Willpower is the ability to have your “future self” make consistent choices despite the contradictory urges of the “present self,” according to Kelly McGonigal, a psychology professor at Stanford University.  Her class “The Science of Willpower” evolved into the 2011 book “The Willpower Instinct.”

She asserts that most people fail at resolutions because they have chosen an inappropriate resolution in the first place.  Resolutions made from a place of guilt or self-criticism do not give the future-self part of the brain the structure it needs to act with self-interest.  Better resolutions are ones that truly speak to a deep motivation to more fully express something aligned with a strong sense of one’s personal identity.  These motivations can activate the future-self interest to a strong enough level so as to overcome current temptations or urges to avoid momentary discomfort.  She summarizes, “The best resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you may not have been fully investing in.”

Modern neuroscience explains that the brain is actually a “team of rivals” with different value systems and impulses that are in tension with one another.  For the future-self part of the brain to hold it’s stand in our sub-conscious negotiations it needs to have a clear vision of itself and it’s options in any given moment. The future self must want something very much in order to win out over the typically louder and impulsive present self.

McGonigal makes the observation that self-compassion has been demonstrated to be more motivating than self-criticism or shame.  Although that contradicts many “common sense” strategies that people have often employed, being loving and supportive of yourself actually helps strengthen the hand of your future self and reduces the persuasive power of your present self.  

In one of her most trenchant observations, she asserts that success in the disciplined exercise of willpower comes not from denying the desires and urges of your present self but rather from accepting and understanding those feelings without the need to act upon them.  When you are able to simultaneously hold a set of competing urges, you are more able to make choices aligned with your long-term self interest.

“My work has always been to take an inner experience that people reject and force them to accept it and understand it so that they can make peace with it,” McGonigal explains, “If you fight your inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. …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.”

McGonigal has several other suggestions as well.  One she calls “outsourcing willpower” by enrolling friends or family to join you in the pursuit.  When you are accountable to another person to show up for a designated activity, you are much less likely to blow it off than if no one other than your concept of your future self.

Another suggestion is bribery.  If you can reward yourself with an indulgence that does not otherwise interfere with your ultimate goal, you can mollify your present self.  One example that she cites is downloading a series of TV shows that interest you but you would not typicality have enough time to watch, and watching them while you run on your treadmill.  Then you both of your selves would be eagerly anticipating the exercise time.

Yet another suggestion is to break your overall goal down into very small, tangible steps.  Shooting for a huge overall change can be very discouraging because there are insufficient successful rewards along the way.  If you instead can identify small steps that generate a lot of personal victories, then you can increase the motivation of your future self.  Research has shown that there is an increase in motivation as the end of a task approaches.  For example marathoners typically run faster after 26.1 miles because the end is near.  So if you can create a lot of upcoming end points, your intrinsic motivation increases.

Rather than trying to set aside a whole weekend to write your novel, it would be more likely that you could work in 15 minutes a day. McGonigal says, “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 it’s sufficient.”

In conclusion, McGonigal states, “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.”

Quotes from this article are sourced from the TED blog “The Science of Willpower” posted by Kate Torgovnick May on January 8, 2014

To watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend CLICK HERE

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