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’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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Pow­er of Empa­thy: A Quick Ani­mat­ed Les­son That Can Make You a Bet­ter Per­son

Carl Gus­tav Jung Explains His Ground­break­ing The­o­ries About Psy­chol­o­gy in Rare Inter­view (1957)

Jacques Lacan’s Con­fronta­tion with a Young Rebel: Clas­sic Moment, 1972

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

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

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