Kelly McGonigal: “The Willpower Instinct” | Talks at Google

>>Presenter: I’m delighted to welcome to the
Googleplex Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of a
new book, “The Willpower Instinct.” So in life, sometimes we struggle with choices and
accomplishing goals and we often believe that sheer willpower will get us there. But much
of what we believe and know about willpower could actually be wrong, or that’s what Kelly
discovered in working with students at Stanford University where she teaches at Stanford University
School of Medicine and the Stanford Center for Compassion. So she created a course called
the Science of Willpower at Stanford School of Continuing Studies and it became one of
the most popular courses at the school and went on to be a hugely successful blog at
Psychology Today and now a book which you can get your hands on at the end of this talk.
And Kelly said, if she has her way, it’ll soon be an action figure and an action movie,
too. [Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: Willpower!
[Laughter]>>Presenter: So today Kelly’s gonna talk about
how we can accomplish the array of goals that we often struggle to get done. It might be
a healthier lifestyle, it might be life of greater productivity or sometimes something
as simple as having waited for 6 months, finally, finally, finally clearing out the closet.
[Kelly chuckles] So please help me welcome Kelly McGonigal.
[Applause]>>Kelly McGonigal: Thank you. Hello. I’ve
been giving a lot of talks in this last month and a lot about New Year’s resolutions and
I have to say this is the first place I’ve talked where there’s apparently a healthy
code resolution going on. Is that right? Did I see these signs right? So who’s still keeping
their healthy code resolution? Anyone? Good, congratulations you’ve got some willpower.
Um, why don’t you tell me just to sort of get things rolling, tell me something that
has challenged your willpower today, anyone.>>audience member: Getting up on time.>>Kelly McGonigal: Getting up on time.>>audience member: Washing the dishes.>>Kelly McGonigal: Washing the dishes. Okay,
so we’ve got two kinds of “I Will-Power” challenges. Something you have to make yourself do even
though it’d be a little bit easier to just not do it. Something else? Yeah?>>audience member: Doing yoga for back pain.>>Kelly McGonigal: Doing yoga for back pain,
well, I’m glad to hear that. We’re you at my talk two years ago about yoga for pain?
That’s great. Another “I Will” challenge. Something else, yeah?>>audience member: [Inaudible]>>Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, so an example of
“I Won’t” power. There’s all these links you could follow and you could just click and
get lost down the link hole and you have to find the ability to resist that temptation.
Maybe one or two more? [Pause]
>>Kelly McGonigal? Anything? Back row, any willpower challenges? [Audience members shout]
>>Kelly McGonigal: Lunch options for today. Have you had your lunch yet?>>audience member: [Inaudible] [Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: So>>audience member: [Inaudible]
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: Great, so we make lots
of decisions everyday about what to eat and what to do. Okay, well, these are all great
examples of willpower challenges and I wanna just start with a little definition, my definition
of willpower or willpower challenge. And I define a willpower challenge as something
that is basically a competition between two parts of yourself. Neuroscientists are famous
for saying that even though we have only one brain we actually have two minds and we are
completely different people depending on which mind is active or which systems of the brain
are more active. So, a willpower challenge is anything where those two versions of yourself
have competing goals. So, for example, there may be a part of you that really wants to
eat a candy bar for your snack and then there’s a part of you that actually has some longer
term goals, you’re thinking health, you’re thinking weight loss, you’re thinking bikini
season, whatever, and maybe the banana seems like the better snack. And, again, both of
these choices you may be drawn to by different parts of your mind or two different versions
of yourself and one of the things that has really influenced my work with willpower is
thinking about it in terms of what’s going on in the brain. And we’re gonna talk about
that a little bit today, the fact that you could be the very same person but depending
on your mindset, depending on your energy, depending on your stress levels, your brain
is gonna meet this willpower challenge in a different way and you’re gonna end up making,
you know, one choice today and one choice tomorrow. So, as was mentioned, this book
is based on a class that I teach at Stanford called “The Science of Willpower” those are
our actual students I’m not sure what I said that was funny but those are actual Science
of Willpower students. And I created this course because I was going around trying to
teach people how to be more productive, how to improve their health and everywhere I went
people said, “Oh, we know we’re supposed to do that stuff already, we just don’t want
to do it.” And there was this really interesting fundamental gap between what people wanted
and what they thought they wanted. But as people were very identified, you could say,
with this version of the self. People felt like deep down that they were the person who
wanted the candy bar and this other person that wanted the banana, “Like, who is that?
That’s not really me.” I realized that people didn’t just need to know what is the right
thing to do or what is the healthy thing to do or tips for stress management or productivity,
they needed to feel like this person. And they needed to know how to be that person
as the default rather than walking around always feeling like they had to resist this
core self that only wants immediate gratification or never wants to do anything difficult. Okay,
so that’s how the class came about. What is with my clicker? There we go, okay, great.
So, I thought today, since this is a class based on science, that I would share with
you five of my favorite experiments from the class and from the book and I chose experiments
that I like because they use tiny interventions, really, really small interventions to shape
people’s behavior and they have very large outcomes. I think this is the kind of thing
many of us are looking for, one small change we can make, whether it’s a change in how
we think or change in the way that we’re approaching the willpower challenge that can have huge
payoffs down the road making it easier to do what it really is deep down that we want
even when it’s sometimes difficult, or part of us doesn’t want. Okay, let’s start with
the first experiment. How many of you sometimes feel like this guy? I know at least one of
you only had 3 hours of sleep last night. So it turns out when you’re this version of
yourself, every willpower challenge is more difficult. And the first intervention I wanna
tell you about is actually a sleep intervention. The main intervention was trying to help people
sleep more or sleep better. And it was people had a very serious willpower challenge, these
are people who are recovering from an addiction to drugs. And they were in a substance abuse
recovery program. And half of the people in the standard care were assigned to take a
mindfulness meditation training that was designed to help them improve their sleep or sleep
more. So the first thing I want you to take a look at on this graph, this is minutes of
sleep per night and you’re gonna think this is insanely optimistic, I know, but everyone’s
starting around 7 hours and we’re gonna improve on 7 hours. That probably seems impossible
dream. Okay, so everyone in the group was starting around 7 hours and what the researchers
found was that just doing a little bit of meditation every day, breath focus meditation,
increased sleep time to just over 8 hours a day and the control group had a little bit
of deterioration to slightly less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Now that’s not the interesting
finding. I mean, it is nice to know that if you meditate for a few minutes a day you will
sleep better and get more sleep. So what’s interesting is that change in sleep time then
made these recovering addicts impervious to relapse, they were stronger against relapse
and this is a very high correlation, .70, the increase in sleep time predicted resistance
to relapse with a correlation of .70. Getting one more hour of sleep a night suddenly made
it a lot easier for these recovering addicts to resist the temptation of falling off the
wagon. And interestingly, the number, I never know where, it’s gonna bounce off the screen
right? I should point at the screen? [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: You guys are tech experts. The number of minutes per day that people
meditated also predicted resistance to relapse. So there were really two things going on in
this intervention, there was getting more sleep and there was also something about the
actual practice time and it wasn’t a lot, it was something like 10 minutes a day, 15
minutes a day. And both of these things, sleep and meditation, were giving people more willpower
for one of the biggest willpower challenges. So I want us to think together a little bit
about why those two small interventions, an hour more sleep or 10 minutes of meditation
a day, might actually give us more willpower for any willpower challenge. What you’re looking
at here is an image from an FMRI study about what happens to the brain when you are a little
bit sleep deprived. And most studies use less than 6 hours of sleep a night as sleep deprived
which may seem normal to you but for most of us that’s actually functioning far suboptimal.
What you’re looking at here is a composite of a lot of different people’s brains, some
who are sleep deprived and some who are not. And we’re gonna slice the brain, so imagine
me standing this way and we’re gonna have one of those meat slicers and we’re gonna
slice down the head and just start taking sections off and look down the middle. So
where you see these yellow spots, that’s the front of the brain, right about here or right
about here, if that were my brain pointing that way. And yellow means that this area
of the brain is under activated when you have less than 6 hours of sleep at night. This
area of the brain is unable to do its job as efficiently and the red areas are areas
that are more activated, sort of midbrain regions that are associated with basic impulses
and instincts. So when you’re getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night your brain is
actually unable to recruit the systems of the brain that you need to be that better
version of yourself. This area of the brain, I love this image because it’s like, here’s
where the balance is weighed, “Do I want the weight loss or do I want the chocolate bar?”
And this area of the brain right here is basically keeping track of your goals and it’s sort
of hard job, its heavy lifting it needs to do is to remember long term goals, core values
and when it is unable to do that, when it’s under fueled or when it’s under active, your
brain thinks all it really wants, all you really want is the chocolate bar or to procrastinate
or to follow that link through, or to not bother doing your yoga exercises. And so,
in some key way, the ability to remember who you are and what your big goals are is dependent
on the ability of this area of the brain to use energy well and sleep deprivation is one
of the main things that can get in the way of that. And I think that’s one of the reasons
why this small sleep intervention ended up helping people resist relapse to drug addiction
because they now have brains that were better fueled to remember their goals to stay clean
and sober. And it’s not just sleep that impacts the physiology of your brain, how well your
brain uses energy. There are a couple of other things that seem to really strengthen the
ability of the brain’s frontal regions to do what they’re supposed to do, to help you
control impulses and find your motivation. Here are the four things from the research
that seem to do it, to make your brain a kind of willpower machine. One is sleep, as I mentioned,
and hopefully there’s gonna be one thing on this list that you’re not currently doing
that you’re willing to do cause you don’t have to do all four. So getting a little bit
more sleep makes the prefrontal cortex better able to regulate those systems of the brain
the direct you towards temptation and immediate gratification. And meditation also, and both
meditation and physical exercise have been shown to make not only your brain more efficient
at using these self control systems but they actually make these systems bigger and better
connected to the regions that they are supposed to be controlling. And, again, it can be a
very quick time course to see these benefits. People who meditate maybe 10 minutes a day,
after a couple months their brains look different, these regions are bigger and better connected.
People who work out on a regular basis who used to be sedentary, again, studies show
that in as little as a couple of months of regular workouts, their prefrontal cortices
are bigger and denser and better connected. So these are two things that you can do that
actually train the physiology of your willpower. The last thing that the research suggests
is what you eat has a very big influence on whether or not your brain is able to be this
better version of yourself. There’s something about having big, big spikes in blood sugar
levels and then big drops in blood sugar levels that really screws up how the brain uses energy
and you need your brain to be like an energy efficient machine if you’re gonna be walking
around the world in that kind of better-you mindset rather than that basic-impulse-you.
So, research shows that shifting to eating a more plant based diet actually changes the
way the brain functions and has a lot to do with what’s going on with your blood sugar
levels. So these are things that we sometimes think of as requiring willpower, right? We
think, “Okay, I have to sit down and force myself meditate. I have to work out. I have
to say no to the donut and eat something that has fiber in it for breakfast.” But we rarely
think about the fact that actually not doing these things may be part of what makes it
so difficult to begin and there’s kind of a curve where when we first start it feels
like we’re using willpower but everything on this list that takes a little bit of willpower
to begin with ends up giving you back far more willpower than they take and not just
for these challenges. It’s not just that exercising makes it easier to exercise, studies show
that exercising makes it easier to eat right, to not spend too much money, to stop procrastinating,
to pay better attention, all of these things have a kind of global training effect on what
you could think of as your willpower muscle. Was there a question up front or a comment?
[Skips question]>>Kelly McGonigal: So the question was why
does it say low glycemic and plant based? There’s actually more evidence that a vegan
diet does this better than a diet that is low glycemic and includes animal products
but I’m not sure that that’s entirely realistic for everyone, so I think you can kind of pick
which way you’re willing to go with that. Both low glycemic and plant based help. But
if you look at just the physiology of it, there’s more evidence for the plant based
diet. Okay, so let me go on to the next experiment. So the first experiment was just get some
more sleep. The second experiment, I want you to think about a recent set back you had
or kind of a will power failure. Maybe it was not eating the healthy thing at lunch,
maybe it was not doing your exercise in the morning, maybe it was spending all morning
long following links that had nothing to do with your project. So I want you to think
of a recent time when you had some kind of willpower failure.
[Pause]>>Kelly McGonigal: Does anyone need to borrow
one of mine? [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: You guys got one? Okay, so my question for you is do you think that
feeling bad about that, presumably feeling maybe a little bit of regret, a little bit
of guilt about it, a little bit of self criticism about that, does that help us improve next
time? Does that, can that be a real source of future willpower? Raise your hand if you
think that feeling bad can actually be a real source of willpower to improve the next time.
Hands up. And how many of you think that that feeling bad is actually going to be a further
drain on willpower? Yeah, great. Maybe some of you have read that chapter in the book.
So I wanna talk now about some of the research that tends to surprise people the most. When
I first started teaching this class, this was the research people argued with, like
literally couldn’t get them to be quiet in the classroom because they were so convinced
this couldn’t possibly be true. This is a study looking at whether it’s better to let
yourself off the hook for your mistakes in terms of preventing future willpower collapses.
So this particular study, that I’m gonna talk about in a little more detail, brought in
people who were trying to manage their weight and eat healthy. And they gave them an immediate
willpower failure. They showed up for the study and they were forced to eat a donut.
And they even had to choose the flavor of donut they were gonna eat so they would feel
complicit in this willpower failure. And they had to drink a whole glass of water too so
they’d feel a little bit uncomfortably full. Okay, so we have everyone, dieters here having,
now, a willpower failure, they just ate this donut and the next part of the study is a
taste test where they are given a lot of different types of candy and they’re said, “You know,
we want you to evaluate all these candies so please just eat as much as you need to,
as much as you want so that you can evaluate these candies.” And, of course, these candies
were all pre weighed so that experimenters could find out exactly how much candy the
dieters ate after they had blown their diet with a donut. And in this particular study
the researchers had a hypothesis. They thought that the guilt that dieters experience when
they fall off their diet actually really undermines future self control. So they wanted to create
an intervention that would basically get rid of the guilt and shame that people feel when
they make a mistake. So in this study, half the dieters were randomly assigned to receive
a special “letting themselves off the hook” message. So between the donut eating and the
taste test, an experimenter came in and said something very simple, they said, “By the
way we’ve realized now that some people in this experiment feel guilty after eating the
donut.” So there was an opportunity for people to recognize they might be feeling guilty.
Second part of the message, “We want you to remember that actually everyone indulges sometimes
and we asked you to do it.” So there’s a kind of putting it in a broader perspective and
the last part of the message was a simple plea, “Please don’t be too hard on yourself
about it.” Okay, so very simple. You might be feeling guilty, remember everyone does
it, don’t be hard on yourself about it and then they went on to the taste test. And what
the researchers found is that the women that had been given the self forgiveness message
ate less than half as much candy as women who had not been told, “Don’t worry about
it. It’s not a big deal” which is exactly the opposite of what most people think, most
people think you make a mistake, you have a willpower failure and you start saying nice
things to yourself about it that this could only lead to disaster. It would lead to licensing
even more indulgence and yet, that’s exactly the opposite of what was found in this study
and not just this study but in a lot of different studies now. This is one of the, sort of,
strongest pieces of theory we have in willpower research right now. That is, the harder you
are on yourself when you have a willpower failure, the more likely you are to have the
same failure again and the bigger it’s gonna be when you do. For example, one study took
a look at problem drinkers and had them keep track of how much they were drinking and how
bad they felt the morning after. What they found is the people who were the most self
critical and felt the most ashamed or guilty about drinking the night before wanted to
drink more immediately when they woke up and also drank more that night and the next. There
was something about the self critical nature and the shame and the guilt that was driving
people back to the very thing they felt bad about. The same has been shown for addiction
including quitting smoking, you know, you have that first relapse and the more you beat
yourself up about it the more you now need to be comforted with something, probably the
very thing that you’re feeling bad about because that’s probably why you do it in the first
place. The same has been shown for gambling, the more people feel guilty and self critical
about losing money, they more likely they are to borrow money and try to win it back
and end up losing more. And even for procrastination, you may not have any kind of addictions but
even for procrastination, researchers show that the harder someone is on putting, the
harder someone is for putting something off, the longer they procrastinate the next time.
And all this has to do with the basic fact that when we are feeling stressed out and
guilty and ashamed, that is a state that puts us into the version of ourselves, the mindset
that is much more susceptible to immediate gratification, temptation and anxiety. It’s
basically the biological opposite of what needs to be happening in your brain and body
to remember your long term goals and to be that other version of yourself. What we would
call the willpower version of yourself. And as soon as you start piling on the guilt and
the shame, your brain switches into that other mode in which now everything’s gonna be more
tempting including procrastinating or including smoking or drinking. So I just wanted to give
you a sense of what it would be like to give yourself a self compassion message. Again,
I said, this was a tiny intervention, this donut study. And this is basically all it
was. And there are a number of programs now that are teaching people how to write these
messages for themselves and literally have them scripted for the moment they fail, for
the moment that they procrastinated and they’re late again, for that moment when they had
that cigarette when they hadn’t smoked in a week and to be able to whip this message
out as a way of not falling down that hole that we often fall into. So the three steps
of this message are the first is mindfulness of what you’re thinking and feeling. Noticing
that you’re feeling guilty or noticing that you’re feeling self doubt or self critical,
maybe angry at yourself and to actually allow yourself to see those feelings because a big
reason that people go from feeling guilty to giving in again is they just want to get
rid of that feeling, it’s so kind of overwhelming and they want to distract themselves from
it with something that is gonna get them into further trouble. And then the second step
is this common humanity. One of the reasons that it is hard to find our motivation and
our willpower is we start to feel there’s something uniquely broken with us. There’s
something about who we are that is wrong and weak and that mindset makes it very difficult
to tap back into your motivation or your strength. So this message of common humanity is basically
saying to yourself, “You know what? This is part of the process of change, this is how
things get done. Sometimes we procrastinate. Sometimes we fall off the wagon. Everyone
is imperfect.” And to recognize that this is not saying anything about who you are,
it’s saying something about the process and what matters is how you respond afterward,
not the fact that it happened at all. And then this last step is encouragement over
criticism. And if you were to think about someone you were mentoring, you know, some
of you probably have mentees here or interns or you think about a child that you care about
or a dear friend, what would you say to them when they had a set back? And to say that
to yourself, it might be reminding yourself of your goal, it might be reminding yourself
of the big picture rather than the sort of, the micro picture in which you feel like a
failure. And to do that rather than the voices we often have in our head that are saying
things like, “Why did you do that again? You’re so stupid. You’re never going to change.”
And to actually start to talk to yourself a little bit in the second person as if you
were a good friend. And research shows that this particular approach, learning how to
talk to yourself in this way is more effective, for example, at quitting smoking than nicotine
replacement therapy. That’s how powerful being able to respond to set backs with compassion
can be. I want you to take a look at these circles which go from being totally non overlapping
to extremely overlapping and you’re gonna decide which of these sets of circles best
represent how you feel about who you are today and who you’re gonna be, let’s say, 30 years
from now, 30 years in the future, or pick a time period that feels right to you. Okay,
so this is your current self and this if your future self 30 years from now. This means
who you are today is really very different than who you’re gonna be 30 years from now.
Some overlap but actually a lot of change is gonna be happening between now, who knows,
then this last set of circles this is like, you know what, who I am today is probably
who I’m gonna be in 30 years, same me. Okay, so you’re gonna pick for yourself. Take another
few seconds and think where you are on this graph. Actually, let’s do a kind of rolling
wave cause I’m actually curious if there’s a trend here at Google. Just put your hand
up when you see your circle highlighted. Who’s over here? Who’s over here? Over here? Okay,
over here? Oh you guys are normally distributed, this is great, who’s over here?
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: Who’s over here? And who’s
over here? Yeah, pretty good, pretty good. That was great. Okay, so it turns out where
you put yourself on this map has a lot to do with some very important willpower challenges
related to health and money and even moral behavior. Don’t feel too bad if you’re at
an extreme tail that is not associated with willpower cause I’m gonna show you some strategies
for being able to get to the end that is associated with willpower if you need it. Okay, so let
me start with the first intervention and this was an intervention that was done here at
Stanford University and this was using undergraduate students who are very young and it was a virtual
reality experiment where undergraduate students came into the laboratory and the researchers
had carefully created 3D avatars of the student themselves. So if I came into the laboratory
I would be meeting a 3D avatar of myself at retirement age. It was a really great set
up in which you got all their virtual reality equipment on, hearing and seeing, and it feels
like you are sitting across the table from your future self and it’s set up with cameras
in such a way that if I move my left hand like this it looks like my future self is
also moving their hand and if I talk it looks like my future self is talking back. And in
the study the college students were invited to interview their future selves, to say things
like, “Hey future Kelly, what’s going on right now? What’s really important in your life
right now?” And then they had to answer the question. So they would see their, I would
see future Kelly describing what’s important in my life at retirement age. And this went
on for about an hour, getting to know their future selves. And the reason the researchers
decided to do this intervention is because they discovered that most of us feel like
our future self is a stranger. And all of you who are on that first half of the distribution,
sort of you’re thinking about your future self and you don’t really know who that is,
they could be really an improvement on this model or it could just be an older version
of this model, we don’t know. But what researchers found is that the more you feel like your
future self is a stranger, is different than you, the less likely you are to do things
to protect that future selves health and happiness. Because why would you bother saving money
for some stranger when you could spend it today on someone you know and love?
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: So in this particular experiment
after they had gotten to know their future self, there was some time elapsed cause they
didn’t want it to be totally obvious what was going on, there’s some time elapsed and
they brought people back and had them divvy up $1,000 in a budgeting task. And they pretended
like they were interested in how people made budgeting decisions. But what they found is
that the college students who had met and interacted with their future self ended up
allotting more than twice as much money into a retirement account than college students
who had not met their future self. College students who had not met their future selves
were more likely to want allot that money to their present expenses or just to some
fun splurge. And this research has actually had a lot of impact in the world of retirement
savings and banking. I just heard in an economist recommend last week that we should be trying
to Photoshop pictures of people’s future selves on every mortgage application or credit card
application [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: So people would really have to think about the implications of this.
I mean, you can imagine an HR setting, right, where people are a new employee and they’re
asked to make their retirement allocations, well, what if they had to interact with their
future self first? New college students coming in to a first job, might make a very big difference
in their retirement savings down the line. Okay, so that was just one, that was the intervention,
that was the experiment but I just wanna point more broadly to some of the research, looking
at that circle graph that I showed you, and it turns out that people who believe that
there is more overlap, that they are more closely related to their future self have
a lot more willpower for different types of willpower challenges. Oops! I didn’t mean
to do that. The first thing is they’re less likely to procrastinate in general and less
likely to be late. One of my favorite findings from this research is that people who had,
who felt like they were less similar to their future self were also more likely to show
up late for the experiment or skip it completely, to just blow it off. That was a kind of interesting
finding. They also are more comfortable, I’m sorry, are more likely to make ethical decisions
at work. So people who think their future self is more different, like a total stranger,
they’re actually more likely to feel good about betraying a colleague at work if it
helps them advance in their career. They’re more likely to keep money that they found
even when they might have an inkling who that money belongs to and that’s kind of an interesting
finding cause we could understand retirement, you know, future self, but it seems like this
ability to disconnect from the long term consequences of your choices actually primes you to be
that more impulsive self even when it doesn’t really have anything to do with your own long
term benefits. Then also, looking at real world outcomes not just an experiment, but
you look at what circle people choose and how much money they have, their assets, their
home, their debt, their wealth and people who feel closer to their future self actually
have more assets, are more likely to own their home outright, more money in the bank, more
retirement savings. So this is a real world finding not just an experiment. And they’re
also more likely to do things that don’t have a payoff immediately, like flossing and exercising
but that would be good to protect their future self. So with that in mind, one of my favorite
willpower boosting strategies that you can do that doesn’t really take any willpower
at all, is to get to know your future self. And there are, you, you, actually here maybe
you can do 3D avatars, is that something, is that a Google project somewhere?
[Laughter]>>audience member: We can’t tell you.>>Kelly McGonigal: Can’t tell you.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: So most people can’t actually
interact with their future self in that high tech a way but it seems like there are other
ways that work as well. One is to write a letter from your future self to your present
self and you can do this in a number of different ways. One way is just write to your present
self about who you are, what you’re doing, where you’re living, what you care about.
Or you could write a more closely defined letter that looks at some challenge you’re
dealing with now. Maybe you’re struggling to quit some addiction or spend time with
your family or just something that is seems like it’s just not working the way you would
like it to. And you could write a letter from your future self thanking your present self
for doing it and describing what it was you did and why it mattered. And research suggests
that this kind of letter writing from your future self can actually give yourself more
willpower. Yes?>>male audience member: Does this boomerang
if you actually have low self esteem now telling yourself you’re gonna be more like you are
now in the future?>>Kelly McGonigal: That is probably not the
letter you should write [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: So just for the people who are watching this on the video the question
was, if you feel really bad about yourself now could this have the opposite effect where
you think, “Oh my God, I’m never gonna change” and if you’re a loser now you’re always gonna
be a loser so the letter might be like, “Dear loser, I’m still a loser. You’re still a loser.
Life sucks.” [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: That is not the letter. Actually, so research suggests it is better
to be optimistic in this letter than to be pessimistic. But at the same time, so the
key thing about this finding is not so much whether you think you’re going to be exactly
the same, but whether you understand that it’s going to be the same person having the
future experience. And that, which actually comes to the second point here, so that’s
actually a different thing. It’s not like, are you still going to have all the same problems
and all of the same neuroses or have you fixed them? It’s not that kind of same self different
self it’s do you understand that, like you know how real pain is right now if I were
to come and punch you, how much that would hurt? Do you understand that 30 years from
now it’s gonna hurt if someone punches you? That seems to be the thing that people actually
have problems with. When they think about their future selves they don’t have access
to those emotions, they don’t understand that that future happiness is going to be as real
and as important. So when you’re doing this kind of letter writing or doing this future
self imagination, the actual critical part is getting to feel like that future self is
real and that it is in some way you. That you are going to be the one having this experience.
And it’s not so much whether you think you’re going to be the identical person still listening
to the same music you listened to in 1983 or not like that. Okay, so here’s the second
future self exercise that gets to that. And I call this going back to the future. And
this is the exercise of just imagining yourself in the future. Studies show that just imagining
yourself grocery shopping in the future, okay, not like not anything even relevant to your
goals but just grocery shopping then ends up helping people make better decisions in
the present moment that’s going to lead to pay off in the future because you can actually
imagine it. You can imagine what would be on the shelf and you know what it feels like
to be pushing a shopping cart and there’s something about making the future real that
gives us more willpower kind of independent of the content, what you’re thinking about.
But there’s also studies showing that you can imagine specific futures related to your
willpower challenge and both good sort of future realities and negative future realities
can be very motivating. So in one study they had people who wanted to improve their health,
to imagine the consequences of not making a change, like really vividly, what’s that
gonna be like? What’s it gonna feel like ten years from now if you don’t make this change?
And they had another group thinking about the positive consequences of making the change
and what would that be like and how are you gonna feel? And both of those sort of future
thinking, ended up increasing the good health behavior in the present. So you guys have
seen Back to the Future two, right? You guys have seen Back to the Future two? You know
he goes into the future and there’s like a really bad future and a really good future,
okay, at some point that reference is not going to work anymore.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: Okay, here’s, so we got
two more interventions and this next intervention I just wanna take a poll. So we’re talking
about visualizing things, if you had to guess which would be more helpful for finding your
willpower, do you think it’s more helpful to imagine or visualize yourself failing or
is it more helpful to visualize and imagine yourself succeeding? Raise your hand if you
think imaging failure is gonna be more helpful. Raise your hand if you think imagine success.
You guys are such typical Americans. [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: Okay, that’s what everyone thinks. So, actually it turns out imagining
failure is way more helpful than imagining success. Not that imagining success is always
bad but imagining failure is better. So let me tell you about this one intervention and
then some of the theory a little bit more broadly. In this particular study they took
women from young adult to middle age, a little bit older adult all of whom were not exercising
at all and all of whom had the goal to exercise and some of those women were randomly assigned
to your typical it’s good to exercise, here’s why you should exercise, now think about your
goal and imagine yourself doing it, very typical. And the other half were randomly assigned
to what they called an obstacle condition where they had to imagine themselves failing.
They had to ask themselves, “When are you gonna not exercise? What is the obstacle going
to be? When is it gonna happen? What are you gonna do if that happens?” And they had people
write about that every single day. They had to write out, when are you gonna not exercise?
What are you gonna say to yourself that allows you not to exercise? When’s it gonna happen?
How’s it gonna happen and what are you gonna do when you start to recognize that stuff
happening? So the women were becoming kind of detectives of their own failure and every
day they revised what they were writing based on what they noticed. “I didn’t exercise cause
I told myself I’ll do it later, I’ll do it later, I’ll do it later, now it’s time to
go to sleep.” Or, “I didn’t do it because I go so busy at work then I didn’t have my
sneakers so I didn’t do it.” And they became very clear about how they fail and they were
able to predict future failures from that. Here’s what the results were, it had an immediate
effect of doubling the amount of time they were exercising. So the very first week they
started to predict their failures in this way, they doubled to 102 minutes of exercise
a week and that’s getting pretty close to the amount of exercise that you need to have
very serious health benefits, both mental health and physical health. There was a much
smaller improvement here in the group of women who were given the standard, “You wanna exercise.
Exercise is great, let’s do it!” And 16 weeks, so 4 months after that study, the women who
had been predicting their failure had maintained and were exercising twice as much as the women
who were in the basic ‘let’s exercise, here’s why it’s good’. This is the thing that always
blows people’s minds. There is a lot of studies that show tracking your success leads people
to slack off in the long run but nobody believes it. So you probably heard how important it
is to keep track of your success because we feel really good when we’re able to write
down that we did something, right? You know you feel something really good and you’re
like, “Yes! Check it off!” [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: Some people make to do lists just so they can check stuff off. And
we know how good we feel when we’re able to write down and record our successes and we
mistake that feeling good as motivation to do more. But a number of studies show that
when people are reminded of their success and take note of their progress they are much
more likely to then do something inconsistent with their goal. So if you are somebody, for
example, there’s studies of dieters where people come in and the experimenter says,
“By the way, we wanted to let you know how much progress you’ve made on losing weight.
You’re this close to your goal, you’ve been doing great.” And on the way out of the lab,
“Would you like a chocolate bar?” And women are much more likely to take the chocolate
bar if they were reminded of their success. The same studies been shown for procrastination.
You have people that keep track and feel good about their progress that they’ve made on
a task and they’re much more likely to choose not to work on it. And this is the goal switching
hypothesis. The idea is that any willpower challenge is a competition between these two
versions of yourself and they’re both you. And as soon as your mind realizes that one
of you is satisfied because you made some progress, the other goal becomes primed in
your brain and it becomes more appealing. So I don’t wanna say don’t keep track of your
success cause I think, what I really wanna encourage you to do is both. But let me just,
let me point to a couple other ideas along this line. Okay, so about why pessimism can
be so helpful because it’s profoundly un-American to be pessimistic when you have a goal and
I just wanna encourage you to think about using pessimism as actually a source of willpower.
So there’s this kind of finding floating around that people who are most optimistic about
their ability to make a difficult change, give up sooner and are most likely to fail
and it tends to be because they are shocked by their setbacks. So one of the ways that
predicting failure can be helpful is that when it happens it’s not like some shock to
your system where you can’t believe it happened, it must say something bad about who you are
or about your likelihood of success in the future. There’s also interesting studies,
as I mentioned that optimism, well this is both progress and optimism, but studies show
that if you have people making optimistic predictions about what they’re going to do,
they’re more likely to then not do it today. So people who intend to exercise tomorrow
are more likely to eat something unhealthy today and skip the gym. Even just having people
think about what they’re gonna do in their future makes people more likely to make a
different choice today. So just knowing that you’re gonna be just as tempted tomorrow,
you’re gonna be just as busy tomorrow, just as stressed out tomorrow turns out to be an
important source of willpower today. Okay, then this, I just had to throw this in cause
I think this is one of the funniest findings in the willpower research. That 75 percent
of corporations that are investigated by the SEC for fraud can be tracked by to initial
optimism that then people were unwilling to let go of. They were so optimistic about profit,
their profit projections, that when they met their first setback they didn’t know what
to do and they started to fudge the numbers. And this is something that we all do with
our own goals when we set very high ideals and then refuse to adjust our expectations
based on reality. This is something I run into a lot at Stanford, people say they wanna
make big change or they have a big goal in mind and they aren’t the least bit interested
in setting a small goal or a baby step cause how is that gonna ever get me where I want?
So let’s go big or go home. And then when they start to run into problems with that
huge level of success, they kind of hang on to the ideal and yet end up doing nothing.
So you can think of yourself as your own little corporation with goals and if you find yourself
hitting setbacks one of the most important things you can do is adjust your expectations
and take a really serious look at the process of how failures working. So here is, um, here
is an example form that exercise study that’s a little broadened out and this is basically
the writing exercise those women were doing that doubled the amount of time they were
putting into their goal. And they were supposed to do this writing exercise every day. The
first is to identify your goal and what would be a really positive outcome of that? So you
gotta get your motivation on board, right? Then what are you gonna do to take it? So
you set some clearly defined steps and then you spend some time thinking about how is
this not going to happen. When and where and why? Is there anything you can do in advance
to prevent that failure? And when failure happens, what are you gonna do about it? You
don’t actually have to make it 7 full steps like this but it’s a very basic exercise that
you can do for any goal. I think of it as being like stress testing a goal. You have
a goal, you say you’re gonna do something, well now put it to the test and find out how
it’s gonna break, how it’s gonna fail. Okay, last intervention. Let’s all do it together
unless you have health problems and, you know, I don’t want anyone to pass out or have a
stroke. So if you are willing to take this challenge we’re just gonna hold our breath
for 15 seconds. Whose got a second hand? Great! You’re gonna time us. Okay, only if you wanna
do this. Take a deep breath in. Look at your second hand, go ahead and take a deep breath
out, now exhale, exhale, exhale it out, stop breathing. Time us. Remember you can breathe
anytime you want to if you need to. I just want you to notice how this feels. 3, 2, 1
breathe. Good, okay, so holding your breath obviously that’s a little bit of a willpower
challenge. Some of you maybe need to hold your breath for two minutes to feel it but
I did not want anyone passing out. So would you believe that this ability to hold your
breath is one of the best predictors of people’s ability to succeed at difficult goals? It’s
kind of interesting. Psychologists call this distress tolerance. The ability to stay put
when things get uncomfortable. So I wanna tell you now about a small intervention that
teaches people how to sort of hold their breath but not exactly, how to basically ride out
physical discomfort that gets in the way of making a difficult change. I’m gonna tell
you about two different studies that are basically using the same technique. So you can kind
of pick your willpower challenge here. The first I call the torture chamber and this
is the study of smokers that wanted to quit but had been unable to. And the researches
asked the smokers to abstain from smoking for 24 hours, sort of a first challenge and
then to come into the laboratory with a fresh unopened pack of their favorite brand of cigarettes.
So all the smokers show up, they’ve got their pack, they are desperate for a smoke, and
they even like carbon monoxide tested them to make sure they hadn’t smoked, so they had
all, they were ready for a cigarette. They all get, they seated at a long table and asked
to put away all distractions except for a lighter or a match and their cigarettes.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: So you’ve got a bunch of
smokers now they’re ready. And then the experimenter is about to begin the process of allowing
them to smoke and she says, actually through a microphone like that, you hear this voice
that says, “Take out your pack of cigarettes” And everyone does, they’re all excited, “Woo
hoo!” “Stop!” Okay [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: They have to wait 2 minutes now and they’re not allowed to do anything
except look at their pack of cigarettes. [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: “Pull off the cellophane!” “Okay, great, whew!” “Stop!” Two minutes they
have to wait. “Pack it” Oh, there was pack, I don’t smoke so I forget some of these steps,
they had to pack the pack, too and they got the cellophane open, okay. “Take out a cigarette”
“Finally!” “Stop!” They have to wait 2 minutes and this goes on and every two minutes they’re
writing down how intense their cravings are and how much they want to smoke but other
than that they’re not allowed to do anything. “Take a cigarette out” “Stop!” Two minutes.
“Look at the cigarette” “Stop!” Two minutes. “Smell the cigarette.” “Stop!” Two minutes.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: “Put the cigarette in your
mouth” “Stop!” Two minutes. “Take out a lighter, look at it.” “Stop!” Two minutes.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: This went on for over an
hour. [Laughter]
>>Kelly McGonigal: Nobody was actually allowed to light the cigarette, okay. So here’s what,
I didn’t tell you what the actual intervention was yet, half of them before this happened
had been taught a technique called surfing the urge in which you learn to pay attention
to the physical discomfort of wanting something, you give it your full attention and you trust
that you can tolerate those physical sensations and if you just wait with patience they will
go away. That any craving, any emotion will eventually pass if you can just breathe and
wait, wait it out. But you don’t have to act on every impulse or emotion. So that’s the
technique they were taught, they were surfing the urge, they were imagining those cravings
as a wave that they were getting on and they were just gonna breathe and they knew that
would eventually end just like a wave. Before I tell you the result of this study, let me
just give you the food one. The food one’s a little bit different. They took people who
have had problems with self control around food, especially sweets, gave them a clear
container of Hershey’s Kisses, a transparent container and they had to carry that box of
Hershey’s Kisses around with them for 48 hours and were not allowed to eat a single one and
they were all carefully marked, little pin scratch so the researchers would know if they
ate them and restocked it which would not be cool.
[Laughter]>>Kelly McGonigal: And they were taught the
same technique about how to handle cravings. How to surf the urge, allow yourself to feel
the craving and yet remember you don’t need to act on it and the craving will go away
eventually. Okay, so the results. In this study, the smokers who’d been taught how to
surf the urge in that one hour torture test, they ended up reducing their cigarette smoke
by 40 percent in the very next week even though the researchers had not asked them to. The
control group did not reduce their cigarettes at all and interestingly in the people would
learn to surf the urge, there was now no longer a connection between psychological stress
and smoking which is actually, that’s the main connection for most people who are trying
to quit, they’re stressed out, they’re anxious and so they need a cigarette. And in this
particular group with this intervention, it cut that link between stress and giving in
probably because they had a tool for dealing with difficult feelings and emotions. In this
study, the people who had trouble with self control around food, if they were taught to
surf the urge, 0 had a single Hershey’s Kiss over the entire 48 hours whereas those who’d
been given other strategies including distraction ended up much more likely to give in and also
really stressed out about it. So these are just two different examples about how surfing
the urge can give us a lot of willpower for the things where we need willpower. You know,
a lot of times I hear people talk about how important it is to build good habits but the
reality is sometimes you need strength to do something difficult and there’s no habit
in the world that’s gonna make you not want a cigarette when you see it or want a donut
when you see it or maybe you wanna avoid something cause you’re anxious. There’s a real impulse
and a real feeling that you need to deal with and this power of acceptance seems to be the
best strategy for dealing with these difficult emotions, these difficult thoughts and these
difficult cravings. And any attempt to kind of push them away or get rid of them backfires
but being able to ride them out and imagine them as passing experiences that you don’t
need to act on has been shown to help a lot of different willpower challenges including
the kind of anxiety that leads us to not do things we know we should do. Intrusive thoughts,
you know, that’s a real willpower challenge. Sometimes our mind goes places we don’t want
it to go, to memories or to things we’re imagining or to negative thoughts about ourselves and
others and research shows you can apply the same technique to a negative thought without
having to act on it. It’s been shown to improve weight loss, it actually, this technique of
learning how to accept your own cravings, tripled the long term one year weight loss
success rate among people who were in a really standard weight loss program. It helped substance
abuse and it even helps people with schizophrenia. I mean, talk about a willpower challenge when
you have voices in your own head that you cannot escape and you’re trying desperately
to have some kind of normal life and relationship with the world when you’ve got these voices
in your head that are telling you to do something or not to do something. And studies show that
schizophrenics who learn to accept their own intrusive thoughts and hallucinations and
delusions, like a craving, that’s not real and you don’t need to act on it but it’s gonna
be there and eventually it will pass, they actually end up being more likely to be out
of the hospital, be dehospitalized and function normally compared to people who have not been
taught this technique. Okay, so if you want to apply this technique to any willpower challenge
yourself, here’s what that small intervention would look like for yourself. Here’s what
people were taught in both of those studies and the first is this mindfulness to allow
yourself to feel what you’re feeling or think what you’re thinking and to actually attend
to the experience rather than immediately try to escape it. So if you’re hungry, actually
notice like, what does hunger feel like in my body? Or if you’re anxious, what does anxiety
feel like in my body right now? And then to actually just breathe, breathe it out, use
the breath as a source of stability. You know what you’re feeling, take a few breaths and
then broaden your attention out and look for the first opportunity to recommit to your
goal, that’s what they were taught in both the smoking study and in the Hershey’s Kiss
study and it’s a technique that you can practice, it takes like 30 seconds and it can help with
any sort of willpower challenge. Okay, so just to wrap up, 5 willpower rules and I would
just invite you to think if you heard anything today that might be relevant to your willpower
challenge, to give yourself this short dose, this small dose intervention and see how it
works because that’s actually the nature of the class and the nature of the book. It’s
basically to become a willpower scientist yourself, to get some ideas from the research
and then test it out. I mean, you’ve got a hypothesis you can see if it works or not,
collect your own data. So those five strategies, one is to train your willpower physiology
by meditating, by sleeping, by exercising or by eating a diet that’s gonna sustain your
energy. Forgive yourself the next time you have a willpower setback. Make friends with
your future self, kind of think about the future in a way that feels real. Predict your
failure even though it’s really nice to imagine success, really get interested in the process
of how you fail. And then, finally, think about surfing the urge when you are facing
temptation. And thank you, boy you guys, you waited it out, you showed a lot of willpower
sticking around here. [Laughter]

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