09 August 2018


Imagine this… You offer a child a marshmallow now, or two if they can wait 15 minutes. What does the child choose? Instant gratification or asserting their willpower? The choice turns out to accurately predict success and happiness years later.

But then the mind is like a muscle, if willpower is not a current strength we can develop it, so this week, more fascinating experiments and how to develop willpower, along with details of the workshops Ruth and I will be combining to present in Brisbane, but first

             Thought for the day

We cannot hope to die peacefully 
If our lives have been full of violence, 
Or if our minds have mostly been agitated 
By emotions like anger, attachment, or fear. 

So if we wish to die well, 
We must learn how to live well: 
Hoping for a peaceful death, 
We must cultivate peace in our mind, 
And in our way of life.

                              HH the Dalai Lama

I grew up in the era of delayed gratification. 
Some of it was not so obviously appealing. Work hard now, enjoy later. Practice restraint. Be disciplined.

Some of it was incredibly useful - like when I wanted to study to be a veterinarian, train to be an athlete, recover from a very difficult cancer.

But then came the 60s and beyond. Go with the flow. Do it now. Do what feels good. Instant gratification. Some of this was very appealing. Being more in the moment. Not putting things off for later.

But consider this…

An extra-ordinary study in New Zealand tracked 1,000 people for 32 years.

From birth, willpower was rated based upon the researchers observations and personally reported self-control and willpower.

The results were very clear.

After accounting for differences in intelligence, race and social class, those with higher self-control – just like those who held out for the two marshmallows later – grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults.

Those with the lower levels of willpower, on average fared less well academically, had lower paying jobs with few savings, were more likely to have poorer health and be overweight, had more drug or alcohol problems, and had difficulty maintaining stable relationships (many were single parents). They were also nearly four times more likely to have a criminal conviction.

So here is the thing...

Want to have control over what you eat? It takes willpower.

Want to meditate regularly? It takes willpower.

Want to succeed at what you put your mind to? It takes willpower.

What about happiness? Yes, that too requires willpower.

What is willpower?
According to the Oxford dictionary, willpower is one of the key aspects of our mind. Remember the definition? The mind is the seat of perception, thinking, volition and feeling.

Willpower itself can be defined as that force by which we control and manage our thoughts, impulses and emotions and which helps us persevere with difficult tasks. We could say willpower is actually rather like a kind of moral muscle.

Willpower - the good news… and the bad!
The good news is being like a muscle we can train and develop our willpower.

The bad news is we can overdo it!

Let us examine overuse first - just for fun; although some of this may explain some of the difficulties we run into.

Experiments establish that after accomplishing a task that requires us to restrain our impulses (saying no to chocolate, suppressing our emotions while watching a sad movie), we are far more likely to underperform at other willpower-related jobs such as squeezing a handgrip or solving a difficult puzzle.

More than this, health challenges and even things like PMS have been shown to deplete our willpower and weaken our self control.

So this makes a case against multi-tasking, and provides a caution when dealing with illness - focus on discipline where really needed, aim to go more lightly in less significant areas.

Willpower training - the two top tips
My number one tip is to get into the habit of daily training. This is way easier than it might sound. Simply choose something that is not to onerous to do each day and do it as a conscious act of willpower; a conscious way of training your capacity to put your mind to something and do it.

For me it is having a cold shower each morning.

Cold as in turning the cold on after the hot start!


Do it slowly as doing it quickly - from hot to cold - has been shown to place stress on the heart.

Do it slowly and research shows it is a powerful immune system booster.

I have done this each day for decades. It is a simple habit made more powerful for this purpose because even after so many years there is very little pleasure in a cold shower so to do it does take an effort. What would work for you?

Number two tip is to fast from time to time. Fasting teaches the invaluable capacity to go without - something one suspects many children these days would benefit from learning and practising. It also provides the hugely useful capacity to discriminate, particularly when it comes to food. If I am stuck somewhere at a given meal time where there is nothing suitable to eat, it is simple. No need to eat rubbish just for the sake of eating. Simply go without and enjoy!

Other more common tips
Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower.

Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list.

Avoid temptation; learn what helps you to resist temptation when it comes.
Willpower is expressed via positive thinking, so use it. Make clear plans, do whatever it takes and choose to enjoy doing it.

A final quote…
People with low willpower use it to get themselves out of crises. 
People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises.

          Roy Baumeister
          - author of the excellent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Want more details?

A direct plug for my book that deals with this topic
specifically and in detail

The Mind that Changes Everything


Moffitt TE et al. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. PNAS 2011, 108 (7) 2693-2698;

Know anyone in or near Brisbane? 
Ruth and I will be presenting on Medicine of the Mind - Friday 24th August 6.45 - 9.30pm, and Health, Healing and Wellbeing – Seeking to use the Power of the Mind - Saturday 25th August  1.30 - 4.30pm; love to see you there, or please tell friends who may be interested.
Click here and use the calendar to find details (via the dates) and make a booking.

Ruth Gawler's 
next meditation retreat - with Julia Broome

Meditation - Pure and Simple

Whether burnt out, dealing with physical or mental issues, this retreat provides a unique opportunity to be led and supported by a doctor well versed in Mind-Body Medicine who has a particular expertise with deep relaxation and healing.

Ruth will focus in this retreat upon the meditation techniques of Dr Ainslie Meares and Ian Gawler. 
The only meditation retreat Ruth is leading in 2018 that will be specifically focussed on meditation's therapeutic healing benefits.  

Combine deep relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation to release the stress we carry in our bodies in this busy and complex modern world. Ideal for healing, rejuvenation and opening our awareness.

Ruth’s teaching style is one of openness and authenticity, and there will be plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion. Techniques covered in this retreat will be accessible and engaging for both beginners and more experienced meditators. This retreat is well suited to all Health Professionals. Certificates of Attendance for CPD points issued, on request at the end of this retreat.

DATES                                    September - Monday 10th to Friday 14th September 2018
VENUE                                   Yarra Valley Living Centre, Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria
ENQUIRIES, BOOKINGS     The Gawler Foundation
                                                 and 1300 651 211 - Call Mon-Fri 9-5pm



  1. I like the emphasis on balance, i.e: MORE and MORE and MORRREEE is not better, you CAN overdo things.
    great article.

  2. Willpower is severely under rated for its value. Thanks for a great article Ian.

  3. very interesting article...thank you...i look forward to reading your book 'The Mind that changes everything.'