Pump Up Your Willpower

Self-control expert Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., explains why procrastination is a changeable state of mind.

No time. Too tired. The dog ate my mojo. In her work on the science of willpower, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., has heard — and busted — every excuse in the book. This January, the popular professor releases her own tome, The Willpower Instinct, which shares her research-based strategies for improving self-control. Since exercise is a prime excuse-generator, we asked McGonigal to give us the low-down on willpower and share her top self-motivating tips. Here's what we learned:

The 3 Most Important Things to Know about Willpower

1. You can strengthen it: Just like with muscles, recovery time is necessary to make your willpower stronger. Yoga and sleep literally build back up the willpower reserve. Eating a diet with a healthy glycemic index, watching a funny movie, going outdoors  … anything that helps reduce stress will improve your ability to make smart decisions.

2. It’s not just about saying "no": We think of willpower as the ability to resist things (like, say, doughnuts). But for a lot of people, the real challenge is about putting energy toward something and finding motivation (exercise is a prime example). It’s about tapping into what you really want in life, instead of trying to control yourself.

3. Exercise increases it: Working out will actually increase your willpower by giving you more self-control in every area of your life, whether it’s reducing stress or being better at managing your emotions. It physically changes the brain to make motivation easier.

McGonigal’s Top 5 Ways to Improve Willpower

1. Think about the big picture:
 If exercising feels like a chore, try to make a mindshift. When you don't feel like working out, think about it this way: Are you willing to have the experience in order to reap the benefits? Eventually it becomes one of the things we do because we don’t want the consequences of choosing not to do it every day for the rest of our lives.

It becomes something we do because we don’t want the consequences of choosing not to do it every day for the rest of our lives.

2. Don't let yourself off the hook: Most people will say, "I’ll do it in the morning," then switch to "I’ll do it at lunch," and so on.  Recognize this, and turn the impulse to postpone into a cue to act immediately. Go to the gym, go for a run right then or even just drop and do ten push-ups.

3. Give choices significance: In one study, smokers had to abide by the rule that whatever they did tomorrow they would also have to do every day for the rest of the month. Not surprisingly, the rate of smoking decreased. So when you’re making a choice today, imagine that you'll have to make that same choice for the whole month. It'll be much harder to skip a workout.

4. Don't let one failure lead to others: We often give up on our goals when we have a setback, because we have such black and white thinking. We’ll say "I didn’t exercise so what the hell, I’m going to have five margaritas tonight and start over tomorrow" or we throw in the towel completely. But when you look at the research on how people form an exercise habit, there’s always failure and setbacks. It takes months for people to really make it a part of their lives. Missing one day isn’t a predictor of long-term success.

5. Make values-based goals: When we make our goals too specific (i.e., "I’m going to exercise 30 minutes a day, five times a week"), we tend to forget why we set them, so we do things that are inconsistent with the greater goal (like follow a tough workout with a fatty meal). Understand the value behind the behavior change and strengthen that every day. Keep thinking to yourself: "I’m doing this because my health matters to me," "I’m doing this because I’m tired of the way that I look," or whatever it is that truly motivates you.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is an award-winning psychology instructor at Stanford University. For more information, go to kellymcgonigal.com.