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5 ways to boost willpower

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / November 7, 2011

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Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal recommends the following measures to increase your willpower.

Get at least six hours of sleep a night. Just one night of sleep deprivation (less than five or six hours of sleep), can result in mild dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, research suggests. “We turn into the worst version of ourselves,’’ said McGonigal, and are more likely to snap at our kids, lose our concentration when driving, and pig out on junk food.

Practice slow-breathing techniques. Those who engage in formal meditation for 15 minutes a day actually add gray matter to their brain’s prefrontal cortex, according to a recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital, and other studies have found that meditators exhibit higher levels of self-control. In McGonigal’s book, she includes this instant willpower booster: “Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s 10 to 15 seconds per breath.’’

Do something physically challenging. Adopt a new habit, such as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand or adjusting your posture every 30 minutes, both of which have been validated in research. Or learn a new skill like rollerblading, Zumba, or ballroom dance.

Exercise every day, preferably outdoors. A 2010 review of 10 studies found that the biggest mood-boosting, stress-reducing effects of exercise came from five-minute doses. Getting active outside provided an added bonus of increased willpower in some studies, she said, possibly because being around nature reduced stress more than being indoors.

Make sure your body is well-fueled. Hunger definitely depletes self-control, so eating regular meals is key. If you’re gearing up for an intense project - or are in the middle of one - having a small carbohydrate snack like an apple or a handful of pretzels can provide the brain with much needed glucose to see you through.

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