In the American Psychological Association annual stress survey, most people cited lack of willpower (self-control) as the No.1 reason for not following through lifestyle changes. However, research in neuroscience suggests that failure to understand the brain mechanism behind willpower is what leads us to repeated failures because we are simply working against the logic of nature.

Research has shown that the lack of self-awareness and inability to reduce stress are among the key factors that contribute to willpower failures, hence, our incapacity to make truly lasting positive life changes. Why is self-awareness important for positive change? It is because awareness is needed to recognise when making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest to do. In another study, people were asked how many food-related decisions they make in one day. On average, people guessed 14. In reality, when these same group of people carefully tracked their decisions, the average was 227. Most choices are made on autopilot, without any real awareness of what is driving them, and certainly without serious reflection on their consequences.

Stress is another obstacle for effective positive change. Heart rate variability is used as a physiological measurement to show whether the body is in a state of calm or stress. People with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, hence, it is an indicator of one’s willpower reserve and the capacity to exercise positive change. A normal resting heart rate for adult ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Usually, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function. A heart rate has normal ups and downs which is what is known as heart rate variability. The heart rate goes up and variability goes down when in stress. Thus when the heart get “stuck” at higher rate, the willpower gets depleted quickly, thus making positive change an almost impossible uphill task.

Self-awareness and a sense of calm are the 2 crucial components in sustaining willpower for positive change. Neuroscientists have discovered that during meditation, the brain is capable of a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Those who meditate regularly have more grey matter in their prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain that support self-awareness. One study revealed that people who have never meditated in their life developed improved attention and self-control with just 3 hours of cumulative meditation practice. After 11 hours, the new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses.

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist / lecturer at Stanford University, USA and a leading expert on the mind-body relationship. In her book, The Willpower Instinct, she explores the scientific reasons behind the failure to change and the latest empirical methods that can enhance lasting positive changes - Breath Focus Meditation. It is a simple secular breath focus meditation which trains the human brain to reduce stress and increase willpower. The breath focus meditation technique takes only 5 minutes.

  • Breath Focus Mediation - Sit still and stay put. Sit in a chair with feet flat on the ground. Sit up straight and rest the hands in the lap. It’s important not to fidget or move when meditating as it is the physical foundation of self-control. Pay attention to the breath with eyes closed. Monitor the breathing. Silently say “inhale” when breathing in and “exhale” when breathing out. Notice how it feels to breathe and after a few minutes, drop the labels “inhale/exhale”.Focus on justthe feeling of breathing and notice the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of the nose and mouth. Feel the belly or chest expanding and deflating with each breath.

Start with 5 minutes a day. Gradually increase the duration to 10, 15, 30 minutes when accustomed to the meditation. If the longer duration is becoming too much of a chore, reduce it back to 5 minutes a day. The purpose of meditation is not about getting rid of all thoughts or about getting lost in them. It is about strengthening your self-awareness and state of calmness in the process.

Another method - slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. This immediately boosts your willpower reserves. The slowing breath technique is as follows and do it for 10 minutes:

  • Slow your breath down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute, which is about 10 to 15 seconds per breath. Time the number of breaths per minute. Then begin to slow the breath down without holding one’s breath (that will only increase stress). For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely. Exhaling fully will help one breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling.

Other methods that are conducive for reducing stress and increasing capacity for positive change are as follows:

  • Exercise
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Healthy diet (proteins, nuts and beans, high-fibre grains, fruits and vegetables)
  • Spend quality time with friends and family
  • Participate in a religious or spiritual practice

In conclusion, Science has demonstrated that effective and positive lifestyle change is possible through self-awareness and a state of calm. Equipped with this knowledge, the choice of vigour should always emerge victorious in order to achieve lasting positive changes so that humans can live qualitative lives.


McGonigal, K. (2013). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Penguin Group.

American Psychological Association