The science of willpower

Kelly Mcgonigal, PhD has produced a scientific, evidence based book on willpower which helps explain why most of us never stick to our new year resolutions. Her strategies are useful at an individual and organisational level.

1. Forgive yourself – when you have a set back (in your diet, your exercise regime etc), instead of beating yourself up and letting the whole diet slide (by having that second piece of cake), show some self compassion and forgive yourself – you’re less likely to repeat the indiscretion next time around. In the donut experiment, participants who were on a diet, were given a donut to eat followed by a large glass of water to make them feel uncomfortably full. Those participants who were told to not be so hard on themselves, it was just a donut afterall, etc etc, ate 40% less candy than the rest at stage two of the experiment. In a work environment this translates to picking people up after a mistake and providing encouragement.
2. Sleep – addicts on programmes who undertook 5 to 15 minutes of meditation a day and subsequently increased their sleeping by up to one hour per day (as a result of the meditation) had a lower incidence of relapse than others. Sleep or some other form of nourishment (being outside, listening to a favourite song, playing with a pet) refuels and recharges your body and this is critical to willpower as self control uses more brain energy than anything else. At work, are individuals encouraged to take breaks and exercise?
3. Find rewards – rehabilitation rates went from 23% to 83% on drug programmes when individuals were invited to put their hand in a fish bowl filled with raffle tickets as a reward for getting through another drug free week. 40% of the tickets said ‘well done’, others had vouchers for v. small amounts ($1) but even after realising this after the first week, the impact amongst participants didn’t diminish. We are programmed to seek reward – think of the impact on a sales programme using something as simple as this.
4. Bring acceptance to difficult situations – recognise that what you’re trying to do is tough and don’t wait until things might get better to change. For instance, the cravings for a cigarette will be there a long time during and after you start your ‘quit smoking’ campaign. Acknowledge that change is hard.
5. Plan to fail – When women were asked to write down the biggest obstacle each day to exercising and to say how they were going to spend their day not exercising, they were more likely to do the exercise. This feels counterintuitive but if you think of it, it is about getting individuals to articulate excuses. When it’s down on paper maybe it does look feeble and we should just go and do it.

Her link is here