The Science of Willpower: 5 Scientific Ways to Succeed 

By: Katlian Afton

New Year’s Resolutions:I think we all make them consciously or unconsciously. January rolls around, and it’s automatically time to change. But now that we are a week into January, if you’re like me, you’re slipping. So what is the psychology behind sticking to goals? What will help us make changes, either big or small, within ourselves and in our lives?

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Stanford University who specializes in the “Science of Willpower”. She knows all about the mentality and requirements of successfully changing

behaviors and keeping goals. Over the last week I have listened to several of her TED talks and read a few of her articles, and I have become a bit obsessed with her research.

Dr. McGonigal describes willpower as a competition between your short term instincts and long term goals. Of course, you’re rooting for the long term success: lose the weight, save the money, get the grades. But short term instincts and impulses are a worthy opponent: eat that brownie, buy those shoes, procrastinate studying. Lapses in willpower are just victories by “Team Instinct”. It is so much easier to define and justify short term rewards instead of long term goals.

According to Dr. McGonigal there are five simple but highly effective ways to conquer these “Willpower Challenges” and bring home gold for Team Goals. She also claims that all these methods are linked, starting with one method will subsequently lead you to other healthy changes and catapult you into being a “Willpower Master”.


1: Get more sleep.

The research on the physical and psychological benefits of increasing both quality and quantity of sleep is strong. In terms of willpower, the detriments of sleep deprivation can be seen on an MRI. Without sleep the area of our brain that is linked to long term goals is deactivated, while the area that is associated with instincts and impulses is ramped up. This change is seen at six hours or less of sleep! Six hours may seem like plenty, but when it comes to sticking to your goals, your brain disagrees. Team Long Team Goals is slipping, and you really NEED that donut and frappuccino as an early-afternoon-I-hardly-slept-pick-me- up.

2: Exercise.

Again, the health benefits of exercise are no secret. Dr. McGonigal
discusses both physical exercise and mental exercise through meditation. Both have significant impacts on our ability to stick to goals. The areas of the brain that act as self control systems showed both an increase in size and efficiency after only a few months of frequent physical or mental exercise. Even 15 minutes a day of exercise leads to increased ability to stick to goals, and leads to overall healthier lifestyle choices.

3: Give your brain the right food.

Research indicates that spikes and drops in blood sugar has serious implications on our ability to utilize willpower. A more plant based diet, or one with a lower glycemic index, increases the brain’s ability to maintain goals. Incorporating healthier choices into your diet can be difficult to achieve, nutritional counseling can be a great place to start. https://localhost/u/ravi/our-specialized-services/nutrition/

4: Forgive yourself.

Research shows a huge correlation between expressing self forgiveness through accepting failures and reaching long term goals. When someone is negative towards themself they are more likely to make the same negative choice again. Be aware of your failures, accept them for what they are, then forgive yourself and start moving towards your goal again. Sometimes this is not easy but it keeps us clearly moving toward our goals. Besides, you would likely forgive someone else, so practice that same forgiveness with yourself. Again, this mindset can be hard to achieve on your own, counseling is a valuable tool to learn self awareness, mindfulness, and self forgiveness. https://localhost/u/ravi/our-specialized-services/counseling/

5: Get to know your future self.

Studies have shown that th

ose of us with a perception of our future self are much more likely to make choices that will benefit our long term goals. We are more likely to protect “20-Years-In-The-Future-Us” if we have a true grasp that that self will exist. Our need for immediate award decreases, and our desire to reach long term goals increases dramatically when we take this step.

Dr. McGonigal discusses two main ways to know your future self.
Practice mental exercises to better know your future self. Have a conversation with yourself, write a letter to yourself or envision your life.
Also, practice the same exercises from a negative perspective. How will my life look 20 years from now if I do not accomplish this goal? Imagining the negative has an effect on present behaviors and will more likely inspire you to reach your goal.

So here we are, a week into the new year and sometimes struggling to adhere to our goals. I hope this will give you insight into what your brain needs to be “Team Long Term Goals”. Luckily, Dr. McGonigal as points out, they are all linked. Start with just one of the five, increasing willpower on one front will lead to the others, and some “Long Term Goal Victories”.

Photo: Kelly McGonigal, Ted Talks