The Mental Muscle of Willpower, Huberman’s No-Go Moments, Breathing Through Temptation
🤸♀️ Stretch 51
New beginnings are in the air!
I’ve just moved to Lisbon, and let me tell you… the colors and tiles in this place are insane. (I have to add an extra 30 mins to every errand because I can’t stop gawking at every other building!)
I’m also shaking things up for this newsletter as we hit the 50th edition mark (🥳). Two reasons:
While I love spending time putting together these newsletters, I've realized that maybe, juuuust maybe, the hours I put in aren't quite justified.
I ask for feedback when people unsubscribe. 35% of those who respond say they "don't have time to read this newsletter." There might be other factors at play of course, but I can imagine the density and length of my newsletters doesn’t help!
So, I’m going to simplify and shorten.
The core topics stay the same—exploring the neuroscience and psychology behind focus, motivation, mental resilience, and creativity—but the format will be more bite-sized.
Anyway, thank you for being here and for reading! (If you do unsubscribe, can you do me a favor and let me know why? Takes less than a second, and as you can see, I take the feedback seriously 😉)
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Training the mental muscle of willpower. Set yourself micro-challenges to get started.
Huberman’s no-go moments. Use the small, trivial moments to help you in the big, important moments.
Use your breath to “surf the urge.” Get out of your head and into your body.
🏋️♀️ TRAINING THE MENTAL MUSCLE OF WILLPOWER
📚 I’m still going strong, reading The Willpower Instinct by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, sharing my favorite learnings every week. I’m enjoying the approach of reading a book slowly, chapter per chapter, and digesting what I’ve learned over an entire week. I’m noticing an increase in self-awareness and self-discipline. If you want to catch up on the previous chapters…
• Chapter 1: the power of I will, I won’t, I want
• Chapter 2: the link between HRV and willpower
This week’s willpower learning is both fascinating and empowering!
First, a quick analogy:
Think of any muscle in your body. It gets stronger with repetition—whether you’re building your biceps by lifting barbells, or training your thumbs by scrolling Instagram.
You can think of willpower as a “mental muscle.” You can train it and make it stronger, just like with physical exercise.
By setting yourself a “willpower-training regime.”
Don’t worry, that sounds more intense than it is. No burpees required!
The idea is that assign yourself one small willpower challenge—something you aren’t used to controlling.
Studies show that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control can increase your overall willpower.
Some examples of small willpower challenges could be… not biting your nails, or taking the stairs over the elevator, or going for a walk without your phone.
While these small exercises may seem trivial, they appear to improve your willpower in the moments that actually matter for your long-term goals and happiness: focusing at work, taking care of your health, managing your emotions.
What you’re really training with these micro-challenges is self-awareness. The habit of noticing what you are about to do (vs behaving reflexively), and making a conscious decision to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest:
Elevator = easy. Stairs = hard.
Biting your nails = easy. Resisting biting your nails = hard.
Listening to a podcast while walking = easy. Being alone with your thoughts = hard.
The more you practice these mini-challenges, the more your brain gets used to pausing before acting.
This all reminded me of something I heard Andrew Huberman talk about on a podcast.
🚫 HUBERMAN’S NO-GO MOMENTS
Huberman has a simple rule for himself:
25-30 times per day, he’ll suppress the desire to take an action. He calls these "no-go moments."
Things like picking up a paper clip lying on his desk, checking his emails, or fidgeting with a pen in a meeting.
Silly, harmless stuff.
Why does he do that? Why does it matter?
Well, these moments are part of his unique “willpower-training regime.”
Here’s how he explains it from a neuroscience POV:
There’s a group of structures near the center of our brain, called the basal ganglia, responsible for integrating thought and action.
The basal ganglia play a key role in modulating two neural circuits:
The Go-circuit: involved any time we initiate action (i.e. self-discipline). Think of it like the gas pedal in a car.
The No-Go circuit: involved any time we suppress behavior or inhibit impulses (i.e. self-control). Think of it like your internal brake.
While we learn a lot of “no-go” behavior as kids—such as sitting still and not interrupting others—as we get older, our lives are mostly focused on GO GO GO. Emailing, responding to texts, running errands, alternating between the 17 open browser tabs, and generally multitasking as if our lives depended on it.
Huberman says that as adults, “We rarely rehearse our no-go functions...which are simply about suppressing reflexive behavior.”
And, just like a muscle, the less we use this No-Go neural pathway, the weaker it tends to grow. Luckily, thanks to the beauty of neuroplasticity, we have the ability to train and strengthen this circuit.
That’s what Huberman is doing with these trivial no-go moments. “The thing to understand about neural circuity is that it’s generic,” he says. “If you establish a strong no-go circuit around not picking up a paper clip, for example, it carries over to other areas in your life where you’d like to institute greater self-control.”
Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a paper clip or a bag of crisps. A strong, well-trained No-Go circuit can be relied on in any situation where not blindly acting on your impulses is important to you.
My Willpower Training Regime aka my “no-go moments”
☕️ No coffee past 11 am.
📲 No phone in the bedroom + no phone within the first hour in the morning.
Think about what this could be for you. Pick something small. Remember, it can be trivial. You wouldn’t walk into a gym and pick up the biggest weight. Go for a small dumbbell and start warming up that no-go circuit.
🏄♀️ USE YOUR BREATH TO SURF THE URGE
Small and trivial doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. (If it feels easy, you need a heavier weight!)
You’ll feel agitation and frustration in these no-go moments. It’s uncomfortable and that’s normal. That’s the point.
You can make this more fun by imagining you’re like a surfer, riding the temptation wave.
Say you’re noticing the urge to reach for your phone, or to have another coffee. For me, it’s like a physical sensation. My hand is tingling and I have to put in effort to restrain myself from reaching or getting up.
In that moment, close your eyes. Observe the feeling. Feel it in your body.
Instead of immediately reacting and satisfying the urge, let it crest and wane. Before you know it, the urge recedes—like a wave.
And think of your breath as your surfboard. Use it as a tool. Pay close attention to your inhale and exhale. Slow down your inhale, even slower exhale.
Just a few cycles of slow, deep breathing will help you ignore the arguing voices in your head (“ahh just one more coffee, come on, what’s the harm?”) and ride the no-go moment like a pro.
P.S. In Stretch 50, I wrote more about how slow, deep breathing improves your Heart Rate Variability, which has been shown to be a key indicator of overall willpower.
The best lessons are on the other side of "ah shit I can't do this.“ - Richard D. Bartlett