I’d like to lose weight, and I berate myself for not having already dropped some of my excess baggage. Looking around my cluttered house, I commit to getting organised and to buying less stuff. That would surely help me stay on budget—but, wait, what budget? And maybe I should resolve to toughen up and learn to parent my wild kid. I solemnly pledge to turn to my yoga practice to help me keep it all in balance—a reminder that I haven’t unrolled my mat in weeks.
After an hour of introspection, I feel terrible. Worse than terrible: I’m overwhelmed by all the changes that should be made and disgusted with myself that I still haven’t mustered the willpower to get control over my life. My inner mean girl is doing her thing. “Why even bother?” she asks. “You’re such a mess!” Ugh. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal has heard all this before. Most of us, she explains, are trying to browbeat ourselves toward some imaginary better future. Then we’re surprised when all that inner tough love doesn’t work. We feel like failures, unable to enact even the smallest or most beneficial of changes.
“The problem is that we are choosing things to focus on that we perceive we need to fix or that others think we need to fix, and we feel bad for not having already fixed them,” explains McGonigal, a yoga and the author of The Willpower Instinct. “Any resolution you make (that is) motivated by shame is a fundamental rejection of what is true right now. It cannot work.”
McGonigal has made a rigorous study of the subject, reviewing hundreds of scientific studies conducted by psychologists and researchers that look at why we choose to do the things that we do (even when we know they may not be in our best interest); how conscious we are of our behaviour; what motivates change; and—perhaps most important—how to make changes that will stick. In the process of her review, what became clear is that if we want to make significant change, we need a radical approach.
You may feel powerless in the face of chocolate or online shoe stores—but you’re not. Willpower is something we all have, McGonigal says, even if you don’t always feel it. Understanding how willpower works will help you harness and strengthen it.
“The brain has three systems it uses to engage willpower. I call them I will power, I won’t power and I want power,” McGonigal explains.
“They are aspects of the prefrontal cortex, the executive centre of the brain, and they are what allow us to override the more primitive desires of the midbrain, which are always motivated by immediate reward or avoidance of pain.”
“I will” power comes into play when you roll out your yoga mat even though you feel like sleeping in. Originating from the left prefrontal cortex, the “I will” system supports actions in alignment with your goals. “I won’t” power, located in the right prefrontal cortex, helps you resist the temptation to do something you know you shouldn’t—say, drinking a second glass of wine. And “I want” power, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, forms a bridge between the entire prefrontal cortex and midbrain. It helps us to hold the big picture in mind—to hang on to your vision for your healthy, financially comfortable self and to wisely engage “I will” and “I won’t” power as needed to stay on track. It remembers that you’ve committed to getting fit and being more attentive to your children, and it can remind you why those aims are more important than watching another hour of TV right now.
McGonigal offers an example of how these aspects work together to your benefit. “Imagine that you’ve made it a goal to deal productively with stress this year and have vowed to catch at least two yoga classes a week on your way home from work,” she says. “But at the end of your work day, you’re feeling tired, cranky and hungry.”
What your primal midbrain—ever operating between the poles of desire and aversion—would like you to do is grab some takeaway and head straight home, where the couch and remote are waiting. “Because you have willpower, you can be aware of the messages you get from your midbrain and essentially override them,” McGonigal explains.
“I want power will let you remember how good you will feel after the class is over and why you pledged to go in the first place,” she says. “I won’t power will help you resist the junk food and couch. And I will power is that part of you that drives to the studio, finds a space, changes clothes and rolls out the mat.”
The good news for those of us who have struggled to change our behaviour in the past—and ended up throwing in the towel in frustration and defeat—is that with practise and training, you can increase the strength of each these aspects and boost your overall willpower. “Every time you take an action that engages the muscles of willpower, they get stronger,” McGonigal says. “Every time you make a decision that is in line with your goal, brain science shows us that the brain gets better at making those kinds of decisions. You can train your brain, just like your body, when you exercise it the right way.”
McGonigal has identified four key steps to do this: know what you really want, start small, recognise challenges and seal in success. Inherent in each step is learning not just to say “no” to what you don’t want, but also to say a resounding “yes!” to what you do want—and to creating a life that reflects and supports your highest vision for yourself.
If you’re like most people, you can identify a lot of aspects of yourself and your life that you’d like to change. To be successful at making changes, though, you need to identify and prioritise those areas that are truly vital to your happiness. McGonigal recommends asking yourself the following questions to help clarify your intentions for change:
- If anything at all were possible, what would you most like to welcome into your life? What would that be like? How would it appear?
- When you are the best possible version of yourself, who are you? What does this version of you want to put your energy toward?
- When you are feeling courageous or inspired, what do you want to offer to the world? What’s preventing you from doing that now?
- What are you ready to let go of or make peace with? How are you holding on to it or resisting it right now?
McGonigal also suggests tapping your yoga practice to help gain clarity during this discovery phase. Let your movements be slow and deliberate, focusing on opening the body and releasing any constriction, and tune in to your internal experience. Then spend a few minutes being still and listening for the quiet thoughts and feelings that might arise.
Once you have a clear idea of what you really want, give some thought to the whys of this kind of personal change, not just the whats and hows. Try to see your goals through the eyes of your highest Self, suggests Richard Miller, a fellow psychologist and yoga teacher, who often collaborates with McGonigal. If you want to lose weight, for example, is it really about squeezing into those skinny jeans? Is it about making your husband happy or showing off to your friends? Instead, can you approach it as an opportunity to create a body that best enables you to experience life with vitality and ease? Can you make it an act of love toward yourself? Keep playing with the idea, moving back through the questions if need be, until you can.
Formulate your “I want” statement within the context of your spiritual, as well as physical, life—something like “I want to be happy and healthy in my body so that I can live life fully”—and write it down. Know that you can make this your reality because your highest, wisest Self has your back.
That, Miller says, is when you can really begin to see real and lasting change. “The point where my willpower and the will of the universe meet is where real power to change resides,” he says. In other words, when you align your own intentions with those of the Divine dwelling within you, as you, anything is possible.
Write It Down
McGonigal suggests journalling the answers to the above questions to help you get clear on the answers and to explore this process as a form of self-inquiry. “Writing is very powerful in the context of willpower,” she says. “Often we can get much more clarity about what is going through our heads when we stop to capture it on paper.”
If you’re still unsure about what you want, try answering these reflection questions in the form of second-person letters to yourself. Imagine that your highest Self is addressing your day-to-day self and record what she would suggest you do.
Step 2: Start Small
With your goal in your sights, you’re ready to take steps toward it. The path you take will be unique to you—guided by your intuition and motivation—but McGonigal suggests the most likely way for all of us to ensure success is to start small. “When we resonate with something we want to do, the temptation is to set a huge goal and try to do everything quickly and at once,” she says. “The truth is, we all have to start where we are.”
Identify one step toward your goal that you can take in the moment (put down the drink, pass on dessert, review this month’s credit card statements, get up and take a walk) and make it your starting point. Don’t rush past it or through it. Don’t put your focus on the big picture. Don’t even plot out step two. Rather—keeping your goal in mind—connect with your intuition to navigate change from here.
“I can’t tell people enough that they should not get caught up in setting a quantifiable change and holding themselves accountable to it,” McGonigal says. “It’s better to stay focused on your motivation and look for the opportunities life gives you to behave in a way that is consistent with (what you) want. Often, we don’t really know at the outset what those will be.”
If weight loss is a goal, step one might be simply passing up that afternoon biscuit. Empowered by that success, step two might be making a healthier choice at dinner. Feeling good about your willpower choices so far, you may decide an evening walk is in order or peruse recipes online to come up with low-fat meal ideas for the week. Let the natural momentum of making choices in alignment with your highest goals propel you to your next steps.
You may be wondering: how will you know what those steps should be? You listen—to yourself. Your body offers constant intuitive feedback that, when you tune in, will help you navigate the sea of choices and move toward a goal.
McGonigal offers the following exercise to help develop your awareness of this built-in guidance system. Sit quietly with your eyes closed and bring to mind something you don’t like about yourself. It may be uncomfortable, but don’t try to change the thoughts; just notice them. Shift your attention to the physical sensations you are experiencing. Where in the body and breath do these feelings manifest?
You listen—to yourself. Your body offers constant intuitive feedback that, when you tune in, will help you navigate the sea of choices and move toward a goal.
Next, think about something you really appreciate about yourself. What does that feel like in the body? How does it affect your breathing?
Now call to mind something that really gives your life meaning, something that gives you a reason to get up in the morning. What are the sensations in your body associated with that?
When you know how to link these sensations, you can use the information to help navigate your course through distractions and endless temptations. For example, when you feel a pit in your stomach or your breath becomes shallow and forced—the way you might have felt bringing to mind something you didn’t like about yourself—you’ll recognise it. You know, on some level, that buying that necklace or eating that cupcake or having that drink will make you feel bad later, even if you want it right now. That’s how you know it’s time to stop, back off or redirect your efforts and reaffirm your commitment to cultivating “I want” power.
Positive feelings, similarly, can guide you. Simply do whatever creates more of them. If you feel good about skipping dessert, showing up for yoga class or reading to your kids, do it again!
Making this inquiry a regular practice will help you learn to recognise the sensations as they arise over the course of daily life—and to quickly adapt so that you stay on track with your goal. Just remember, McGonigal says, that these don’t have to be big epiphanies. Each moment of awareness helps. “Every little micro-movement strengthens willpower,” she notes.
Step 3: Recognise Challenges
Whenever you move toward change, you will encounter resistance. Not only is the ego a trickster with a vested interest in keeping things just as they are, but the primal brain (which wants what’s easiest and most pleasurable in the present moment) and prefrontal cortex (which keeps in mind the big picture and future outcomes) can also battle each other. Some part of you will always be grasping for immediate gratification (“I want that biscuit!”) or avoiding any associated unpleasantness (“I hate exercise!”). These feelings are a natural part of the process, and every time you encounter such inner conflicts, you have a chance to assert what you really want (“I want to be my happiest self in a healthy body”).
McGonigal reminds us that the human brain is fully capable of comprehending its fundamental desires and ruling in favour of what’s best for you in the long run—if you give it a chance. That doesn’t mean these strengths will develop overnight. “People have this confused idea that they will just wake up and it will be easy somehow, and when it isn’t, they feel that something is wrong with them,” McGonigal says. “You have to anticipate setbacks, even failure. When you can accept them as part of a process, acknowledge them and move on rather than giving up, you’ll really be building your willpower muscles.” McGonigal even suggests thinking through what a setback might look like. Planning for them ahead of time helps you roll through unscathed, she says.
And as we know that there will be setbacks on the path to any goal, McGonigal suggests being kind to ourselves during the process. Such nurturing—the opposite of trying to muscle your way into change—is an important component when building willpower.
“When you face a setback, try to forgive yourself and see yourself as part of the broader struggle of humanity itself,” she offers. “Everyone who has ever succeeded has been through this and persevered. Every success story is a failure story, too.”
One of the best ways to keep yourself moving through change, McGonigal and Miller agree, is to find the voice of your highest Self and let it be your inner cheerleader who can offer a positive rebuttal anytime negative self-talk starts up. How? Think back to the positive feelings you had when you imagined the things you most appreciate about yourself. Connect to that voice and cultivate a relationship with it. “It is developing a part of you that can love and support you, no matter what,” Miller says.
You can anticipate potential setbacks by reviewing how you have failed to reach a goal in the past. See if you can identify the reason your efforts didn’t work before: was the goal itself not coming from a deep knowledge of what was truly important to you? Did you try to tackle the entire thing instead of breaking it down into small steps? Did you give up after an early setback, determining that you just didn’t have what it takes to make a real change in your life? Getting clarity around the triggers that have set you up for failure before will help you make the appropriate adjustments to prevent the same thing from happening now.
Step 4: Seal in Success
If you’ve tried to change in the past and failed, you know that real transformation can take place only in a supportive environment. Reach out to friends and family to let them know what you’re trying to do and ask for their support. Surround yourself with people who want the best for you and seek out those who model the kind of life that you are trying to create for yourself. “Gravitate toward people who already have what you want and be willing to have people gravitate toward you. You don’t have to be the sole source of strength and support anymore,” McGonigal says.
When you do succeed in making the changes you set out to make, then you’ll be in a position to help others do the same. This kind of “paying it forward” will also help you maintain the positive momentum you’ve created in your life.
“I often suggest that my students who have found success offer to mentor others as they go through the process of change,” McGonigal says. “I tell them: offer support and look for it, too. And embrace every opportunity to bring the people you care about into your process and to share the positive benefits that you’ve experienced.” An added benefit of discovering that you have what it takes to create the change you want is that you step into the most authentic and empowered version of yourself—a person who has incredible gifts to share. And it’s from this place that the most profound gratification can be experienced—and offered.
We are all interconnected, and positive personal changes actually help us all. And it points to the real benefit that underlies all of McGonigal’s work: compassion.
“When you have willpower on line, you can consider how the changes you’ve made affect others,” McGonigal says. “Are you a calmer parent now? Are you a better employee? Have your relationships been served well by your efforts?”
This is, in a way, a very real experience of an esoteric yogic ideal: we are all interconnected, and positive personal changes actually help us all. And it points to the real benefit that underlies all of McGonigal’s work: compassion.
“I was motivated to do this work by how much suffering there is related to willpower,” she says. “I want people to know that they are not fundamentally broken because they struggle. Everybody struggles. My hope is that people who do this program will develop a little more compassion for themselves and for others. If you lose a little weight, that’s just a side benefit!”
Find Your Tribe
If others who share your outlook and support your goals are not immediately in your sphere, seek them out. Take classes at a local yoga studio, sign up for a weight-loss program that meets weekly or find an online support group. Aim to create a community of people who are happy for your successes and whose successes you can be happy for. Then brag a little—update your Facebook status with your latest win, tweet about how you did today or tell your stories in a group or one-on-one meetings. Don’t forget to boast about your new friends, too. The giving and receiving of praise is a powerful way to keep momentum going.
Activate Your Willpower!
McGonigal designed a 20-minute “Motivation-Activation Flow” to help build the energy, resolve and momentum you need to hook into and begin moving towards your goal.