The Science of Self-Control: 6 Ways to Improve Your Willpower Today

One of the key parts of our culture at Buffer is a focus on self-improvement. We each pick an area to improve on each week and share our daily progress and challenges, making it a social, supportive way to adjust, create or change our habits.

There’s still a lot of work to be done for self-improvement to be effective, though. I’ve been through a bunch of different improvement focuses in the last few months, including positivity, running, reading more and learning French. Each one has been fun to focus on, but it’s hard to keep more than one new habit going at a time—partly because it takes so much willpower.

What willpower is and how it works in the brain

Kelly McGonigal, PhD and author of The Willpower Instinct says willpower is a response that comes from both the brain and the body.

The willpower response is a reaction to an internal conflict. You want to do one thing, such as smoke a cigarette or supersize your lunch, but know you shouldn’t. Or you know you should do something, like file your taxes or go to the gym, but you’d rather do nothing.

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8 Surprising Ways Music Affects and Benefits our Brains

I’m a big fan of music, and use it a lot when working, but I had no idea about how it really affects our brains and bodies. Since music is such a big part of our lives, I thought it would be interesting and useful to have a look at some of the ways we react to it without even realizing.

“Without music, life would be a mistake” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Of course, music affects many different areas of the brain, as you can see in the image below, so we’re only scratching the surface with this post, but let’s jump in.

brain-and-music

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How Our Brains Work When We Are Creative: The Science of Great Ideas

Ah, ideas. Who doesn’t want more great ideas? I know I do.

I usually think about ideas as being magical and hard to produce. I expect them to just show up without me cultivating them, and I often get frustrated when they don’t show up when I need them.

The good news is that it turns out cultivating ideas is a process, and one that we can practice to produce more (and hopefully better) ideas. On the other hand, often times great ideas can also just come to us whilst in the shower or in another relaxing environment.

First, let’s look at the science of the creative process.

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8 Common Thinking Mistakes Our Brains Make Every Day and How to Prevent Them

Get ready to have your mind blown.

I was seriously shocked at some of these mistakes in thinking that I subconsciously make all the time. Obviously, none of them are huge, life-threatening mistakes, but they are really surprising and avoiding them could help us to make more rational, sensible decisions.

Especially as we strive for continued self-improvement at Buffer, if we look at our values, being aware of the mistakes we naturally have in our thinking can make a big difference in avoiding them. Unfortunately, most of these occur subconsciously, so it will also take time and effort to avoid them—if you even want to.

Regardless, I think it’s fascinating to learn more about how we think and make decisions every day, so let’s take a look at some of these thinking habits we didn’t know we had.

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Why We’re More Creative When We’re Tired and 9 Other Surprising Facts About How Our Brains Work

One of the things that surprises me time and time again is how we think our brains work and how they actually do.

On many occasions I find myself convinced that there is a certain way to do things, only to find out that actually that’s the complete wrong way to think about it. For example, I always found it fairly understandable that we can multitask. Well, according to the latest research studies, it’s literally impossible for our brains to handle 2 tasks at the same time.

Recently I came across more of these fascinating experiments and ideas that helped a ton to adjust my workflow towards how our brains actually work (instead of what I thought!).

So here are 10 of the most surprising things our brain does and what we can learn from it:

 

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The Power of Meditation and How It Affects Our Brains

meditationEver since my dad tried to convince me to meditate when I was about 12, I’ve been fairly skeptical of this practice. It always seemed to be so vague and hard to understand that I just decided it wasn’t for me.

More recently, I’ve actually found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness. As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minute per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even thought two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started.

Whether you’re as skeptical as I used to be, or you’re well ahead of me with a meditation habit of several hours, I think it’s always interesting to find out how new habits affect our brains. I had a look into meditation to see what’s going on inside our brains when we do this, and what I found is pretty interesting.

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8 Things You Don’t Know Are Affecting Our Choices Every Day: The Science of Decision Making

Making decisions is something we do every day, so I wanted to find out more about how this process works and what affects the choices we make. It turns out, there are some really interesting ways our decisions are affected that I never would have guessed. Luckily, we can take action to improve most of these.

What happens in your brain when you make decisions

Obviously lots of things take place inside your brain as you make a decision. What I found really interesting were the various things that affect our brain’s decision-making process without us ever realizing.

Why we accept the default choice

Dan Ariely’s excellent TED talk explains this concept really well with the example of organ donor options on driver’s license forms:

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 9.21.37 AM

The overwhelming majority of drivers in the UK and European countries didn’t not check the box on their driver’s license application form.

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How Naps Affect Your Brain and Why You Should Have One Every Day

napI’m a big fan of afternoon naps. In fact, I was super excited when joining Buffer to hear about how the team is pro-napping. It’s not everyday you come across a company that’s open to letting employees take a snooze whenever they want one.

Naps aren’t for everyone, though. I’ve heard lots of people say naps don’t make them feel better, so I wanted to explore how naps affect your brain and whether they really are good for you or not.

How sleep affects us

Better sleeping is known to provide lots of health benefits. These can include better heart function, hormonal maintenance and cell repair as well as boosting memory and improving cognitive function. Basically, sleeping gives your body a chance to deal with everything that happened during the day, repair itself and reset for tomorrow.

Sleep deprivation, therefore, actually harms us in several ways. One of the most obvious harms is that we have trouble focusing when we’re sleep deprived. Leo wrote about this on the Buffer blog before:

someone who is severely sleep deprived is in fact as attentive and awake as you are, with one big difference. Here is what a recent study found:

Whether we are sleep deprived or not, we lose focus at times. And that is precisely where the sleep deprived person lands in a trap. Once we start to lose focus and have received the right amount of sleep, our brain can compensate for that and increase attention. If we are sleep deprived, our brain can’t refocus

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The Power of Shutting Down Your Senses: How to Boost Your Creativity and Have a Clear Mind

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 8.37.21 AMI used to think sensory deprivation was just a crazy torture method that no one in their right mind would opt-in for, until I stumbled upon some information recently about sensory deprivation floatation tanks.

These are water tanks big enough for one person, often set up at spas, where you can pay to float in salty water for hours, receiving almost no sensory information at all.

Sure, it seems crazy, but there are actually some alluring benefits, particularly when it’s done for short periods:

Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation are described as relaxing and conducive to meditation; however, extended or forced sensory deprivation can result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.

And as much as I’m really excited to try one of these tanks myself now, I’ve also found some interesting ways to use the same principles in an average day.

So what is sensory deprivation

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The Science of Time Perception: Stop It Slipping Away by Doing New Things

time perception - watchCan you remember a period in your life when, if you look back on it now, time seemed to stretch on forever? When a week seemed like four, or an hour seemed like it went on for days? What were you doing during that period?

Chances are, you were probably doing something (or a whole bunch of somethings) that was brand new to you and demanded your attention. The funny thing is, by focusing on what you were doing, you actually slowed down time (or how your brain perceived that time, anyway).

Neuroscientist David Eagleman used this great example to explain how time perception works:

Yet “brain time,” as Eagleman calls it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?

Before I explain these time-bending powers you didn’t know you had, let’s back up a bit and look at how our brains perceive time normally.

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