The Science of Willpower: 15 Tips for Making Your New Year’s Resolutions Last from Dr. Kelly McGonigal

At the stroke of midnight, millions of New Year’s resolutions went into effect, with the most common ones being lose weight, get fit, quit drinking and smoking, save money, and learn something new. Unfortunately, 33% of these resolutions will be abandoned by January’s end. And upwards of 80% will eventually fall by the wayside. Making resolutions stick is tricky business. But it’s possible, and Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has a few scientifically-proven suggestions for you.

For years, McGonigal has taught a very popular course called The Science of Willpower in Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, where she introduces students to the idea that willpower is not an innate trait. Rather it’s a “complex mind-body response that can be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition and that can be strengthened through certain practices.” For those of you who don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can also find McGonigal’s ideas presented in a recent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, which just came out in paperback yesterday. Below, we have highlighted 15 of Dr. McGonigal’s strategies for increasing your willpower reserves and making your New Year’s resolution endure.

  1. Will power is like a muscle. The more you work on developing it, the more you can incorporate it into your life. It helps, McGonigal says in this podcast, to start with small feats of willpower before trying to tackle more difficult feats. Ideally, find the smallest change that’s consistent with your larger goal, and start there.
  2. Choose a goal or resolution that you really want, not a goal that someone else desires for you, or a goal that you think you should want. Choose a positive goal that truly comes from within and that contributes to something important in life.
  3. Willpower is contagious. Find a willpower role model — someone who has accomplished what you want to do. Also try to surround yourself with family members, friends or groups who can support you. Change is often not made alone.
  4. Know that people have more willpower when they wake up, and then willpower steadily declines throughout the day as people fatigue. So try to accomplish what you need to — for example, exercise — earlier in the day. Then watch out for the evenings, when bad habits can return.
  5. Understand that stress and willpower are incompatible. Any time we’re under stress it’s harder to find our willpower. According to McGonigal, “the fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making. Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.” The upshot? “Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.” When you get stressed out, go for a walk. Even a five minute walk outside can reduce your stress levels, boost your mood, and help you replenish your willpower reserves.
  6. Sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night) makes it so that the prefrontal cortex loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings. Science shows that getting just one more hour of sleep each night (eight hours is ideal) helps recovering drug addicts avoid a relapse. So it can certainly help you resist a doughnut or a cigarette.
  7. Also remember that nutrition plays a key role. “Eating a more plant-based, less-processed diet makes energy more available to the brain and can improve every aspect of willpower from overcoming procrastination to sticking to a New Year’s resolution,” McGonigal says.
  8. Don’t think it will be different tomorrow. McGonigal notes that we have a tendency to think that we will have more willpower, energy, time, and motivation tomorrow. The problem is that “if we think we have the opportunity to make a different choice tomorrow, we almost always ‘give in’ to temptation or habit today.”
  9. Acknowledge and understand your cravings rather than denying them. That will take you further in the end. The video above has more on that.
  10. Imagine the things that could get in the way of achieving your goal. Understand the tendencies you have that could lead you to break your resolution. Don’t be overly optimistic and assume the road will be easy.
  11. Know your limits, and plan for them. Says McGonigal, “People who think they have the most self-control are the most likely to fail at their resolutions; they put themselves in tempting situations, don’t get help, give up at setbacks. You need to know how you fail; how you are tempted; how you procrastinate.”
  12. Pay attention to small choices that add up. “One study found that the average person thinks they make 14 food choices a day; they actually make over 200. When you aren’t aware that you’re making a choice, you’ll almost always default to habit/temptation.” It’s important to figure out when you have opportunities to make a choice consistent with your goals.
  13. Be specific but flexible. It’s good to know your goal and how you’ll get there. But, she cautions, “you should leave room to revise these steps if they turn out to be unsustainable or don’t lead to the benefits you expected.”
  14. Give yourself small, healthy rewards along the way. Research shows that the mind responds well to it. (If you’re trying to quite smoking, the reward shouldn’t be a cigarette, by the way.)
  15. Finally, if you experience a setback, don’t be hard on yourself. Although it seems counter-intuitive, studies show that people who experience shame/guilt are much more likely to break their resolutions than ones who cut themselves some slack. In a nutshell, you should “Give up guilt.”

To put all of these tips into a bigger framework, you can get a copy of Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of ItOr you can get The WillPower Instinct, as a free audio book, if you care to try out Audible.com’s free trial program.

If you live in the SF Bay Area, you can take Kelly’s The Science of Willpower course that begins on January 13. (Anyone can enroll, and yes, I know that because I help run the Continuing Studies program at Stanford.)

Finally you might also want to peruse How to Think Like a Psychologist (iTunes Video), a free online course led by Kelly McGonigal. It appears in our collection of 800 Free Courses Online.

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Free Online Psychology Courses (Part of our list of 800 Free Online Courses)



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  • Stephanie

    Great points!

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