In general, our daily lives are made up of automatic and unconscious activities, but situations arise that require controlled effort or willpower (intention) such as when we try to solve a problem (academic tasks), keep our attention focused on infrequent signals (efforts requiring vigilance), repress impulses (self-control), or exercise at an uncomfortable intensity (sports and rehabilitation situations).

Controlled effort or will results from the exertional mechanism anchored in the salience network that includes the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and inner insula.

The anterior cingulate cortex, and specifically the anterior cingulate gyrus, is part of an executive attentional network, and its main function is to regulate information processing in the brain from other networks in both sensory and emotional modalities (Öschner & Gross, 2005).

Thus, the anterior cingulate cortex is the area of the cerebral cortex responsible for being involved in the predictions that our own brain makes about the results of certain behaviours and helps it to execute said behaviour, i.e. to put its willpower into action.  But is it possible to "train" this part of the cerebral cortex to do what we want to do?

A study published in the journal Frontiers in 2022 presented a model to test whether it was feasible to train willpower.  The author of the model (Baumeister et al., 2007, 2018) was perhaps the best person to do so, as he had co-authored the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength in 2011.

Taking the metaphor of muscle, Baumeister's model assumes that regular exercise of effortful control (self-discipline) can improve willpower and endurance, just as training can strengthen muscles.

The results indicated that Mindfulness and physical exercises seem to be two promising training methods that deserve to be included in controlled effort training programmes.


It's not Just About Willpower

According to the same Frontiers article, people who have a high capacity to exert controlled effort or volitional capacity are more likely to perform better in work, school and sports situations that require controlled attention or self-discipline (self-control).

However, as a BBC article mentions, "some of our civilisation's greatest achievements have been founded on qualities such as creativity, imagination, curiosity and empathy".

And yes, it turns out that these characteristics make up what science has termed "cognitive flexibility".  This is the ability that allows you, as a human being, to switch between different concepts or adapt your behaviour to achieve goals in a new or unstable environment. 

According to these parameters, your willpower, rather than being an immovable arrow of action, should navigate through life's vicissitudes and difficulties that may require modifications on your part in order to achieve the purpose you have set for yourself.

So, which would come first, purpose, willpower, or cognitive flexibility?

In my simple experience, once you set a goal, it requires willpower or self-discipline to stick to your purpose and cognitive flexibility to adapt accordingly, depending on the circumstances, but without losing sight of your goal and the motivation that has set you on the path towards it.


It is About Learning How to Learn and Being Flexible in the Different Ways We Embrace New Learning

Over time I have become convinced that we humans are lifelong students, and this refers to the attitude with which we approach life: 

First, a certain openness to understand that we don't know EVERYTHING and that every day has lessons for us, but also, a willingness to learn and to continue to be amazed as we discover what the world shows us.

Second, to detect and accept that if something we are doing is not leading to success, to react in time and make the relevant changes.  This includes taking the initiative and looking for strategies to redirect us to the path we want to follow.

Third, don't cry over spilt milk.  Instead of dramatizing or blaming and getting angry about an adverse situation, use this time to resolve the situation as soon as possible and in the best possible way. 

Fourth, we are in a time when we confuse the concept of happiness with that of pleasure.  Feeling fear, sadness, guilt, disgust are emotions that make up our brain's adaptive responses.  To paraphrase psych-pedagogue Mar Romera: "If you feel fear when you are in a dark place at night, that feeling can save your life.  If you feel guilty about something wrong, that positions you on the platform towards repair; if you feel rejection towards alcoholic drinks -to give an example- that will help you to have the clarity to reject things that are harmful to your body”.

According to Romera, we need to experience ALL emotions in order to train them, as if we were in a gym.

The same goes for your brain. It needs to go to this gymnasium of different emotions, not just one. You can't just go to the nice massage room. You must live EVERYTHING and take responsibility for your actions.  In short, you must be brave. (article)


5 Ways to Boost Your Willpower

"You will not always be motivated, so learn to be determined"


These are the five ways I suggest to stimulate your willpower and motivate you to strengthen your anterior medial cingulate cortex or, as it were, to build, to familiarise you with your self-discipline, and to awaken in you the confidence to call on this important tool whenever you need it:

Keep your life purpose in mind.  By focusing on your purpose, all the things that make up your life begin to come easier.  It is that intrinsic motivation that drives your willpower and depends somewhat on how you see yourself carrying out that purpose. Also, take breaks (cognitive flexibility) to replenish yourself with the energy you need to engage again your renewed willpower.

Prepare the environment to enable the accomplishment of your purpose.  Sometimes simply making the decision is not enough, but if you set the stage, the ingredients, you will decrease the steps or preparations to get to the action.  Example: you want to prepare a new recipe for breakfast, but you wake up in the morning hungry and rushed with all the things you must do during the day.  You can leave the ingredients and utensils you need on the kitchen counter the night before.  Then, as soon as you enter the kitchen in the morning, everything will be ready to go.

Do something you don't want to do.  This is where you really strengthen the anterior cingulate cortex.  Now, my challenge is cold showers, especially in winter.  But I know that by exercising my self-discipline every morning (I don't have to prove anything to anyone), and with the results I have seen happen in my body, I am filled with the motivation I need to shower and make progress towards staying longer under the stream of icy water.

Tone your will from the first thing in the morning. Start the day with a challenging task at once.  As soon as you wake up, without thinking twice, do a meditation, a workout, a cold shower, etc.  By achieving success first thing in the morning, you set the guidelines for your actions for the day, having practised your discipline and self-control.   This gives you the momentum and makes it easier for you to face bigger challenges during the day and eventually the confidence to cultivate new healthy habits.

Develop your spirituality or practice Mindfulness.  Contrary to popular belief, being a spiritual person does not require you to commit yourself to a religion.  It is really about whatever you think, whatever you say, whatever you do, be done conscientiously: that what you speak, what you eat, what you do, everything is done with meaning, well thought out and better yet, with purpose.

Mindfulness also helps you to become aware of your thoughts and impulses and teaches you to regulate your reactions and make better choices in accordance with your purpose.  Meditation or breath-retention exercises allow you in the simplest way to practice your self-discipline and strengthen your anterior medial cingulate cortex or willpower.


Exercises to Train Your Cognitive Flexibility

Once you have your purpose and the tools for strong willpower, cognitive flexibility would be presented as the "problem-solving" chapter in this instruction manual for life.  For this, there are a few exercises that might help you:

Reverse thinking:

Challenge your assumptions by considering the opposite perspective - what if your initial assumption is wrong? How would the situation look from a different angle?

Example: If you believe that failure is always negative, reverse your thinking. Consider how failure can be an opportunity to grow and learn.

Role reversal:

Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Imagine the other person's thoughts, feelings and motivations. This exercise broadens your understanding and empathy.

Creative problem solving:

Approach problems from multiple angles. Think of multiple solutions, even if they seem unconventional. This is called "encouraging divergent thinking".

Example: You find yourself in a traffic jam. Instead of feeling frustrated, think of alternative routes, listen to a podcast, or use the time to practice deep breathing.

Learn a new skill:

Gain knowledge or experience in a foreign field. Learning something new stimulates your brain and encourages flexibility.

For example: learning to play a musical instrument, learning a new language are just a few examples.

Flexible routines:

While routines bring stability, you can make small variations. Change your morning routine, rearrange your workspace, change your workout routine at the gym, vary your diet this week.

Example: instead of checking your phone and social media first thing in the morning, start the day by writing down (yes, handwriting) in a journal what you remember you dreamt about that night.

Dual-task exercises:

Do activities that require simultaneous attention. We women love this because for many of us, this is how our lives unfold (this is the case for those who work and at the same time must attend to the needs of children and other household chores); however, sometimes, it is not so obvious for men.  For example, you can listen to a podcast while cooking or solve puzzles while walking.

Reflect and adapt:

Periodically review your experiences and decisions - what worked well, what could you have done differently? Adjust your approach accordingly.

Example: After completing a project, reflect on the process: Did you encounter obstacles, were you able to resolve them, what to consider for a next project?


The suggestions and exercises I have presented to you today do not have to be implemented all at once.  They are examples. You can choose the one that resonates most with you and in the modality, you feel you may be needing it, whether it is to strengthen your willpower, or to enhance your cognitive flexibility.  When you feel you have incorporated it as a habit in your life, move on to another.

Remember that cognitive flexibility is a muscle that can be strengthened over time. Embrace uncertainty, be receptive to life's diverse experiences, and practice these exercises consistently. This allows you to better cope with any life situation, without giving up your purpose and the discipline required to achieve it.




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