Strengthening Willpower – a Key Step in Strengthening Resilience

Strengthening Willpower – a Key Step in Strengthening Resilience

When Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct came out in 2012, I was busy and focused on writing my own book Bouncing Back and so I “missed” it. I discovered it last month when Kelly and I were both teaching at conferences in Washington, D.C. and I read the book in preparation for meeting her. (What a delight! We are so on the same wavelength!)

Kelly based the book on her “Science of Willpower” courses at Stanford University. As a health psychologist, Kelly teaches people to identify goals and follow up on behaviors to achieve them by focusing attention, regulating emotions, managing impulses and managing stress, and strengthening the self-discipline that leads to success in every realm of being human. Resilience training par excellence.

In The Willpower Instinct she offers the latest research findings from behavioral science, neuroscience, economics, and medicine to validate the many practical tools she offers in every chapter. May these reflections and tools be of practical use in strengthening your own willpower and fulfilling your dreams.


A lot of willpower training involves self-awareness, self-reflection, and choosing new behaviors, all functions of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain – what I call the CEO of resilience. Kelly cites some of the research showing that just three hours of meditation can lead to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours of meditation, neuroscientists can measure changes in brain structure – more neural connections in the regions of the brain we use to stay focused, ignore distractions, and control impulses.

Some of what that mindful willpower training does is help the higher brain manage the very automatic and very fast stress responses of the lower brain – we’ve eaten the entire slice of strawberry cheesecake we hoped would help us meet a craving for safety and comfort after we missed an important deadline at work.

Kelly suggests training a pause-and-plan response in the higher brain to antidote the fight-flight response of the lower brain. Pausing long enough to realize we’re needing to deal not just with an external threat (losing our job) which is what the lower brain is responding to, but with an internal threat (our fear, grief, shame of possibly losing the self identity that resides in the higher brain) that we try to soothe with the lower brain sending us the message to scarf down the cheesecake.

Pause-and-plan gives you a few precious moments to bring your higher brain back on line and increase your heart rate variability. Not just lowering your heart rate/blood pressure and returning to a calmer baseline, but increasing your heart rate variability -the capacity of the heart to respond to changes in input from the body in a flexible way. Higher HRV allows people to better ignore distractions, delay gratification, persevere with difficult tasks, tolerate critical feedback and resist temptation. Psychologists consider heart rate variability a key predictor of willpower.

One technique to apply the pause-and-plan response and improve your heart rate variability is to slow down you breathing to four to six breaths per minute. Ten to fifteen seconds per breath rather than the normal ten breaths per minute (or much faster when we’re stressed). One or two minutes of breathing at this slower pace can shift the body and brain from a state of stress to a mode of self-control with more capacity to handle cravings and challenges to our willpower. (One study found that a daily 20 minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and thus willpower reserves among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.) There are even apps such as Breath Pace to help you slow down your breathing.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but pausing and planning, slowing down our breathing, mindfully focusing our attention on our breathing, can also help boost our willpower reserves by anti-doting the stress of trying too hard, the stress we cause ourselves when our self-control becomes perfectionistic, chronic and unrelenting. Willpower sometimes needs to relax into willingness rather than the contracted rigidity of power and control.

“The biology of stress and the biology of self-control [self-discipline] are incompatible. Both the fight-or-flight and pause-and-plan responses are about energy management, but they redirect your energy and attention in very different ways. 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. The pause-and-plan response sends that energy to the brain – and not just anywhere in the brain, but specifically to the self-control center, the prefrontal cortex.

“When our willpower challenges overwhelm us, it’s tempting to pass the blame on to who we are: weak, lazy, willpowerless wimps. But more often than not, our brains and bodies are simply in the wrong state for self-control. When we’re in a state of chronic stress, it’s our most impulsive selves who face our willpower challenges. To succeed at our willpower challenges, we need to find the state of mind and body that puts our energy toward self-control, not self-defense. That means giving ourselves what we need to recover from stress, and making sure we have the energy to be our best selves.”

* * * * *

Researchers are finding that willpower is a limited resource. Like a muscle, if we exercise it too much (running a marathon, meeting a big deadline at work) we deplete our reserves (no energy to mow the lawn, no energy to control your temper or refuse impulse buying). Most people have more willpower in the morning. As we use our willpower it steadily deteriorates through the course of the day. Navigating a stressful commute, enduring a boring meeting, choosing among 20 brands of laundry detergent at the market, may mean that by the evening we may not have the willpower to go to the gym or play with our kids or turn down the second cookie or drink.

Using that metaphor of training willpower in the brain like exercising muscles in our bodies, Kelly suggests a simple willpower training regime:

“Challenge the self-control muscle by asking yourself to control one small thing you aren’t used to controlling. Create and meet self-imposed deadlines. You could do this for any task you’ve been putting off, such as cleaning your closet. The deadlines might be: Week 1, open the door and stare at the mess. Week 2, tackle anything that’s on a hanger. Week 3, throw out anything that predates the Reagan administration. Week 4, find out if Goodwill accepts skeletons. Week 5 – you get the picture. When willpower trainees set this kind of schedule for themselves for two months, not only did closets get cleaned and projects completed, but they also improved their diets, exercised more, and cut back on cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine. It was as if they had strengthened their self-control muscle.

“The important “muscle” action being trained in all these studies isn’t the specific willpower challenge of meeting deadlines, using your left hand to open doors, or not yelling at your spouse. It’s the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest. The brain gets used to pausing before acting. The triviality of the assignments may even help this process. The tasks are challenging, but they’re not overwhelming. And while the self-restraints require careful attention, they’re unlikely to trigger strong feelings of deprivation. The relative unimportance of the willpower challenges allows you to exercise the muscle of self-control without the internal angst that derails so many of our attempts to change.”

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One of the more fascinating derailers of our willpower is the “license to sin” – being good gives us permission to be a little bad. “When you do something good you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses – which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad.” The glow of the previous good behavior (“I’ve been to the gym three times already this week”) gives us permission to slack off (“I’ll go tomorrow instead.”) and our good intentions start to crumble. “I was so good, I deserve a little treat.” This sense of entitlement too often becomes our downfall. Because we’re quick to view self-indulgence as the best reward for virtue, we forget our real goals and give in to temptation.

One way we can antidote this “moral leniency” is to think ahead and predict when we’re going to relax our willpower and be tempted to let go of our good intentions, and rehearse for ourselves how we’re going to act in that moment to preserve our intention. This involves remembering our long-term goals, using our willpower to choose the larger long term goal instead, not just the indulgent short term satisfaction of the moment

There’s a similar “what the hell” phenomenon that derails our willpower: since I’ve already broken my diet, skipped the gym, criticized my partner – what the hell, why should I bother now. We fall into a cycle of indulgence, regret/guilt/disappointment, then another round of indulgence to feel better in the short term. Self-forgiveness becomes an essential practice here so that we are once again motivated by willpower,not the inner critic. “Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression. In contrast, self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure – is associated with more motivation and better self-control.”

Similarly, seeing short term progress can sometimes foreshorten our focus on long-term goals. We see ourselves making progress and might be tempted to ease up a little (always remembering, relaxing, not forcing ourselves, is a way of maintaining our willpower reserves.) What helps us keep the focus on our long-term goals is not just to measure our progress but to remember how committed we are to that goal. “A simple shift in focus leads to a very different interpretation of our actions – ‘I did that because I wanted to,’ not ‘I did that, great, now I can do what I really want!'”

* * * *

Dopamine is often characterized as the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward. Kelly points out that it is really the neurotransmitter of anticipating pleasure and reward, not the feelings of pleasure and reward themselves.

“Anything we think is going to make us feel good will trigger the reward system – the sight of tempting food, the smell of coffee brewing, the 50% off sign in a store window, a smile from a sexy stranger, the infomercial that promises to make you rich. The flood of dopamine marks this new object of desire as critical to your survival. When dopamine hijacks your attention, the mind becomes fixated on obtaining or repeating whatever triggered it. This is nature’s trick to make sure you don’t starve because you can’t be bothered to pick a berry, and that you don’t hasten human extinction because seducing a potential mate seems like too much of a hassle. Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself, but will use the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. And so the promise of happiness – not the direct experience of happiness – is the brain’s strategy to keep you hunting, gathering, working, and wooing.”

And texting. Dopamine’s role in addiction to substances has been well documented. Increasingly, researchers are linking dopamine to the over-reliance on our digital devices. We check and click and link and surf, anticipating a reassurance that we are connected and important. “There are few things ever dreamed of, smoked, or injected that have as addictive an effect in our brains as technology.”

Kelly suggests that we can put this addictive-prone tendency of anticipating rewards to good use by “dopaminizing” goals we do want to achieve; put the anticipation of reward to good use.

“One of the most effective intervention strategies in alcohol and drug recovery is something called the fish bowl. Patients who pass their drug tests win the opportunity to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl. About half of these slips have a prize listed on them, ranging in value from $1 to $20. Only one slip has a big prize, worth $100.Half of the slips have no prize value at all. Instead, they say, “Keep up the good work.” This means that when you reach your hand into the fish bowl, the odds are you’re going to end up with a prize worth $1 or a few kind words. This shouldn’t be motivating – but it is. In one study, 83% of patients who had access to fish bowl rewards stayed in treatment for the whole twelve weeks, compared with only 20% of patients receiving standard treatment without the promise of reward. Eight percent of the fish bowl patients passed all their drug tests, compared with only 40% of the standard treatment group.”

Creating rewards for a job well done or achieving a goal can harness our dopamine system for the benefit of our willpower

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Delayed gratification – the capacity to forego an immediate pleasure/reward to achieve a larger, long-term goals – is a powerful component of willpower and a powerful predictor of future success. (The famous “marshmallow test” at Stanford University in the late 1960’s found that four year olds who could wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows rather than eating one marshmallow immediately were more popular, had higher GPA’s and SAT scores, and were better able to handle stress ten years later.)

One way to strengthen the capacity for delayed gratification is to create a very vivid Future Self who we imagine ourselves to be in the future – usually older, wiser, stronger, more courageous, more resilient than we are today. Then close the gap between your present self and your future self: create a future-self continuity. Imagine your future self doing what you are doing now, and sense into how that feels. Is any behavior of your current self what you want to invest in for the future? Does this behavior – of our future self acting as yourself -keep you in alignment with your goals, your largest vision of yourself? Let yourself daydream in vivid detail, imagining how you will feel, how you will look, and what pride, gratitude or regret you will have for your current self’s choices.

Another way to strengthen our capacities for delayed gratification is to put ourselves under or near the influence of people who are behavingas we wish to behave – choosing long term goals over immediate satisfaction. The mirror neuron circuitry in our social brains will pick up the subtle cues of behaviors we would like to emulate and we find ourselves mimicking them without thinking about it. We can pick up goal contagion just like we pick up emotional contagion. This works especially well when we are hanging out with people we like; we want to emulate them and belong and webehave less defensively around them. We can also get a boost in delaying gratification and meeting our goals if we simply have social proof that everyone else is doing what we want to do, too. “99% of people in your community reported turning off unnecessary lights to save energy” turns out to be a powerful motivation and supports our own willpower to delay immediate desires and achieve long term goals.


[from the book The Willpower Instinct]

Exercise is a Willpower Miracle

Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter – brain cells – and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise – like meditation – makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.

Gain Willpower in Your Sleep

If you’re surviving on less than six hours of sleep a night, there’s a good chance you don’t even remember what it’s like to have your full willpower. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation. It also makes it more difficult to control your emotions, focus your attention, or find the energy to tackle the big “I will” power challenges.

If you are chronically sleep deprived, you may find yourself feeling regret at the end of the day, wondering why you gave in again to temptation or put off doing what you needed to do. It’s easy to let this spiral into shame and guilt. It hardly ever occurs to us that we don’t need to become better people, but to become better rested.

Why does poor sleep sap willpower? For starters, sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, you cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. This leaves them under-fueled, and you exhausted. With our body and brain desperate for energy, you’ll start to crave sweets or caffeine. But even if you try to refuel with sugar or coffee, you body and brain won’t get the energy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently. This is bad news for self-control, one of the most energy-expensive tasks your brain can spend its limited fuel on.

Your prefrontal cortex, that energy-hungry area of the brains, bears the brunt of this personal energy crisis. Sleep researchers even have a cute nickname for this state: “mild prefrontal dysfunction.” Studies show that the effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are equivalent to being mildly intoxicated – a state that many of us can attest does little for self-control.

The good news is, all of this is reversible. When the sleep-deprived catch a better night’s sleep, their brain scans no longer show signs of prefrontal cortex impairment. In fact, they look just like the brains of the well-rested. So for better willpower, go to sleep already.

Stress is the Enemy of Willpower

So often we believe that stress is the only way to get things done, and we even look for ways to increase stress – such as waiting until the last minute, or criticizing ourselves for being lazy our out of control – to motivate ourselves. Or we use stress to try to motivate others, turning up the heat at work or coming down hard at home. This may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress. The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible. Stress encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind. Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.

Self-Compassion Is a More Powerful Motivator than Self-Criticism

Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and are more likely to learn from the experience.

One reason forgiveness helps people recover from mistakes is that it takes away the shame and pain of thinking about what happened. The what-the-hell effect is an attempt to escape the bad feelings that follow a setback. Without the guilt and self-criticism, there’s nothing to escape. This means it’s easier to reflect on how the failure happened, and be less tempted to repeat it.

On the other hand, if you view your setbacks as evidence that you are a hopeless loser who screws everything up, thinking about your failure is a miserable exercise in self-hate. Your most urgent goal will be to soothe those feelings, not learn from your experience. This is why self-criticism backfires as a strategy for self-control. Like other forms of stress, it drives you straight to comfort coping, whether that’s downing your sorrows at the nearest dive bar, or lifting your spirits with a Visa-sponsored shopping spree.


[from the book The Willpower Instinct]

An E-Mail Addict Takes the First Step to Recovery

Michele, a thirty-one-year-old radio show producer, was constantly checking e-mail on her computer or her phone. It was disrupting her productivity at work and annoying her boyfriend, who could never manage to get Michele’s full attention. Her willpower challenge was to check e-mail less, and she set an ambitious goal of checking no more than once an hour. After the first week, she realized she did not come even close to her goal. The problem was that she often didn’t’ even realize that she was checking her e-mail until after she was scrolling through new messages. She could stop once she realize what she was doing, but whatever impulse led her to look at her phone or click over to her e-mail was happening outside of conscious awareness. Michele set the goal to catch herself sooner in the process.

By the next week, she was able to notice when she was reaching for her phone or opening her e-mail. That gave her an opportunity to practice stopping before she got fully sucked in. The impulse to check was more elusive. Michele had trouble recognizing what was prompting her to check before she was in the process of checking. With time though, she came to recognize a feeling almost like an itch – a tension in her brain and body that was relieved when she checked her e-mail. That observation was fascinating to Michele; she had never thought of checking e-mail as a way to relieve tension. She had thought she was just seeking information. As she paid attention to how she felt after she checked, Michele realized that checking her e-mail was as ineffective as scratching an itch – it just made her itch more. With this awareness of both the impulse and her response, she had much more control over her behavior, and even surpassed her original goal to check less often outside of work hours.

Vegetarian before Dinner

Jeff, a thirty-year-old network systems analyst, was a conflicted carnivore. He kept reading about the health benefits of eating less meat, not to mention the horrors of the food-processing industry. But then there was the joy of a steak burrito, sausage-and-pepperoni pizza, a fast-food burger, and bacon at breakfast. Jeff knew becoming a vegetarian would ease his ethical concerns, but when a slice of pizza was within arm’s reach, the desire to be a better person dissolved in the steam rising off the melted cheese.

His early attempts to eat less eat resulted in some creative moral licensing. He found himself using one vegetarian item to cancel out the “badness” of a non-vegetarian item – such as ordering a side of vegetable chili to ease his guilt about ordering a steak burrito. Or he would use whatever he ate at breakfast to determine whether this would be a “good day” or a “bad day” – if he ate a bacon-and-egg sandwich for breakfast, it was going to be a bad day, which meant he was free to eat meat at lunch and dinner, too. Tomorrow (he told himself) would be a good day from start to finish.

Rather than giving himself permission to be good on some days and bad on others (which, predictably, led to more bad days than good), he decided to take on the challenge of reducing the variability in his behavior. He settled on the strategy of “vegetarian before dinner.” He would stick to vegetarian foods until six p.m., then eat whatever he wanted to for dinner. With this rule, he couldn’t eat a burger at noon and tell himself dinner would be nothing but broccoli, and he couldn’t use the morning’s cereal as an excuse to have chicken wings for lunch.

This approach was a great way to end the endless internal debate about whether he had earned a reward. When Jeff was deciding between the ham-and-cheese sandwich and the hummus wrap at lunch the new rule made it easy to decide. Lunch is vegetarian, no conversation. Using a daily rule also helps you see through the illusion that what you do tomorrow will be totally different from what you do today. Jeff knew that if he broke his rule one day, he would – according to the experiment’s instructions – have to break it every day for the rest of the week. Even though the ham-and-cheese sandwich looked tempting, he really didn’t want to abandon his goal for the whole week. Seeing the sandwich as the beginning of a new rule, not the exception, made it less appetizing, and made Jeff’s willpower stronger.


[from the book The Willpower Instinct]

Willpower Experiment: Wait Ten Minutes

Ten minutes might not seem like much time to wait for something you want, but neuroscientists have discovered that it makes a big difference in how the brain processes a reward. When immediate gratification comes with a mandatory ten-minute delay, the brain treats it like a future reward. The promise-of-reward system is less activated, taking away the powerful biological impulse to choose immediate gratification. When the brain compares a cookie you have to wait ten minutes for to a longer-term reward, like losing weight, it no longer shows the same lopsided bias toward the sooner reward. It’s the “immediate” in immediate gratification that hijacks your brain and reverses your preferences.

For a cooler, wiser brain, institute a mandatory ten-minute wait for any temptation. If, in ten minutes, you still want it, you can have it – but before the ten minutes are up, bring to mind the competing long-term reward that will come with resisting temptation. Let your Future Self help with the struggles of your current self.

Willpower Experiment: Forgiveness When You Fail

Everybody makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. How we handle these setbacks matters more than the fact that they happened. Research shows that finding a more self-compassionate response to failure reduces guilt but increases personal accountability – the perfect combination to get you back on track with your willpower challenge. Bring to mind a specific time when you gave in to temptation or procrastination, and experiment with taking the following three points of view on that failure. When you experience a setback, you can bring these perspectives to mind to help you avoid a downward spiral of guilt, shame, and giving in again.

1. What are you feeling? As you think about this failure, take a moment to notice and describe how you are feeling. What emotions are present? What are you feeling in your body? Can you remember how you felt immediately after the failure? How would you describe that? Notice if self-criticism comes up, and if it does, what do you say to yourself? The perspective of mindfulness allows you to see what you are feeing without rushing to escape.

2. You’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. This is just part of the human condition, and your setback does not mean there is something wrong with you. Consider the truth of these statements. Can you think of other people you respect and care about who have experienced similar struggles and setbacks? This perspective can soften the usual voice of self-criticism and self-doubt.

3. What would you say to a friend? Consider how you would comfort a close friend who experienced the same setback. What words of support would you offer? How would you encourage them to continue pursuing their goal? This perspective will point the way to getting back on track.


The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How You Can Get Good at It. by Kelly McGonigal (May 2015)

Research evolves, and Kelly explores how stressful situations can trigger reaching out for help and the “calm and connect” response of oxytocin.