I, like most people, have visions of who I would like to be. There are things I wish I did more of, and less of, skills I hope to improve, and habits I would like to break.
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She has written many books that introduce practical strategies drawn from scientific research to increase resilience, improve health, and promote wellbeing.
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Reading McGonigal’s book about willpower challenged quite a few of my misconceptions, shedding light on my struggle to reach certain goals.
I doubt I had ever taken the time to define willpower. I am acutely aware that it’s something I possess more of at some points in time than others. It’s clearly visible to me when it’s absent.
“I didn’t have the will to resist the tray of cupcakes in the breakroom at work.”
“I lacked the willpower to make it to the gym.”
“I was waking up early every morning to jog before work, until yesterday. I woke up to the sound of rain washing my willpower away.”
So, What is Willpower?
McGonigal explains that challenges to willpower are actually conflicts between what we want now (for our present self) and what we want later (for our future self). These types of conflicts can’t be avoided, but we can expect them, prepare for them, and be compassionate toward ourselves when our present self prevails.
Not All Goals Are Equal
We have more willpower available to us when we are motivated and determined. We are more committed when what we’re striving for is tied to our ideal identity, who we would like our future self to be. It’s important to ask whether our goals are actually ours. At times, we get caught up in what we feel we “should” want, or what others want for us.
We also want to be realistic. This isn’t to say we can’t have lofty goals, definitely reach for the stars, but we must also acknowledge what it will take to get there.
There are Three Types of Goals
Outcome goals focus on desired results.
“I’d like to be more fit.”
Performance goals set standards by defining the limits we’ll work within.
“I’ll go to the gym for at least an hour, minimally three days a week. When I’m at the gym, I’ll do burpees. I’ll start with 10 per day, then add 5 more each week, until I’ve reached 50 per day.”
Procedural goals focus on the behaviors and strategies needed to reach an outcome.
“I’ll join a gym, set up sessions with an athletic trainer, and record my progress in my journal.”
Strategies and processes are catalysts for meeting performance standards, which pave the way to desired results.
Caving In is a Form of Muscle Failure
Willpower works like a muscle. It can be strengthened through practice, but it also becomes exhausted through overuse. The good news is that we can workout our willpower to increase its strength and endurance. Once you select a goal, break it down into bite size pieces.
I decided a few months ago to work on handstands. My ultimate goal is to press into the handstand and be stable enough, for long enough, to walk on my hands once I’m upside down. This goal would have been unachievable if I’d not started with individual movements to build the skills I need for success.
So far, my quest for the perfect handstand has taken me through the:
- Pike pushup
- Dead bug
- Hollow body hold
- Core lifts
- Tiptoe tucks
- Tripod and traditional headstand
- Handstand against the wall
My progress is slow but steady, and each step I take forward increases my will to reach my goal.
According to research discussed in McGonigal’s presentation:
Learning to do a handstand might improve my ability to eat healthy, procrastinate less, wake up earlier, or put more money in savings. Once I strengthen my willpower, I can apply it to other areas of my life.
What Strengthens Willpower?
“Sleep is the best meditation.”
No matter what you hope to accomplish, you have a better chance after a good night’s sleep! At McGonigal’s presentation, she shared some of her favorite willpower experiments; studies where small interventions led to significant lifestyle and behavioral changes in participants.
In the first experiment she discussed, half of the people in a substance abuse recovery program were asked to take a mindfulness meditation training to improve their sleep. The breath focused meditation, on average, increased the recovering addicts’ sleep by roughly one hour a night. Those who slept more were far less likely to relapse. Additionally, those who meditated for longer were even less likely to relapse.
Meditation is helpful, both on its own, and because it can improve sleep. According to McGonigal, meditating for 10 minutes a day produces better connectivity in the brain after just a few months.
Physical exercise helps to reduce stress, which can drastically weaken our will. Findings from a study at the Macquarie University in Sydney, which investigated the relationship between exercise and self-control, are discussed in the article The Incredible Effect of Exercise On Your Willpower. After two months of fitness, participants were compared in both temptation resistance and perseverance. Those who were exercising regularly not only performed better in those two dimensions, they had less junk food, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. They saw improvements in diet and emotional regulation. They were even more punctual.
Nutritious food strengthens our willpower. Following a more plant based diet changes the way our brain uses energy by reducing spikes in sugar levels that interfere with our mind’s functioning.
Focus on Failure
When you relapse or fail to meet a performance measure, how do you feel? If you feel guilty, are critical of yourself, or regret what has happened, you are more likely to cave in, or miss the target the next time around. Contrary to popular belief, shaming ourselves is not a good motivational tool.
It’s better to see failure as part of the process of progress, console yourself with comforting words and support, and use what has happened as a valuable learning tool.
We’re often told to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, receiving a medal, and achieving the dream. It’s important to visualize success, but if that’s all we do, we’re left overly optimistic and unprepared to recognize trouble heading our way. Seeing obstacles before we reach them is crucial in avoiding or overcoming them.
McGonigal addressed an unfortunate finding that tracking success can lead to slacking off. She explained that when our future self is being celebratory and feels satisfied, our present self has an opportunity to slip into the driver’s seat.
I have experienced this firsthand. After completing my first 5k (there was some combination of walking and running involved), I went to a local coffee shop, where I was debating what to order. I was leaning toward eating something healthy to maintain the benefits of the morning.
The person behind me, who was a much more seasoned runner, pointed out that just after a 5k is the perfect time to splurge. He encouraged me to have whatever I wanted. He subscribed to an “earn the cheat” philosophy. Since I was on the fence already, it didn’t take much to sway me toward my immediate desires. Just a tiny little nudge…
The solution: as you imagine and track success, also spend time imaging and tracking failure. Imagine every single thing that could go wrong, interfere, get in your way, or prevent success. Then think about how you will move past those roadblocks. Track your failures to see what they share in common.
I’m most likely to go to the gym when I’m going with someone else (willpower is contagious). I’m less likely to go to the gym in the afternoon than the morning, and even less likely to make it if I plan to go in the evening (willpower is spent, and therefore wanes throughout the day).
Employ These Willpower Strategies
According to McGonigal’s book, those who are able to exert self-control, when faced with challenges to willpower, are using one or more mental strategies: I won’t, I want, I will.
“I won’t” is the ability to completely disregard the desire of the body and walk away from cravings, or anything else that’s enticing us. It’s likely what you think of when you hear the term willpower.
“I want” is about knowing and focusing on the end goal. Lifestyle changes begin with becoming aware of our inner desires. Once we know where we hope to go, we can compare that to where we are. The end result must be appealing enough to override inertia, resistance to change, etc.
When we are contemplating a change, we carefully weigh the costs of the activities involved (waking up early, time investment, financial investment) against the benefits of achieving our ultimate goal (feeling better, getting sick less, learning a new skill). Once it has been determined something is worth the effort, we have incentive to delay gratification.
“I will” allows us to do something we would prefer not to, even things that make us uncomfortable, to reach our long-term goals. Success depends on remembering those goals during moments of temptation.
As mentioned earlier, stress and sleep deprivation are willpower killers. Sometimes we can reorganize our lives to increase sleep and reduce stress, but there are times when we cannot. Or, because of our current priorities, we may chose not to.
Are those times predictable? I can predict that I will not sleep well the evening of New Year’s Eve. I can also predict that I will feel added stress on the first day of every month, when I am paying bills. I anticipate reduced willpower on these occasions. I also expect to completely exhaust my willpower from time to time.
When something is predictable, it is designable.
If we know when our present self is most likely to take the wheel, we can be sure to plot a course that will have fewer detours. We can modify our schedule to ensure we’re coming in to challenging times with a solid night sleep. We can eat a hearty meal in preparation for our energy needs, enlist external support, and go in knowing that we are human beings who steer off course now and then. Perhaps most importantly, we must find a balance between spending all of our time focused on a self that does not yet exist and appreciating our self as we are here and now.