eat right, pay better attention and refrain from procrastination habits.


Finally, maintaining the spikes and troughs of your blood-sugar level through eating a low-glycemic/ plant based diet helped control how the brain uses up energy.  This diet plan was seen as helping the brain with blood sugar surges and to be more brain-energy efficient. A vegan diet was considered best but probably a little difficult for most to adopt. Lucky for me I’m a vegetarian already, so I’m part the way there. Unlucky for me though was convincing myself that cakes, chippies and chocolate are technically vegetarian and at an extreme stretch ‘plant based’.


Another finding in the research was to ‘not be too hard on yourself for will-power failings’. It was better to forgive yourself and move on from the ‘shame and the guilt’ because everyone struggles.  The harder participants were on themselves, the more likely they were to fail again next time, and to partake of even more of what they were trying to avoid.


So, here are a couple of other tips you may already know. Write down your goals/resolutions and make them S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). Announce them to your friends, family, and social networks, and invite them to support you in achieving them. Put them in places where you can see them often; toilet doors, refrigerator doors, screen-savers etc. Spend a couple of minutes before sleeping and upon waking doing visualisation. Visualise yourself in your mind’s eye having already accomplished the goal.  Make the visualisation emotion-filled imagining the smells, sounds, taste, and feel, in addition to what you see.


Since I wrote this I have found will-power to meditate 10 minutes a day. I mean surely any one can find 10 minutes a day! I’m still tracking sleep but hope it turns into more and a better quality of sleep. Secondly, I can find 10 minutes a day to walk. It’s a good enough start for me. How about yourself? What New Year’s resolution have you got? What would the world be like if everyone’s brain-energy improved? Here’s to 2016, and being the next best version of yourself!


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