It’s the second week in January and, at about this time, that
resolution that seemed so reasonable a week ago — go to the gym every
other day, read a book a week, only drink alcohol on weekends — is
starting to seem very … hard. As you are teetering on the edge of
abandoning it all together, Kelly McGonigal is here to help. This
Stanford University psychologist — who shared last year how you can make stress your friend
— wants you to know that you’re not having a hard time sticking to a
resolution because you are a terrible person. Perhaps you’ve just
formulated the wrong resolution.
McGonigal has, for years, taught a course called “The Science of
Willpower” through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program and, in 2011,
she spun it into a book, The Willpower Instinct.
The TED Blog spoke to McGonigal this week about how willpower is often
misunderstood, and what we each can do to improve it. (We also asked her
about today’s talk — Why dieting doesn’t usually work.) Below, an edited transcript of the conversation.
First question: why is willpower such a struggle?
It’s a great question. I define willpower as the ability to do what
matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t
want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because
everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition
between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to
the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of
you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize
current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The
things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each
other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system
that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big
values rather than short-term needs or desires.
The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is
because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive
neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain
— that there are competing systems that think about the world
differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it
as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for
survival. But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in
the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate
discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is
willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.
So, given this idea of two competing selves who want different
things, how effective are New Year’s resolutions for tapping into the
ability to think long-term?
I think it depends on how you go about making your New Year’s
resolution. Typically, when people are making a New Year’s resolution,
they don’t start with the right questions, so they end up making a
resolution that is ineffective. Most people start with the question:
“What should I do?” It may not even be a conscious, implicit kind
of thing, but they start from: “What do I criticize about myself that
it’s time to change?” Or “what is it that I don’t really want to do that
I know I should do?” It’s kind of a typical self-improvement
perspective. “I don’t really like exercise, I guess I should do it.” Or
“my closet is a mess, it’s time to get organized.” “I’ve never had a
clean desk in my life, but I think that good people have clean desks, so
this is the year I’m going to have one.”
People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most
to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that
behavior could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you
start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t
really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no
really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has
nothing to hold on to.
The kind of New Year’s resolution that works is when you start really
slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your
life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who
do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then
asking: “How might I get there? What would create that as a
consequence?” When you start from that point of view, then New Year’s
resolutions can be incredibly effective. They begin to turn your
attention to choice points in your everyday life where there really are
opportunities to align your energy and attention in the direction that
matters to you. I think most people start from the choice points,
without wondering whether this is even the right thing to be choosing.
People get to the behaviors too soon, in my opinion.
Any tips for how to find those big things and then narrow them down to specific resolutions?
A very practical way is to ask: At the end of 2014 — on January 1st,
2015, looking backwards — what are you seriously going to be grateful
that you did? Is there a change you know that you’re going to be glad
you made? What would that feel like? That can tap into something that
feels really authentic.
I was just doing a radio interview at one of the NPR stations in New
York, and I was chatting with the studio producer. I asked her if she
had any New Year’s resolutions, and she’s like, “Oh yeah — to stay fit.”
She sounded so not enthusiastic. Then after a few seconds of
silence, she said, “I’m kind of thinking about finding a way to play the
piano again.” She was lighting up a little more. “It used to be so
important to me, and I really miss it. It’s like my soul wants to play
the piano again, and it would be giving it back to my soul.” And I’m
like, “That’s your resolution! What is this getting fit stuff?”
By the way, you can spend the first week [of the year] looking
around. One year my resolution was to focus on being a better mentor,
and to look for ways in every professional relationship to do that. You
start looking around, and you see every conversation as an opportunity
to choose that value and move toward that goal. Just spend a week
saying, “If what matters is improving my health, if what matters is
spending more time with my family, if what matters is reconnecting to
creativity, what choices do I make every day that either could get me
closer to that?”
So on those things you feel like you should be doing — the going to the gym or the quitting smoking — is there a way to build your willpower towards those things?
One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do
things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit. If
it’s exercising, you should be doing it with a family member, a friend,
a co-worker. Or sign up for a series of classes after work. Because
then, it’s like a bigger pool of possible willpower. If you’re exhausted
after work, and you normally would say, “Screw it, I’m going home,” if
there’s somebody who is going to meet you in your office, and say, “Hey,
aren’t we going for a walk now?,” it doesn’t matter if you feel like it
in that moment. There’s going to be a bigger pool of motivation that
will support you through when you’re feeling most exhausted or least
Another thing I encourage people to do is — if there’s a behavior
that they put off or don’t do because of anxiety or self-doubt or
because it’s boring or uncomfortable — bribe yourself. If you hate
exercise but truly, truly want the consequences of exercising, you
should give yourself permission to do whatever you don’t want to let
yourself do — like read trashy gossip magazines, or download a whole
series of a TV show that you can plop on in front of you on the
treadmill. As long as it doesn’t conflict with your goal, then you
should go ahead and pair the thing you don’t want to do with a reward
that you might otherwise not give yourself permission for. That can be
very effective for beginning to prioritize and make time for things.
Also, give yourself permission to do small steps rather than think that there’s an ideal you need to meet. I wrote a review paper
about two years ago showing that you can get pretty much the same
health benefits from doing 5 to 15 minutes of exercise a day as from an
hour. There are a lot of things like that, where we think, “I won’t get
my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.” Well,
you could create a novel in a paragraph a day. So I encourage people to
think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent
with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe
That is actually very freeing.
New Year’s resolutions can be fun! If you think of them like a
science experiment, you can always learn something from a resolution. A
lot of times, people aren’t willing to learn the lesson — and sometimes
the lesson is that you think you want to change this, but you don’t
really want to, and sometimes you don’t need to. That sometimes we look
for the things we think we can control.
It’s funny how this happens sometimes even when we go after the
things that really are core to our identity. I did this New Year’s
resolution makeover once with this woman who had made the same
resolution year after year to become a better cook, because she thought
that’s what good moms and good wives did. She was a terrible cook, and
she didn’t want to learn how to cook. That’s a mistake people make, is
they think they’re just going to fundamentally change who they are with a
resolution. “I’m going to become a morning person.” “I’m going to
become a health nut.” “I’m going to become organized.” The best
resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you
may not have been fully investing in.
I wanted to ask about the idea of working with other people and
outsourcing willpower. Have you ever seen Derek Sivers’ talk on TED.com?
It’s called Keep your goals to yourself and it suggests that people are more likely to achieve goals if they keep them private.
There is some data that suggests you might feel like you have
accomplished your goal if you can create a public identity as somebody
who is pursuing that goal. And I have overwhelming feedback from my
students in my Science of Willpower class that, if they actually can truly
create the identity — that they really sense that “I am someone that
trained for a marathon,” or “I am somebody who is committed to this” —
that it actually makes it easier to make choices.
People are really interested in creating habits, and there’s so much
excitement now about habit design. Habits are really, really hard to
create because they require complete automaticity. You need to basically
be making choices in the absence of any motivation and it takes a long
time to get that in place. But when you have a value or commitment,
that’s something different. It can be a conscious choice that when
you’re in a restaurant — if your identity is as somebody who takes good
care of your health — then that becomes a default way to make a good
choice in that moment. Anything that you do to create that identity can
actually make it easier to make choices that don’t feel like
That’s one side of that research. Then there’s the whole other side
of how social support and pride can support having more strength to move
towards your goals. If you know that other people are paying attention
to you, and you know that you’re going to be able to celebrate your
success — you’re going to be able to post on Facebook that you actually
did run that marathon, or even that you just made it to spin class, or
whatever your version of that is — that anticipating that social sharing
is very motivating for people. It’s more motivating than even success
in itself. The self-savoring is not as motivating as knowing you’re
going to be able to savor a success with somebody else. Then when you
hit the wall — when you experience setbacks — social support
encouragement is also so important for getting back on track.
I think that from top to bottom, making your resolution social allows
you to access different supports, both internal and external. One more
reason to go public — being a role model for someone. People will do
things when they know that they’re inspiring change in others. It’s a
natural progression that you see in many areas — whether it’s people who
are recovering from addiction, or someone embarking on a physical
challenge. This is what people naturally do.
And did you see Sandra Aamodt’s talk, Why dieting doesn’t usually work?
Yes! My talk was right after hers at TEDGlobal 2013. I remember basically agreeing with everything she said.
So her idea — that the brain seeks to keep weight stable over the
long-run, and so dieting can often backfire because it makes a person so
focused on food — fit with the research you’ve looked at on willpower?
There are two things she said that really stood out to me, and that I
agree with very seriously. One was that she talked about the importance
of being kind to yourself. She made the point that self-compassion is
much more motivating than self-criticism. That’s very important. When I
first started teaching the Science of Willpower, it was the thing nobody
believed — researchers and psychologists and writers have done a great
job of getting this message out, because I don’t get near the resistance
I used to get to the idea. And still, it’s so amazing how many people
believe that they are more motivated by self-criticism and shame than
anything else. They aren’t really paying attention to the effect on
their behavior and choices when they are that hard on themselves.
The other thing I remember Sandra saying was about the futility of
trying to lose weight. And that’s absolutely right. Whenever I’m in any
situation where people are asking me to talk about losing weight, I
always try to change the language to creating health because you cannot
control weight. It’s exactly what Sandra said — the brain and the body,
they will fight you. Losing weight is almost always a consequence of
making good choices — but it’s not always a consequence. You can make
good choices and not lose the weight. The most important thing in
Sandra’s talk was the idea that making the healthy choices is going to
give you the consequence of health, even if you don’t lose the weight.
She showed a really interesting graph of four health factors —
eating fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, not smoking,
and drinking in moderation — and how, if people who are overweight do
just one of those things, their risk of mortality lowers to the same
level as a normal weight person.
I hope TED has more talks from obesity experts, because nobody knows
this research about how weight doesn’t predict health. There’s so much
important science out there that people are not paying attention to.
That was my favorite part of her talk.
To bring it back to your TED Talk, How to make stress your friend,
it sounds to me like what you’re saying about willpower is related —
that it’s not so much whether you have willpower, but how you think
I’ve been joking about that — that my work has always been to
basically take an inner experience that people reject, force them to
accept it and understand it, so that they can make peace with it. One of
the reasons why I teach this Science of Willpower class and wrote the
book is because I kept hearing from people that they felt like they had
no willpower. They thought they were the only ones and that their
willpower struggle was uniquely wrong with them — they were so lazy,
they were so stupid, they were so hopeless. They didn’t understand the
fact that we all experience willpower challenges. It’s part of what it
means to be human.
It is similar to the way that I’m now trying to help people
appreciate stress, and understand that this is human and that it can
help us. It’s not always helpful, but there are aspects to it that, when
we can make friends with it, we have a lot better chance of using it to
good ends. I feel the same way about willpower. When you understand
what a craving is and why it’s there, you can also appreciate the part
of you who can make a different choice.
One of the big lessons from The Science of Willpower is if you really
fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide
you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put
all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner
experiences. People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When
you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you
get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the
freedom is in your choices.
That’s very similar to stress. If you think you can’t feel stress and
that stress is always going to be toxic, you’re magnifying any of the
toxic aspects of stress. By fighting stress, you’re making stress worse.
So, make friends with the fact that you can move towards goals that are really important to you?
Yes. Willpower is about being able to hold opposites. So I can feel
the emotion, I can feel the craving, and at the very same time, I just
make my awareness big enough to hold my commitment to make a different
choice. Your ability to hold those opposites is what gives people
willpower over time.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Friday, February 21, 2014
Na strani Soulpancake (tukaj) sem zasledila zanimivo refleksivno temo, ki jo širim dalje v slovenskem jeziku...
Še nekaj drugih odgovorov:
(Moj najljubši odgovor: :) )
Katere so tvoje besede? :)
Tema: Če bi lahko svoje življenje do zdaj opisal/a z eno besedo, katera bi bila ta beseda? S kakšno besedo bi opisal/a nadaljno življenje?
Refleksija je lahko uporabno orodje za premike naprej in istočasno tudi za učenje iz preteklih napak. Vsako sekundo, vsako uro, vsak dan, vsako leto se bližamo koncu. Temačna misel? Mogoče. Ali pa tudi ne. Za boljši premik naprej se lahko zavemo svojih "napak" do zdaj...
Ko pogledam svoje življenje vidim kje sem bila do zdaj in se zavem, da je še veliko neizživetega, nedoživetega, neodkritega... in da obstaja še veliko doživetij in odkritij... Od mene je odvisno kakšno bo in moj načrt pravi naj bo EPIČNO....
Moje življenje v besedi do zdaj: KAOS (tudi to je ok)
Moje življenje od zdaj: EPIC, seveda!
Še nekaj drugih odgovorov:
(Moj najljubši odgovor: :) )
Katere so tvoje besede? :)
Friday, February 7, 2014
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Only recently have I discovered a web site of a photographer Benoit Paillé and of the RAINBOW GATHERING. Impressed. I hope that one day I will have the courage to live my life the way these people do - especially the way I design it and so close with nature and simplicity I crave for in this world. ...
Imagery is also amazing.
Imagery is also amazing.