Science is backing a simple form of meditation as an easy way to develop willpower.
(Disclosure: I tried transcendental meditation as a young psychology graduate, but wasn't diligent. I couldn't relate to the 'guru in a cave' image of the transcendental bit. I've been sceptical for more than 30 years. I wanted hard evidence. Now I'm satisfied.)
Meditation offers you an easy way to train your pre-frontal cortex - your brain's executive centre.
A well-trained pre-frontal cortex monitors our emotions and choices. It will say, 'Have some fruit instead of another slice of pavlova' or 'Open that email once you've finished the report'.
More self-control improves our focus and reduces the stress of multi-tasking - a very inefficient way to work.
You won't need to recite a mantra or sit cross-legged for hours at a time to learn a simple form of meditation.
Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University reports that even sceptics can learn meditation. It takes about three hours (in total) for the benefits to set in. It shows up (on fMRI scans) as increased blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex in about 11 hours.
Dr McGonigal's modern meditation method
Start with five-minute sessions.
Sit up straight. Close your eyes. Resist the urge to scratch or fidget.
Focus on one thing, say your breathing. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breathing. Think 'inhale' and 'exhale' as you do it.
After a few minutes, stop the commentary.
Being bad at meditation is good
It might seem strange, but being a bad meditator is good for developing your willpower. It's the coming back to the point of focus (your breathing) that trains your pre-frontal cortex. The more often you are distracted while meditating, the more often you have to refocus and the better the training.
A few other things you should know about willpower
1. Each time we succeed in resisting a distraction or temptation we are laying down neural pathways that make self-control easier next time.
Just as important: When we don't go the the gym, don't resist the urge to throw a tantrum in the office or we break open the cigarette packet, we're laying down neural pathways too.
2. You need glucose for willpower - your brain's fuel. You'll have more willpower when you have eaten.
3. Keeping fit, resting well and avoiding distractions help too. Believe it or not, so will staying away from smog.