The Science of Willpower

How willpower is often misunderstood, and what we each can do to improve it?

It’s the third week in Jan. and at about this time, that resolution that seemed so reasonable a week ago — go to the gym every other day, read a book a week — is starting to seem very hard. As you are teetering on the edge of abandoning it all together Kelly McGonigal wants you to know that you’re not having a hard time sticking to a resolution because you are a terrible person. Perhaps you’ve just formulated the wrong resolution. People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail.

Willpower is the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. It is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

There are competing systems that think about the world differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival.  But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.

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