Gray matter for self-control: 10 ways to win the long game

The more gray matter in your brain, the more strength you have to resist bad habits.

In this article, I’ll give you 10 easy, science-backed ways to build gray matter so you don’t have to rely on huge bursts of willpower as often, if at all.

“Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long one.”

– James Clear, Atomic Habits

gray matter Pinterest Pin

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

What does gray matter do?

Many things! But muscle control, memory, emotion, decision making, and self-control are the most important for our purposes.

The mere presence of your phone in the same room reduces your focus and makes you perform worse on cognitive tasks. Media multitasking is associated with smaller gray matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of your brain responsible for attention, decision making, and the emotional reaction to pain). And I extrapolate this comes down to focus; it’s a buildable skill. Like gray matter.

Most of this blog is about short-term urge surfing, but life shouldn’t be living on edge, worrying about the next battle. That’s why building gray matter is the winner’s game.

Disempower urges onto a downward trend with these strategies.

Single-task

Research has consistently shown that people who try to quit more than one habit at a time fail at all of them, and sooner. Sometimes they find it harder to want to quit again, having experienced miserable failure. They can also shift the blame to the thing and declare themselves powerless. (This is called learned helplessness.)

Singular focus improves your chances of success. Keep your phone far away, if possible, when you practice any of the below good habits.

Practice distancing in tiny areas

Self-control isn’t all about gray matter. That’s the stuff you use when you critically evaluate an option.

Instead, you can dismiss it out of hand. By not giving in to a tiny, everyday stressor, you slowly make a habit of distancing yourself from the immediate cue. So when a bigger stressor or craving arrives, you’re accustomed to inserting a little gap in which lies your freedom to choose.

See also:
Leaves on a stream: self-distancing for cravings and withdrawal

You can try:

  • not scratching an itch
  • not responding in anger
  • taking a deep breath
Try this: next time you itch, don't scratch. Breathe through your nose, into your stomach. It might take a full minute, but slowly the itch will go away. Watch it rise and fall. It has no power over you. You control your hand, not the itch. And the less you scratch, the weaker the itches become.

Exercise

Brief bursts of exercise, whether pushups, jumping jacks, dancing, or shadowboxing (anything vigorous), was found in a meta-analysis of 20 papers to improve blood flow to your prefrontal cortex. That’s the executive, decision-making part of your brain. It’s the part that sees the forest for the trees and says I’ll be glad I abstained later.

Furthermore, increases in peak oxygen uptake through aerobic exercise increases your gray matter, adding to your physical, intellectual, and emotional capabilities. Psychologically, pushing yourself to continue when it’s hard also helps you hold out against urges longer.

Plus it’s an outlet for the new energy you’ll have once you quit. Remember, never quit. Always substitute.

See also:
How to quit X? Don’t quit. Substitute.

man and woman at gym running on treadmills illustration

Mindfulness

Mindfulness means sitting, eyes closed, and paying attention to your breath. When your focus wanders, don’t label or judge any train of thought, and bring back your focus to your breath.

It also helps to recognize emotions you have, their physical manifestation in your body (muscle aches, tired, warm, etc.), and noticing your thoughts as they bounce all around. This induces calm and control.

Donald et al found that, among a group of 143 university students who followed a mindfulness program just
a few minutes a day for 20 days, 3 benefits arose. They became more likely, when living in the present with
their stress, to:

  • pause and act not on immediate emotion
  • rely on their core values more when responding
  • be more confident about their level of control in future stressful events

“Clear mindfulness inhibits the growth of hindrances; continuous mindfulness extinguishes them.”

– Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English (the best book on mindfulness)

Here’s the ultimate, shortest, simplest guide by mindful.org.

And Insight Timer and the Calm app are the best for beginners. (I use Insight Timer)

This is probably the most effective strategy on this page, with tons of research backing it. If you choose nothing else, make take for this one.

Someone is erasing a drawing of gray matter in the human brain

Just breathe

When you crave, you get tunnel vision. Both literally (your eyes blur surroundings) and physiologically (your heartbeat and brain conspire to remove other options from your top-of-mind).

According to Tugade & Fredrickson, “the narrowing of thought–action repertoires associated with negative emotions is accompanied by cardiovascular reactivity that prepares the body for specific action. In contrast, positive emotions broaden the thought–action repertoire, which should “undo” the lingering cardiovascular aftereffects of negative emotions.”

In other words, when you calm your heartbeat, you remember your other options.

The most instantaneous way to do this is inhale through your nose for 3, then exhale for 6. You can pick any number you like; just keep the exhale twice as long as the inhale. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system and calms you down, away from your fight-or-flight response brought on by stress.

If you want to learn the medical benefits and exercises to get them, download my free breathwork guide.

woman in tank calmly bops shark on nose

Empathy

The only solid proof I have for this is the inverse. That is, clinical narcissists and psychopaths lack the gray matter associated with empathy. Empathy may be correlated with higher gray matter, but it’s not yet definitive.

So I surmise practicing empathy may help defer anger, desire, and other types of impulsiveness. Thus more often giving you a space to choose how to act.

See also:
Humanization: 11 empathy hacks to destroy porn addiction

Rehumanization and empathy symbol

Learn another language

Bilingual people have more gray matter in the executive function of the brain. Key distinction, though: it’s the speaking part that molds your brain.

Learning another language increases gray matter in MS patients who’d lost some due to their condition. It also helps prevent cognitive decline in aging populations. There’s also a healthy debate around the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

I’ve personally used Duolingo for a year of French and some Spanish and Japanese. Start speaking a different language, and you may get a boost to your self-control gray matter.

word balloons, two faces, different languages

Omega-3 fatty acids

Optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to boost gray matter in the area of the brain associated with emotional regulation. People with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids are more prone to be pessimistic, irritable, and impulsive.

So adding an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to your diet may make your moods more controllable.

Art

Whether drawing, music, dance, or another art, increasing your gray matter with this habit is largely due to prolonged, intense focus, as well as awareness of a distorted line or sour note. You may also discover something so beautiful and moving it inspires you to stop frittering your life away. (The “Mozart effect”)

And you can transmute pain into beauty this way. As a piano player, I know.

Like with meditation above, being able to notice when something is off in your emotional health helps you take little steps now. That way you won’t have to exert huge amounts of self-control in your next craving battle.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I discuss further ways to do this in my book Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors.

beautiful elegant woman playing violin

Surprisingly, video games

Let’s be clear. The science on video games is contradictory at best, producing evidence for and against help and harm. I wanted to leave this section out because the research is all over the place.

But puzzle, strategy, exploration, and some platformers may increase gray matter. When in doubt, ask if it makes you think. That’s the big takeaway: planning, pattern recognition, deliberate decisions.

Examples:

  • Risk
  • Chess
  • Civilization, SimCity, and the like
  • I saw a study that purported Super Mario sidescrollers helped
  • and similar

See also:
4 types of gamer motivation keeping you addicted

Super Mario game

Takeaway: how to increase gray matter

The premise of my book Quests is that

“Sometimes people have bad habits because they lack the light of good habits…”

– Stephen Guise, Elastic Habits

By increasing gray matter in your brain through any of the above mind-expanding habits, you increase the time between cue and response.

Energy can’t be created or destroyed, so you can tame lightning in the moment.

And you can rely on willpower as a trusty backup generator.

But to win the long game, you need to make cravings weaker and less frequent. By building self-control gray matter, you can do just that.

What other methods do you know? Drop them in the comments section below! We’re all in this together.

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