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Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower

Past data suggests that four out of five people who adopt New Year’s resolution’s will eventually break them, and that a third will throw in the towel before the end of January. The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, willpower is not a trait that you’re either born with or without.

As Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explained in her book The Science of Willpower, self-control is a complex mind-body response that can be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition, and it can be strengthened through certain practices. In her book, McGonigal discusses why willpower is not an unlimited resource, how the brain can be trained for greater self-discipline, and how we use past good behavior to justify indulgences. She also provides other insights on self-control from psychology, economics, neuroscience and medicine.

To help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions and break bad habits, we’ve asked McGonigal to respond to your questions about the latest research on willpower and about ways to increase your self-discipline. Questions can be submitted to McGonigal by either sending a tweet that includes the hashtag #AskSUMed or posting your question in the comments section below. We’ll collect questions until Friday (Jan.11) at 5 PM Pacific Time.

When submitting questions, please abide by the following ground rules:

  • Stay on topic
  • Be respectful to the person answering your questions
  • Be respectful to one another in submitting questions
  • Do not monopolize the conversation or post the same question repeatedly
  • Kindly ignore disrespectful or off topic comments
  • Know that Twitter handles and/or names may be used in the responses

McGonigal will respond to a selection of the questions submitted, but not all of them, in a future entry on Scope.

Finally – and you may have already guessed this – an answer to any question submitted as part of this feature is meant to offer medical information, not medical advice. These answers are not a basis for any action or inaction, and they’re also not meant to replace the evaluation and determination of your doctor, who will address your specific medical needs and can make a diagnosis and give you the appropriate care.

Previously: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, Boosting willpower and breaking bad habits, Stanford health psychologist offers tips for increasing your willpower and The science of willpower
Photo by Michael McCullough

9 Responses to “ Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower ”

  1. M Says:

    Whenever I’m trying to lose weight and have success – e.g. the scale shows me a number I like or my pants fit looser – I tend to reward myself by enjoying food that isn’t great for me or by taking a break from my work-outs. How can I develop the willpower to avoid this pattern?

  2. Michelle Says:

    I resolved this New Year to be more positive in my thoughts and comments – especially first thing in the morning (when I tend to think about how much work I have to do that day or to focus on something I’m stressed about). This is proving difficult to do, and I’m wondering if you have specific tips on training oneself to be more positive.

  3. Dave P. Says:

    My 2013 goals is limit the amount of time I spend online and, especially, stop constantly checking my e-mail when out with friends. So far it’s proving to be very difficult. Is there something about digital technology in particular that causes us to struggle with willpower?

  4. R. Hobbs Says:

    At certain times in my life, particularly at certain times of the year, I seem to have more willpower. Why is that?

  5. Mara Says:

    You mentioned in a past Today Show interview that it’s important to have a willpower role model. What is a willpower role model and how can having one help in achieving my New Year’s resolutions?

  6. Anne J. Says:

    What are the things we should do in terms of our own physical wellbeing if we are trying to break a bad habit or stick to a goal?

  7. Michelle R. Says:

    Common knowledge states it takes 30 days to establish a new habit. How true is this, especially with establishing a healthy habit with little, if any, immediate reward?

  8. Helena Says:

    5 years ago I went VEGAN over night and stuck to a great diet for 2.5 years. I dropped extra pounds that were needed to be dropped and felt great.
    2.5 years ago I started “cheating” and have now gone back to eating everything again and gained the pounds, and then some, back again.

    Why did I have the willpower then, and absolutely no willpower now?

  9. Rebecca Warrington Says:

    Actually I have loads of questions about willpower but have a more pressing question about returning to school for Health Psychology. I have and MSW and started a business a Holistic Health Care business. I just moved here, am a dual citizen. Was thinking about Stanford as possibility or a university in England. Sorry if this is not relevant to will power, other than I am trying to revitalise my career at age 50.

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