The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Meditate Your Way to More Willpower

Meditation MP3s to strengthen self-control and self-compassion.

A new article by journalist Deborah Kotz in U.S. World News and Report explores strategies for boosting willpower based on my Science of Willpower class at Stanford University.

I was surprised and happy that she highlighted the importance of mindfulness for strengthening self-control, and even linked to the guided meditation MP3s I created for students in my class:

Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making. "Paying attention to what's happening in the moment, what's going on in your body, your mind, and all around you, can make it easier to tune in to choices you make several hundred times a day when it comes to eating," says health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who teaches a class on the science of willpower at Stanford University.

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So for all of you interested in boosting willpower, here are the core meditation techniques and guided MP3s you can use to develop focus, mindfulness, self-compassion, and the strength to handle stress and cravings. A growing body of research supports the use of meditation for enhancing mental focus and overcoming addictions (from food to alcohol and other drugs), depression, and anxiety.

THE SCIENCE OF WILLPOWER GUIDED MEDITATION PRACTICES

These guided meditations were created specifically to support your ability to make mindful choices and handle stress and cravings. They also shift the brain and body into a state that gives you more energy, focus, and strength to do what is difficult rather than what is automatic and tempting.

I recommend exploring each technique once, and then choosing one that works best for you. Practice once a day to train your overall willpower, and practice in difficult situations to help handle stress and cravings.

To listen to these MP3 audio files, click on them to automatically stream the meditation, or right click (or contol-click on a Mac) to download the MP3 file.

Guided Concentration Meditation Practice. This 15-minute meditation is a concentration practice to help stabilize and focus your mind. Every five minutes, you will hear the sound of a meditation bowl being struck. You can finish your practice at 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 15 minutes. When you finish, acknowledge the success of sitting, no matter how focused or distracted you were. Your focus will be different on different days, even as you cultivate more and more skill at concentration. With time, this practice trains the brain for choosing the focus of your attention and making conscious choices.

Breath Focus Meditation with Mindfulness of Breath and Body. This meditation begins with breath focus, and then shifts into mindfulness of body, breath, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Remember to use labeling to help identify sensations and perceptions (e.g. mentally saying "stomach growled" or "nose itching"; "clock ticking" or "smell of pizza"). Once labeled, notice how it feels/sounds/smells, but then choose to come back to how it feels to breathe. Continue letting the attention dance in this way -- noticing, but coming back to the breath. This practice helps you become more aware of your choices, as well as how your environment, thoughts, and emotions trigger automatic behaviors.

Guided Meditation on Inner Calm. This 10-min meditation uses the principle of desensitization that is commonly used to work with stress, addictions, phobias, forgiveness/conflict, and trauma. You will be asked to bring your body into a state of relaxation, then bring to mind some situation that is creating stress for you, then return to feelings of relaxation. Remember that you are in control of this practice, and if it starts to feel like unpleasant rumination rather than meditation, it may not be the best practice for you in this moment. This practice can give you the capacity to better handle cravings and stress when they arise in everyday life.

Guided Relaxation. This is a basic 10-min relaxation with breath awareness and visualization. An excellent choice for daily practice to help reduce the stress that prompts automatic behaviors, from overeating to overspending, smoking, or other addictions.

Lovingkindness and Compassion for Yourself. This 15-min meditation helps your cultivate compassion for yourself. Research shows that self-compassion is important for handling setbacks and stress, particularly when you are trying to make a difficult change in your life (such as quitting smoking or losing weight). You will be asked to generate memories, thoughts, and feelings of tenderness, affection, concern, empathy, and love for yourself.

Guided Yoga Nidra Meditation. This 30-min meditation will take you through the process of mindfulness, heartfelt intention, inner resource, body sensing, breath sensing, and welcoming awareness. It is best to do the entire practice rather than stop early or skip ahead. Find a time when you will not feel rushed. You may fall asleep during this practice, and that is OK. With time, it will be easier to stay aware and awake. This practice can lead to a profound shift in both body and mind, helping you both reduce stress and connect to your core values and goals. In this way, it strengthens your ability to make conscious choices in everyday life.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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