Why Meditation Is the Best Way to Increase Willpower

The science is in — meditation bolsters willpower.

If a genie someday came out of a bottle that I accidentally rubbed, and said, “Your wish is my command,”, I’d say give me the strongest willpower in the world.


I’d rather have the meta-skill that helps me perform at the highest level in any activity than go for fleeting wishes like riches, fame, etc.

The reason is simple — willpower fuels success. There’s no doubt about that. Willpower is also a part of the trinity of skills that I like to pay the most attention to.

But I can’t afford to wait for the genie to come out of the bottle. I need to work to improve my willpower.

Life is ironic. If you make the hard choices, life is easy. But if you make the easy ones, life is difficult. And so you need to have the strength to make the hard choice as much as possible.

What sort of choices am I talking about?

  • Should I watch Netflix or should I write an article?

  • Should I read a book or scroll Instagram endlessly?

  • Should I eat the cookie or not?

These little choices determine the quality of your life over the years. If you don’t have the strength to make the hard choice today, then your dreams will remain just that. Dreams.

Did You Eat the Marshmallow?

You may already know this. But one of the most popular scientific willpower studies was done by Standford University researchers in 1972. It’s commonly referred to as the marshmallow study or the delayed gratification study.

The researchers took 600 preschoolers as participants. They were told to go in a room with only a chair, a desk, and a marshmallow waiting to be swallowed.

These kids were given two options — either eat the marshmallow right now or wait for fifteen minutes to have two marshmallows.

They went into the room one by one and the door was closed. Further, the kids didn’t exactly know how long they’d have to wait. They did everything they could to resist the temptation — cover their eyes, spin their chairs, kick the desk, or even pet the marshmallow, like a stuffed animal!

Of all the kids who took the test, only about one-third were able to wait for the second marshmallow. Some of the others who couldn’t make it waited for a certain amount of time before caving in to the temptation.

This time was used to determine each child’s willpower grade.

But the study didn’t end here.

The researchers then did three decades’ worth of follow-up to see where the kids would be in their lives. They aimed to find patterns and see if their ability to resist the marshmallow was indicative of how they’d turn out to be in the future.

And as you can guess, the children with the highest willpower grades were better than the others in almost everything. They had higher SAT scores, more income, better education, more friends, fewer bad habits, less stress, etc.

The lead of the study, Dr. Mischel said,

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching TV, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s just not about marshmallows.”

“So How Does This Help Me?”

Many people, when they first hear about the willpower study, think that willpower is set from an early age. That you cannot do anything about it.

But that’s not true. The kids who had high willpower grades likely learned to resist temptations from their parents, teachers, environments, and so on.

In any case, willpower is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more you develop it.

You can see this happening with many people too. For instance, when people give up bad habits like drinking or smoking, every other area of their lives start to improve — they exercise a little more, they eat healthier, have less stress and better, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

You don’t need scientific evidence to see this.

Thus, thankfully, willpower can be improved regardless of your age. But don’t take my word. Dr. Mischel says,

“The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill…Even young students understand that they can change how they think and how they plan in ways which give them greater control over what they can do, what they can learn, and what they can become… Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, then you can really begin to increase it.”

Now that you’re convinced that you can work on it, the question is how.

There are many different ways that I outline here like eating healthy, sleeping well, etc.

But the biggest and the most effective one is meditation.

Why Meditation Bolsters Willpower

Caltech neuroscientists made 37 dieters rate 50 food pictures on their level of tastiness and healthiness.

During this process, they were hooked with brain imaging technology to see which area of their brain is active when they’re using their willpower to make food choices.

As per their findings, when the dieters made health-driven choices rather than taste-driven ones, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DL-PFC) lit up. This means that the brain cells in the DL-PFC, present behind your forehead, are the willpower’s brain address.


Meditation has also been shown directly to increase the gray matter in the brain. Yes, that literally means your brain gets bigger the more you meditate. Plus, it also downregulates the activity in the amygdala which is the brain’s center for emotions.

What else would you possibly want?

And while all these benefits of meditation have been written in ancient scriptures and told by saints and sages, it’s good to have them confirmed by science for skeptical people.

With the power of meditation, you can finally muster the strength to do the things that you need to do but don’t really want to.

The Pause and Plan Response

Now that we’ve talked a lot about scientific studies, let’s talk in plain English.

It’s safe to say that most of our waking time is spent in the “fight-or-flight” mode — especially non-meditators.

We’re constantly thinking about what to do next, multitasking, juggling a thousand different ideas, and tackling whatever task comes up. This means that we’re reacting to the things around us.

During such moments, your sympathetic nervous system is active.

The contrary to this is the “rest and digest” mode or the parasympathetic nervous system. Among other things, it conserves energy by slowing down the heart rate and relaxing the muscles.

Since we’re spending a lot of time in fight-or-flight mode, we react to a majority of the thoughts and temptations that come to us throughout the day. This is why we struggle with procrastination, cravings, addiction, and so on.

We think that our thoughts are words of God and we need to pay attention to them. But this is far from the truth.

In reality, your thoughts are not you. They’re just the cars you see passing by on the road. You don’t have to cling to any one of them — you have the choice to just stand, see them come, and see them go.

This is only possible through meditation. With the power of meditation, you learn to let thoughts pass. The more you let them pass, the more you realize that you are not them. They’re separate. You’re only the observer of your thoughts. And it’s a trainable skill.

With this skill comes the power of the pause and plan response.

When temptation strikes you the next time, you can pause and plan your reaction. These pauses make you think “this too shall pass.” Every time you resist temptations, you add a brick to your willpower wall.

As the wall gets bigger and bigger, the waves of your thoughts can’t get through it. This is how you develop willpower with meditation.

If you can learn to let your thoughts pass with regular meditation practice, you can resist all the temptations that come with them.

My Results With Meditation & Willpower

Before meditation, I was a total procrastinator. I did get things done occasionally but once I was sucked into a distraction, I couldn’t get out of it. At one point, I was scared of committing to people because I feared getting distracted and not coming through for them.

Even though I had important tasks to complete, I scrolled Netflix for half-an-hour deciding what to watch.

So I did what anyone else trying to come out of the binge-watching addiction would do — block Netflix on my laptop.

As you would’ve guessed it hardly works. I downloaded the Netflix app on my iPad and kept going. When I stopped paying for the subscription, I started sharing it with one of my friends.

The list goes on and on. There was nothing I could do to stop that habit. Someone would’ve to tie me to a chair to stop me from using it.

Now, imagine having five-to-seven habits like that — bing-watching, emotional snacking, YouTube, social media, random web surfing, etc. They sure ruined my productivity, bit by bit.

Finally, after a year of meditation practice, I am grateful to be past those habits.

Today, I can stop myself from watching Netflix tout de suite. Even if I do get sucked into it, it’s usually for a few minutes. I no longer snack. In fact, I fast intermittently every day combined with a 24-hour fast once a week.

It’s been months since I’ve even opened Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube (except for a couple of online courses I had to take; no kidding).

When I do face cravings, I take a moment to breathe, get my mind in order, and often make a conscious choice to not indulge. (Along with few other techniques — which I’ll write about soon).

It took a lot of time for me to reach this level. But after the first few months, the momentum of breaking bad habits carried me to the shores of victory.

The Takeaway

Willpower is a must-have resource that you need to succeed and live a happy life. You can’t be weak-willed and still achieve everything you dream of.

So don’t postpone meditation anymore. I know you’ve heard about it a lot already — because it works.

You can start with as little as ten minutes a day and see the positive effects within a few weeks of practice.

The only question is, will you?

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Written on November 24, 2020