A Sure-Fire Way to Improve Your Willpower

Recently, I had a lot of time off. I was free from outside obligations for the day. I could not figure out how should I spend the day. Thanks to my lack of planning the day before.

I had blocked sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime on my laptop but soon I got so bored that I jumped back on them again. But, 20 mins later I was still choosing a movie to watch.

I was already tired of rejecting so many movies. The decision fatigue was real.

I don’t know why but at the moment I settled with “American Hustle”. (I am not proud of my decision)

When I started watching the movie, it was not at all making sense to me. I kept on seeking it forward hoping it would get interesting soon. I was wrong.

I quit watching it after 10 minutes and started searching again. I thought documentaries would please me — I thought I was craving intellectual stimulation.

Wrong again.

No distraction (TV, movies, videos, etc) could please me the way it did before. I just kept getting bored with everything and eventually shut it off.

Surprisingly, I wanted to meditate. Even though I had completed my morning meditation routine. Earlier, meditating even for 5 minutes used to be a challenge. But now, it seems there is no other activity that gives me the same amount of joy.

This shift was really fascinating. The old me would have kept watching the screen mindlessly even when there were important things to get done.

How was this happening?

How am I able to muster such will power to shut the movie off even when I do not have anything to work on at the moment?

How did I stop myself from making an emotional decision?

I jumped on Google to find out. It turned out to be a productive research session.

Default mode network

There is a part of the brain called the default mode network — which is the monkey mind so to say.

It is a “task-negative” region that lights up when we are not focused on anything in particular.

And what does it do? The stuff you don’t want.

Ruminating about the past, thinking about the future, what other people think about you, etc.

When you are in this state you are generally unhappy, at least in the relative sense.

But, when you’re immersed in something, your brain shuts the hell up.

But I wasn’t focused on anything. I was sitting idle. So how did I resist my monkey mind who was telling me to stream Netflix?

Because I meditate often

Researchers have found meditators to have lesser activity in the default mode network. This is even true when they were not meditating.

Researchers have found meditators to have lesser activity in the default mode network. This is even true when they were not meditating.

But the puzzle was still not solved.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV measures the consistency of time gaps between two heartbeats over a period of time. For example, if the time between your first and second heartbeat is 1 second and that between your second and third beat is 0.8 seconds, then you have heart rate variability.

This means that you are being controlled by your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system . Together they form the autonomic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” mode. This is when your body releases hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline.

The smallest stress is enough to get you in this state of elevated heart rate.

The parasympathetic nervous system is exactly the opposite. It slows down your heart rate, relaxes you and makes you more aware in general.

A high HRV means that you are able to switch between the two parts of your nervous system . Meaning you can adapt to high-stress situations as well as relax in times of no stress.

People who have low HRV cannot respond to different situations. They are often stressed, depressed and generally unhappy.

What does HRV have to do with my experience here?

HRV and Willpower

Everyone wants more willpower. It helps us to do the things we want to do and avoid emotional impulses or distractions.

But not everyone is good at it.

HRV determines the depth of your willpower reserves.

A person with low HRV would experience negative emotions like stress, anxiety, etc. In such states, it is difficult to make logical decisions.

If someone gives you a cookie while you’re sad, you’re much more likely to eat it, forgetting about what diet goals you had.

When you’re exhausted after a fight with a friend, it is unlikely that you’ll muster the strength to hit the gym. You’d love to watch movies instead.

On the flip side, when you’re calm and have a high HRV, you’ll pause and think for a moment before giving in to any impulses.

That is why HRV determines willpower. It is one of the most accurate metrics to track for measuring your willpower.

Doctors and researchers used HRV to determine if a person would be able to quit smoking.

A wrestling analyst could also predict the winner on the basis of the HRV scores of the participants.

A high HRV enables us to “pause and plan” our response before making a decision. This helps us to avoid the default “fight-or-flight” response.

People with lower HRV cannot pause to make logical decisions. As a result, their emotions get the best of them.

How to improve HRV

The ancient science of yoga tells us that there is a direct correlation between the breath and the life-force (prana or chi). By controlling the breath, you can change your state.

Your respiration affects your blood pressure and your heart rate. When your heart rate and BP synchronize with your breath, you achieve a state of coherence. In this state, you’re calm and perform better at almost any task.

Observe how your breath becomes shallow and fast-paced when you are angry, anxious, stressed or nervous. Conversely, the breath becomes relaxed when you are watching a movie and chilling with your friends.

This effect works both ways. This means you can control your breath to affect your body and thus change your state as you like. Slow and deep breaths would relax you. Shallow and fast breaths would excite you or make you nervous, stressed and anxious.

Here are 3 ways to build up your HRV:

  • Meditation: Most forms of meditation involve focusing on the breath and relaxing. This is an excellent way to boost your HRV. HRV can also act as a metric to track your meditation progress and how it has affected your life.

  • HRV Training: Using biofeedback you can track your HRV in real-time so that you can make efforts to increase it. Devices like a chest strap or an Oura ring coupled with a smartphone app can help you collect data about your HRV. This gives you instant access to where you stand and how to go from there.

  • Physical Exercise: Physical exercise on a regular basis helps to increase your HRV. You don’t need access to the gym or strength training at all. You need to get out of the house and do something physical for 20 minutes. You can choose your favorite activity — walking, cycling, gardening, etc. Get on with it. Time’s no excuse.

I’ve found breathing exercises (which is a part of meditation and HRV training) to be much more effective than physical exercise.

I’ve been working out for the past 4–5 years but I saw these benefits only when I started meditating.

Besides the above points, you can try optimizing your sleep, listening to music, chilling with friends, etc.

The number one focus underpinning all is to remove stress from your life as much as possible. Be calm, healthy and joyful!


Meditation helps to silence your inner critic aka the default mode network. This itself is a great tool to break bad habits, avoid temptations or distractions and increase general awareness throughout the day.

HRV is a direct indicator of the strength of your willpower. High HRV helps you to adapt to all situations so that you can dance in the storm of everyday life.

The main ways to improve HRV are meditation, HRV training (biofeedback), and physical exercise. Additionally, ensure optimal sleep quality, chill with friends and avoid stress in your system!

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Written on January 6, 2020