THE BLOG
10/03/2015 07:16 GMT | Updated 06/05/2015 06:59 BST

The Real Secret of Self-Control

2015-03-06-1425674059-6226335-20150306_121723.jpgImage by Dave Mochel

As I write this I am looking outside and feeling the desire to enjoy the sunshine rather than sit at my computer. In an alternate universe I could be outside enjoying the sun and looking back through the window feeling that I should be working.

Sometimes we are doing one thing and we want to be doing another. At other times we are doing something and feeling that we should be doing something else. These moments are called "want and should motivational conflicts." Researchers in Germany recently studied how these conflicts affect both the way people feel and how they assess their overall life satisfaction. Not surprisingly, they found that being mindful and exercising self-control protects wellbeing by diminishing the negative impact of these want and should conflicts.

This is one more piece added to the large body of evidence that self-control is good for you. People with high self-control are generally healthier, happier, and more successful than those with low self-control. Given how important self-control is to living a good life, it may be strange to find out that there is an ongoing argument about whether it even exists. More accurately, there is disagreement about whether self-control is controlled by the self.

How do you feel about free will? Do you like to believe that you have a choice about what you do next? Research shows that what we believe about free will has an impact upon our behavior. When people are primed with evidence that free will does not exist, they are less likely to help others or reflect on their actions and more likely to be aggressive and follow the crowd. People who believe in free will also have perform better at work.

The existence of free will - the ability to consciously choose one's actions - is hotly debated by neuroscientists and philosophers. Experiments have shown that a split second before we consciously choose to act, there is activity in our nervous system indicating that the choice was made before we were aware making it. The activity is called a neural precursor to action and this discovery led many scientists to believe that free will is an illusion. But, this is not the end of the story. Follow up experiments offered evidence that we could choose not to act on impulses. It appeared that humans have veto power -- free won't rather than free will. The comfort of free won't didn't last long before neuroscientists discovered neural precursors to the choice not to act on an impulse.

Now, research that has just been released indicating that people who regularly practice mindfulness have different brain activity related to voluntary choice than those who don't. Apparently we can train ourselves to be more aware of very subtle impulses as they arise, and this awareness can make all the difference in our lives.

So do we have free will or not? The answer seems to be -- it depends. It appears that the greater our level of internal awareness, the more likely we are to have access to choice. The location of this awareness and the ability to choose to act or not act is in a part of the brain that is uniquely human. Unlike other animals, when we are aware of the urge to do something, we have some choice about what we do next. Some particularly powerful applications of this choice include working with anger, fear, anxiety and procrastination. In the case of procrastination, when you experience the impulse to deviate from your plan, you have the capacity to not respond. A client of mine recently told me that when he feels anger, he needs to act on the impulse to "get it out." This is a common belief. However, it is important to remember that your brain treats any response to an impulse as practice. Your brain builds links between impulses and behavior that become stronger as you repeatedly engage in them. So, be careful what you practice, because you are going to get better at it.

Dave Mochel, CEO of Applied Attention teaches individuals, teams, and organizations how to optimize the human brain for performance and well-being. The research-supported practices he teaches lead to personal fulfillment and health, strength of personal relationships and organizational cultures, overall productivity, and effectiveness in leadership. Dave teaches one on one, on site, remotely, and in retreats and seminars. You can contact him at dave@appliedattention.com