Mind productivity

Improve Willpower in 5 Mins | How Heart Rate Variability helps Brain Function

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 2nd, 2017.

On March 3rd , I found myself in a quite ironic situation: 

While listening to “The Willpower Instinct,” by Kelly McGonigal, I was lining up to buy something that would end up undermining my willpower. 

The problem was that the new Zelda game was way better than I anticipated.

I would set aside 30 minutes to play which would quickly turn into an hour then two hours and so on. I was still able to fulfill important obligations of course, but I started to think it was affecting my focus when I was trying to read a research paper about internet gaming addiction, but couldn’t focus because the words “gaming” kept giving me a craving to play Zelda. Now you could probably break down what makes this particular game potentially addicting like…  the endless unpredictable novelty of the game environment stimulates an abnormal release of dopamine, leading to similar changes in the brain as addictive substances. But it’s easier to say the game is just too good. It’s like what Louis CK said about drugs. 

Louis C.K. telling his kids not to do drugs : standupshots

OK So after investing way too much time into finishing the game and finally starting to shift back into my creative and productive mode, I noticed I had less capacity for willpower in general. It wasn’t so much that Zelda was preoccupying my mind, it was just more difficult to get to work and stay focused in general, and a lot of times I would diffuse that uncomfortable tension by zoning out on my smartphone or on social media websites.

So, in these uncomfortable moments of really not wanting to do the harder thing, I started using this breathing technique I picked up from the Willpower Instinct. Basically you just breathe in one breath for 10 seconds and breathe out that breath for 10 seconds. This slows your breathing down to about 4 to 6 breaths per minute. Five to ten minutes of this was usually enough to dissolve that tension and give me the willpower to focus on work. This kind of breathing is significant because it improves something called heart rate variability. 

When people talk about heart rate they are actually talking about the average heart rate over one minute. You know the kind of scene on House where they inject the dying patient with some unexpectedly effective thing like snake venom and then the heart monitor shows a pulse and you hear a ping ping ping. The ping is when the heart contracts, this generates a bit of electricity which the machine can read. So heart rate variability refers to variations in the time between these pings. If there is precisely one ping every second, your heart rate is 60 beats per minute but you have virtually no heart rate variability. If there’s .85 seconds between the first two pings and then 0.90 seconds between the second two and then .95 seconds then .90 seconds again and so on, then you have some heart rate variability. This is a good thing. 

Everybody’s heart rate changes throughout the day and even moment to moment. Your heart speeds up a little bit when you inhale. It slows down again when you exhale. A smooth variation of heart rate is good and means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: one is the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds you up and is responsible for things like the fight or flight response, and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and engages during processes like digestion. 

Studies show that people with higher HRV are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, dealing with stressful situations and are less likely to give up on difficult tasks. HRV has been called the body’s “reserve” of willpower.

This is because Heart rate variability is the single best physiological measurement of something called the pause and plan response.

Pause and plan is essentially the opposite of the body’s fight or flight response. 

When your environment presents you with stressful situation, the brain switches on the fight or flight response, and as much energy as possible is directed to the body to help you run or fight. This means energy is directed away from the brain.  

The pause and plan response starts when the prefrontal cortex identifies that another part of your brain is asking you to do something that may benefit you now but is not helpful for long term goals. It could be something like wanting to drink a beer at lunch or eating cake for breakfast. To generate the self control to slow down and make the decision to not do these things, energy needs to be transferred from the body to the brain. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other automatic functions. Then all these processes slow down and self control improves. 

When people successfully exert self control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up.  

Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, observed this physiological signature of self-control when she asked hungry students to not eat freshly baked cookies in front of them. As they sat there resisting the cookies, their heart rate variability went up. Variability in other participants who were free to eat the cookies stayed the same.

HRV is such a good indicator of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist cravings. For example, recovering alcoholics whose HRV goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics whose heart  rate variability drops when they see a drink – have a greater risk of relapse. 

In fact, your body, brain and mental willpower are so well connected that people with strong self control can actually stay a bit more sober on the same amount of alcohol when they need to.  A report from the University of Kentucky compared alcohol metabolism in a group of men with similar body compositions. The men went through an evaluation process to assess their ability for self control, then they drank the same amount of alcohol and their blood alcohol content was measured afterwards. They found that the men who ranked higher in self control were actually less drunk. 

The study gives an example where two men with different levels of self control each have two drinks “Then, their supervisor from work arrives unexpectedly, and they spend the next 30 min regulating their behavior so as to appear sober. All else being equal, the present results suggest that the man with high trait self-control will likely have a BAC around .026, and the man with low trait self-control will have a BAC around .032 – approximately 20% higher.”

 So why do some people just have better heart rate variability and better self control than other people? Many factors influence your capacity for self control- things like anxiety, anger, depression, poor sleep, loneliness and even poor air quality are all associated with worse heart rate variability. Things like regular exercise and proper diet can improve HRV. 

Practicing meditation or the controlled breathing technique I mentioned earlier also increases heart rate variability. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing improved HRV and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and PTSD. 

But whether you’ve been practicing this or not, at any time you can take a moment to slow your breathing down to manually improve your heart rate variability and self-control in the moment.

In this presentation, Dr. Alan Watkins actually demonstrates how breathing like this can quickly improve your HRV.  A volunteer is hooked up to a device that measures the change in his heart rate and as you can see when he first walks up on stage his heart rate is quite erratic, but after he begins to breathe in a slow rhythmic fashion, you start to see nice smooth waveform. 

The main thing that’s happening when you breathe like this is: you’re simply destressing yourself and creating the physiology of calmness. As mentioned earlier, the stressful fight or flight response diverts energy from the brain to the body. When this happens activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases- that is the cautious, rational, planning and thinking part of the brain begins to shut down. This is good in some situations, you don’t want to have to slowly decide to run from a bear, but some situations you really don’t want your prefrontal cortex shutting down. It lowers your willpower and you become more impulsive, but other forms of self control suffer. With less prefrontal cortex activity, you may yell at your spouse, forget how to use words during a job interview, and you might find yourself saying “Hi, my name is come here often?” to an attractive woman at the bar. 

This slow and controlled breathing engages the pause and plan response and directs more energy to the prefrontal cortex giving you better control over yourself. 

This brings me to my favorite point in Dr. Watkin’s talk: At the root of behavior is physiology. If you want to improve your behavior, you need to change how you think- and if you’re in a negative emotional state, you’re angry, worried, sleepy, anxious, it’s quite hard to change your thoughts. This is why telling someone don’t worry doesn’t do much and why telling someone not to be angry would just make them angrier. 

And Most emotional states are determined by feedback between the brain and the body- your physiology influences emotion. This is why you feel jittery or anxious when you drink too much coffee, you don’t just calmly observe your heart rate rising. 

The hard thing about having a powerful imaginative human brain that comes with abstract thought is that we can turn anything into a source of stress. An offhand comment from your boss or simply the absence of a text message from a person you’re attracted to can be interpreted by your brain as a threat to survival. This causes your body to express the physiology of stress which affects your emotional state which affects your thoughts which affects your behavior. If you want to better control your behavior, one thing you can do is invest a couple minutes into controlling your breathing and changing your physiology which is the root of your behavior.


How the internet ruins your productivity by design

Content hubs are designed to keep us accessing them as frequently as possible. It’s hard to notice this can lead to addiction-esque symptoms: eroded willpower and decreased ability to concentrate.

The age of mental “peak performance” 

The big trend lately is for people to be in business for themselves. According to, more than 1 in 3 workers in America are earning a living from freelancing. For some it’s a result of the 2008 economic shock, others just don’t feel challenged at their workplace. In either case, chasing your ambitions requires better efficiency and more productivity. “Peak Performance” is a term that’s being used not only for athletes’ physical performance, but for people just trying to get ahead at their work place, and more so for those working on their entrepreneurial endeavors.  With a lot of popular books like “The Four Hour Work Week” popping up, people are becoming more aware of the fact that doing a 9AM to 5PM job for 40 years is a shitty deal.


One new way to get ahead is by using cognitive enhancers, known as “Smart Drugs” or Nootropics. Nootropics are “are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” For most people, Ritalin or Adderall would come to mind, but there are many new substances, all with different types of positive effects on concentration, willpower and creativity- which work very differently on the brain with little to no reported side effects (yet). Some with a bit of red tape around them and some that you can easily get without a prescription. Nootropics span from artificially synthesized substances like “Modafinil” (Benzhydrylsulphinylacetamide) to the naturally derived “Huperzine A” which comes from firmoss.

In the aggressively competitive world of silicone valley, Nootropics are seen not just as a pick me up, but sometimes as a necessity. Tim Ferris painted a good picture of the situation in his interview with CNN Money “Let’s just say you’re a 24 year old start up co founder, just got a seed round of funding from a big venture capitalist. Kind of bright eyed busy tailed, ‘holy shit I’m in silicon valley’ and you feel intense pressure to compete against the half a dozen other companies that are trying to do the same thing. Just like an olympic athlete who’s willing to do almost anything, even if it shortens their life by 5 years to get a gold medal, you’re gonna think about what pills and potions you can take because the difference between completely failing, losing all your money and going home with your tail between your legs, making a million dollars and making a billion dollars is right up here” (Points to his head)

Some silicone valley folk have gone as far as taking very small doses of Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, to enhance their productivity and creativity at work. These “Microdoses” of acid are having very profound effects on the user’s output without any hallucinatory distractions.

Most of us aren’t at the level of seeking out illegal substances to amp up our game. For myself and a lot of people I know, it’s not so much of “Holy shit I need to write 20,000 lines of code by tomorrow morning or I’m fucked”, but something like “OK It was 45 minutes ago that I woke up and I’m still in bed looking at reddit. What the hell is wrong with me?” There are some days where I wonder if I’m hitting even average performance, much less peak performance.

Too long to read the whole post right now? The video version of this blog post is now available!
The internet and our brains

It’s being suspected that some people’s inability to concentrate or lack of willpower is caused by the internet and the near constant stream of novel information they’re accessing all the time. In Gary Wilson’s TEDx Talk he explains that several studies about “Internet Addiction” and its detriments have been popping up since 2009. Gary says “So far, all brain research points in only one direction: Constant novelty at a click can cause addiction“. It wasn’t until after I saw Gary’s talk that I thought the way I use the internet could be harming my productivity.

Until recently, I was a recruitment consultant in Tokyo for 3 years. This was one of the most educational, exciting and competitive times of my life. I met all kinds of fantastic people, but this environment really makes you start to evaluate yourself as a person based on how much you can output in as little time as possible. I wanted be at the top of the scoreboard, and some days I was five times as productive as I ever was in college, but sometimes I couldn’t focus for more than 20 minutes. I was always looking for the magic pill or trick that could improve my performance, but I didn’t know that how often I checked my Facebook feed could be affecting my performance in a bigger way than just the time I lost by opening up the app.

Unsurprisingly, this addictive nature is actually designed into most apps. Nir Eyal explains in his book “Hooked” how websites, apps, platforms et cetera need to be designed in such a way that the product is addictive for the user or the company won’t have a competitive edge.

This technique to magnetize users to the content is called “The hook”. In this video book summary narrated by Nir Eyal, he explains that  the hook is an “experience designed to connect the users problem to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit“. The hook has 4 parts- a trigger, an action, a reward and an investment. All the hooks start with an external trigger like “Click here!” or “Swipe right!” or an internal trigger. The internal triggers are what is critical to the user of forming the habit of using the company’s service. “Internal triggers are things that tell us what to do next, but where the information is not contained in the trigger but instead formed through an association or a memory in the user’s brain. So what we do when we’re in a certain place, situation, around particular people, taking part in a routine and most frequently when we experience certain emotions dictate what we do next. The action that we turn to with little or no conscious thought. It turns out that the most frequent internal triggers are these emotions, but not just any emotions but they’re specifically negative emotions. So what we do when we’re feeling bored or lonesome or lost or fearful or uncertain or confused dictates the technology that we turn to next with little or no conscious thought.

As I wrote out the previous paragraph, I experienced this first hand. I couldn’t quite think of how to phrase one sentence and I felt a slight sense of uneasiness as I struggled to think of what words to use. Right away I opened a new tab and typed in “”. This all happened in under two seconds without deliberation.

Actions are influenced by triggers, but what constitutes an action? Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg describes an action as “the simplest behavior in anticipation of a reward,” which for me was a click on reddit, but it could also be a swipe on imgur or tinder, or even a scroll on Facebook or twitter. Pretty simple process then: A trigger [I feel bored] arises, so I take a simple action [open up reddit] in anticipation of a reward [a funny image or video].

When discussing human behavior, most of us have an inkling that the neurochemical dopamine influences our actions. This, for the most part is correct. However, dopamine is widely misunderstood as the neurochemical that makes you feel good because you did something. Actually, as Standford lecturer Robert Sapolsky explains in this excerptdopamine rises in anticipation of a reward rather than in response to the reward itself. Not only does it rise in anticipation of a reward, but it spikes when you are uncertain of whether or not you will get the reward. Dr. Sapolsky talks about an experiment in which they had monkeys pull a lever in anticipation of a reward. When the situation went from ‘You will get a reward after every 3 pulls’ to ‘maybe you’ll get a reward after a couple pulls’ you see a massive spike in dopamine. As he put it, “it’s one of the biggest rises in dopamine in the brain, short of cocaine.”

This is very important because it means that a company’s content doesn’t even have to be good to get you to keep coming back. It just has to be designed in a manner that keeps us anticipating and searching for rewards. For example, take a look at the feed on Facebook. Is that cute girl from high school posing with a Starbucks cup that interesting? How about the picture of someone’s lunch that comes next? Neither of those probably interest you, but the new tech article your best friend posted that comes afterward might be. The feed is taking advantage of that spike in dopamine that we experience due to the anticipation of a possible reward, so we keep scrolling and scrolling, excited at the possibility that something good will pop up.

“It’s addictive, but I’m not addicted

“Addiction” is thrown around in contexts like “Oh gosh this is so addicting!” all the time. However, hearing someone say “I need to get treatment for my addiction” has a completely different nuance. Using it that way would suggest the “addiction” is affecting their lives and needs to be fixed. Why people turn to drugs despite the social and legal repercussions is complicated, but it can boil down to the fact that the users aren’t satisfied with their lives.  It may even be that they’re not satisfied with the current year, the month or the moment that they are experiencing. People pursue success in business, fitness or relationships mainly because they are anticipating some reward – usually a good feeling that comes with achievement. “But why work towards these types of fulfillment for so long when you can invest a couple seconds snorting cocaine or taking some pill?” Surely a terrible mindset, but not completely different from getting the rewarding delicious flavor of a donut immediately, rather than chasing the great feeling of women complimenting your hard earned six pack? Or even swiping through a couple profiles on tinder to feel excited when you see a sexy girl versus investing a couple more minutes to read a chapter of that book that you like. When you look at it like this, the idea of not just substances, but behaviors being addicting is more plausible.

How are we to notice that the internet could be affecting us? I mean I’ve had high speed internet ever since I was in High School. David Foster Wallace told a joke at his commencement speech for Kenyon College class of 2005 that went like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ” Gary Wilson also mentions the fish situation in his talk to show how hard it is to realize how the internet is affecting heavy users. He explained how the only symptom that did cause internet porn loving men to realize it was having an effect on them was Erectile Dysfunction. Young men are being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder and depression due to symptoms like less interest in day to day activities, lowered ability to concentrate and eroded willpower. They are going to psychologists and psychiatrists to treat these symptoms, but don’t realize it could be alleviated by simply changing their behavior.

One study in China shows how Internet Addicts have impaired executive function control ability. Executive Functions are “a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.” Having an impaired attention control, inhibitory control and ability to “select and successfully monitor behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals” would definitely explain my unfinished to do lists.

 If you have enough willpower to right away stop continuously swiping, scrolling and clicking then great. But for myself and a lot of people, it’s not so simple to get out of the habit. The idea is not to immediately stop using all these platforms, but to pull yourself out of the ‘hook’ inherent in their design. There’s nothing wrong with taking a 10 minute break from work when you need to and doing something that you enjoy. When you’re unconsciously spending more time than you intend to, then there’s an issue.

Getting out of the hook
The good news is that understanding how your brain is being manipulated by this “hook” was the first step towards avoiding it. In his TEDMED talk, Judson Brewer describes a two part technique that several smokers have used to successfully kick their smoking habit. The idea is for the participants to just be mindful about smoking. That is – to be aware and really think about what the experience of smoking is like – feel the heat of the cigarette as you take a drag, to smell the smoke and taste the tabacco. One subject used the method and quickly realized smoking smells bad and tastes like shit. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior. The other part of the technique was to be mindful about what the craving felt like when it came up. They’d crave a cigarette and then notice their body was a little tense, heart rate maybe sped up a little bit, and some noticed they were fidgeting in their chair. By simply being mindful about these aspects, subjects were able to step out of the craving and realize what exactly it was and let it pass. Next time you feel the urge to check twitter, take a moment to think why you’re doing that. Maybe you’re a little bored or frustrated with the task at hand. Maybe you’re hungry so your concentration has waned. Then, think about the experience of twitter itself. Scrolling through that feed for more than 5 minutes, is it really engaging you in a fulfilling way? Are you really happy that you’re 10 minutes in and still spending your time scrolling through all those tweets hoping a good one will pop up? It will take a bit of time and practice, but you’ll quickly learn to catch yourself and reel yourself back in.

You could always Louis C.K.’s method if you’re getting impatient: