The Science of Willpower

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It's still the first week in January, and many of us have already broken our New Year's resolutions. In this hour, we'll look at the latest research on how to successfully change behavior over the long term. Whether you're trying to drop a few pounds, find a new job, or manage stress, our experts share scientific insights on increasing self-control and changing entrenched habits.

Show Highlights: 12 Ways to Improve Your Willpower and Achieve Your Goals

1. Reflect on What's Important to You

"I can't tell you how many people I talk to, who make a resolution that they don't even want to do, they [simply] think they should do it. Maybe they are feeling self-critical about something or they feel the right thing to do is make this resolve. And frankly, people should be thinking more about what it is that they really care about and how they want to take care of themselves." - Kelly McGonigal

2. Focus on One Resolution at a Time

"Willpower is limited. Choose what's important. I suggest with New Year's resolutions, if you make multiple ones, each one takes away your will power for working on the others, so trying to do several things at once is counter-productive. Do them in sequence. Start with the easy one." - Roy Baumeister

3. Start Your Day Thinking About Your Big Picture Goals

"There's ample research that if you make time in the day to think about your larger goals, your bigger values and vision, that it actually sets up a kind of goal automaticity, that you're more likely to recognize opportunities throughout the day, to make choices that actually prioritize what matters rather than what feels urgent. I would encourage [the listeners] and others to start the day by thinking about what matters most. If you're thinking of a New Year's resolution, rather than focus on a behavior you want to change, why not pick a theme for your life for the next year?" - Kelly McGonigal

4. Move From Habit to Conscious Action

"Goals are largely a sort of metaconcept. We are very cognitively engaged when we set goals. For most people, what happens on a day-to-day basis seems to transcend a lot of our conscious decision making.


Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University; and author of "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What you Can Do to Get More of It"

Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University; and author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength"

Charles Duhigg, reporter for the New York Times; and author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business"


There was a woman named Wendy Wood at Duke University who followed around hundreds of people and what she found was that about 40 to 45 percent of what they did everyday were habits as opposed to deliberate decisions. So it begs this question, 'What exactly is happening when someone is in the grip of a habit?' What we found through research is that often times what's happening is that there's some kind of cue, a trigger, that's triggering some kind of pattern our brain has learned, remembered and is attracted towards because it delivers a certain kind of reward.

Teaching people to be more deliberate, and understand and diagnose those cues and rewards in their lives, it gives them power over those patterns that they would like to have more control." - Charles Duhigg

5. Embrace Rewards, Eschew Punishment

"The key isn't to punish yourself into making some type of change, because we know that the brain shies away from punishment. The key is to figure out what rewards drive the behaviors that you actually want, right? Whenever I talk to people who have started an exercise routine, they say, 'Well I woke up this morning, I went for a great run, and then I got home...' and instead of taking a nice long shower, or having a smoothie, or patting yourself on the back, you get home and you're late for work, so you're anxious, and you rush out the door, and your kids are driving you crazy. You're essentially punishing yourself for going and exercising. And your brain, your neurology latches on to the signals of punishment and reward. When you're punishing yourself for doing something that you really want to do, you're making it harder and harder to make that into a habit." - Charles Duhigg

6. Practice Your Willpower Muscle

"A muscle is a very good analogy. It gets tighter after you use it. We also find it gets stronger if you exercise it regularly, and so it can increase the capacity and improve at least your stamina until you can go on exerting self-control in multiple places." - Roy Baumeister

7. Stop the Negative Self Talk

"Many people, in my experience, feel like guilt and criticism actually improves motivation but what it tends to do is make us feel so bad that we're going to, by habit, turn back to the one thing that makes us feel better. So the gambler who feels guilty for losing money will go back to the gambling table to try to win it back because they feel so bad about the loss. The dieter who feels guilty and ashamed of a setback on their diet will turn to food for comfort. One of the best things that you can do when you experience a setback is practice self-compassion. It's counter intuitive for some people, but when you forgive yourself for a setback, what it does is it makes space for the part of you who really does care about your long-term goal to come back online and make a better choice for moving forward." - Kelly McGonigal

8. Lose the Time Expectations

"It's sort of an old wives' tale about [habits taking 21 days to form]. It takes different amounts of time for different people and different patterns. If you want to create a habit involving ice cream, you can probably do it in 12 minutes. Exercise might take a little bit longer." - Charles Duhigg

9. Try Meditating

"Meditation seems to be one of the few things that actually trains willpower in all areas of your life because of the way that it changes the brain. It actually strengthens the systems of self-awareness and self-control and motivation, and so it's a wonderful thing to do. And it's actually the first thing I recommend to people in my Science of Willpower class at Stanford -- that they spend the first week meditating, rather than trying to change something else in their life.

And many people have a kind of a misperception about meditation. They think that they need to sit down, and they're going to punish themselves by sitting perfectly still and then they have to stop all thoughts and if their mind wanders they're doing it wrong. In fact, what we know from the science of meditation is that often it's the meditation sits where you feel really distracted and you notice your mind wandering a lot, and you aren't able to suppress, say, the difficult memories or images that come up -- those are exactly the meditation sessions that are doing what we would hope...

So if you're someone who is trying to meditate and make it a habit, one of the best things you can do is recognize that actually the more uncomfortable or the bigger a failure the meditation feels like, the more it's actually strengthening your ability to sit with discomfort, and the more it's giving you the ability to not allow those thoughts, or those memories, or those sensations to determine what it is you do with your life." -Kelly McGonigal

10. Take Your Whole Self, Cravings and All, Along for the Ride

"When I start to talk about these competing selves, people often want to get rid of the instincts, to get rid of [the self that wants] immediate gratification. We start to really criticize and judge that part of us who doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning, and that's as fundamentally important to being a human as our ideal self, or a wiser self. And when we talk about strengthening willpower and making change, it's important to recognize you're not going to get rid of that other part of yourself, that part of you is going to be along for the ride as you move toward whatever your goals are." - Kelly McGonigal

11. Delay Gratification, If Only for 15 Minutes

"If people, if they are strongly tempted for something, if they can just say, 'Well, I won't have it now but I'll have it later.' If they can postpone it, then, well, later if they really want it they can have it, which sometimes they do, but often the crisis of wanting sort of passes and when they get to the point where it's later and they could have it, they decide not to. So it's successful both ways. Again it's going a little bit for the longterm rather than yielding to the momentary impulse." - Roy Baumeister

12. Believe That Change is Possible


"Keep in mind, any habit can be changed. I mean, studies show it doesn't matter if you're 40, you're a smoker, if you're 65 years old and have been overweight your entire life, people quit smoking every day. They lose weight everyday. You just have to think, you have to believe that it's possible, and then find a real structured plan for doing it. But don't lose hope. It's within reach." - Charles Duhigg