How to be a “willpower machine” (part 2)

Part 1 discussed the importance of sleep and self-forgiveness.

3. Get to know your future self

This section of McGonigal’s talk was really interesting to me, because I hadn’t thought about it in these terms before. Essentially, the more you feel like you know your future self, the more likely you are to make good long-term decisions to benefit them.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you think your future self will be similar to your current self. It’s more about being able to clearly visualize your future self — feeling like your future self is a friend, not a stranger — regardless of how alike (or not) you are to them.

If you don’t feel like you know your future self very well, there are a few things you can do to get better acquainted with them.

  • Write a letter to your future self
  • Imagine your future self doing something (even something mundane, like grocery shopping)
  • Imagine your future self in relation to whatever “willpower challenge” you’re struggling with
    • Both good and bad outcomes can increase motivation

4. Understand your failures

As discussed in part 1, negativity is generally detrimental to motivation, but it turns out that understanding one’s failures can actually be more helpful than understanding one’s successes.

To explain, McGonigal discusses a study in which women who were attempting to lose weight were asked to predict how and when they were going to fail to follow their regimens. What were the circumstances that would probably lead to eating a cookie or skipping a workout? How were they going to justify it to themselves? How were they going to feel about it afterward?

Interestingly, the women who “predicted their failures” in this way were far more likely to prevent or avoid them (as compared to the control group, who simply went through the weight loss program without being asked these questions).

On a related note, those who were reminded of (and/or applauded for) their successes were less likely to continue on the path to further success. Ex: If the women were told, “Hey, you’ve done a great job in meeting your weight loss goal this week,” then they were more likely to accept a candy bar on the way out.

So there’s a fine line to walk between positivity and negativity, between not beating yourself up and celebrating prematurely.

5. Hold your breath (literally)

McGonigal winds down with this fun fact: Holding one’s breath is one of the best predictors of a person’s capacity to succeed at difficult goals. It’s a measure of “distress tolerance,” or the “ability to stay put when things get uncomfortable.”

See, willpower isn’t always about doing hard things; it’s about often about not doing easy things (like checking email instead of writing, or smoking instead of quitting, etc.).

There’s a technique for helping with this, but it’s sort of a catch-22. Basically, when you’re feeling the urge to do something you shouldn’t, embrace it. Recognize the physical discomfort that not doing it causes. Accept it. And then wait it out.

(This is the part that’s related to holding your breath, by the way. Because, you know, depriving your lungs of oxygen is pretty uncomfortable, but just doing it for a few seconds won’t kill you. So can you hang in there, or do you immediately cave in and gasp for air?)

McGonigal calls this “surfing the urge.” Again, the idea is to remember and trust that the discomfort will go away without you acting upon it, given enough time. And while you’re letting it pass, fully absorb the sensations. Focus in on them. Breathe through them. Then broaden your awareness, and look for the next opportunity to proceed toward your goal, instead of away from it.

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2 Comments

  1. These are really intriguing ideas. I feel like I know who my future self is, but don’t know how she emerged from my present-self. I’m going to try some of these exercises, starting with the grocery shopping visualization.

  2. #4 is an interesting point. I can see how that would be useful.

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