What is the No. 1 reason people don’t meet their goals? Willpower. The good news, though, is that this power can be studied as a science, according to health psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal.
McGonigal’s new book, The Willpower Instinct, heavily based on research studies, explores willpower challenges: dieting, addiction and exercise to name a few. She refers to biology and neuroscience and the origins of human thought, spelling out complex scientific findings in layman’s terms.
McGonigal’s own research led her to create “The Science of Willpower,” a class offered to the public through Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and that helps explain how to break old habits and create new, healthy ones.
She defines willpower as “the ability to control attention, emotions and desires.” In her book, she points out that now, more than ever, people realize how willpower influences their physical health, financial security, relationships and professional success—and how the pressure to be in control of every aspect of our lives is often our downfall.
“According to the American Psychological Association, Americans name lack of willpower as the number-one reason they struggle to meet their goals,” McGonigal writes “Many feel guilty about letting themselves and others down. Others feel at the mercy of their thoughts, emotions, and cravings, their lives dictated by impulses rather than conscious choices. Even the best-controlled feel a kind of exhaustion at keeping it all together and wonder if life is supposed to be such a struggle.”
To succeed at self-control, you need to know how you fail, or as McGonigal puts it, how you lose control. “Knowing how you are likely to give in doesn’t, as many people fear, set you up for failure. It allows you to support yourself and avoid the traps that lead to willpower failures,” she writes. “Self-knowledge, especially how we find ourselves in willpower trouble, is the foundation of self-control.”
McGonigal tells readers that willpower is about harnessing the three powers of self-control: I will, I won’t, and I want. Our brains are hardwired and sectioned in our prefrontal cortex to balance each of these.
Willpower Experiment: What’s Your “Want” Power?
When your willpower is running low, find renewed strength by tapping into your “want” power. For your biggest willpower challenge, consider the following motivations:
1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge? What is the payoff for you personally? Greater health, happiness, freedom, financial security, or success?
2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? Surely there are others who depend on you and are affected by your choices. How does your behavior influence your family, friends, coworkers, employees or employer, and community? How would your success help them?
3. Imagine that this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now. Can you imagine what your life will be like, and how you will feel about yourself, as you make progress on this challenge? Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?