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Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals

Almost a month into the New Year, some of you may feel like your willpower to stick to your 2013 resolutions and meet certain goals is running low. Don't fret. While willpower may not be an unlimited resource, there are ways to train your brain to boost self-control and measures to reduce temptation.

Earlier this month, we asked Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, to respond to your questions about the latest research on willpower and how to use those insights to achieve your resolutions. Below she answers a selection of the questions submitted via Scope and our @SUMedicine Twitter feed.

@CGarnavi asks: What aspects of the neurological underpinnings of willpower influence the psychology of willpower? Can these be overcome?

You can think of the brain as having two different modes. One mode focuses on immediate, short term survival, immediate gratification and avoiding pain and discomfort. The other mode takes the long-view including remembering your biggest goals and values, thinking about future consequences and going after long-term rewards. I call these modes the “impulsive self” and the “expansive self.” It’s the impulsive self that tends to get us in to trouble, either by doing things we later regret or by preventing us from taking action that is difficult but important.

Which mode you’re in is based on the relative activation of different systems of the brain. The impulsive self is based more in the mid-brain, which includes the stress, cravings and habit systems of the brain. The expansive self is located more in the frontal cortex and includes the areas that control attention, motivate positive action, think about the future and regulate what’s going on in the mid-brain. We switch back and forth between these two modes and which systems of the brain are most responsive to the challenges we meet. The relative dominance of these two systems shapes our choices. To give one example, Caltech researchers have shown (.pdf) that you can predict the foods dieters will choose by how reactive the prefrontal cortex is in the face of temptation.

I’m very interested in practices that train the brain to either rest in, or be more responsive from, the frontal regions of the expansive self and less controlled by the midbrain’s cravings and stress. So far, the best evidence seems to be for moderately vigorous exercise, adequate sleep and mindfulness meditation. For example, a recent study of smokers trying to quit showed how mindfulness disrupts the functional connectivity of the craving network in the brain.

The thing I most want to encourage people to understand is that we all have these two brain modes and these two versions of ourselves. Even people who struggle deeply with addiction, procrastination, depression or anxiety can learn skills for shifting toward greater self-control. The rule of thumb seems to be that if it’s good for your body and your physical health, it’s probably also good for your brain and for self-control.

One of my favorite “brain training” exercises is called surf the urge, which has been demonstrated to help people resist temptation, overcome anxiety and regulate other destructive impulses. You can learn it here with a short guided practice MP3.

Michelle asks: 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.

This is a tough question. There’s a real bias in our culture to value positive thinking, optimism and happiness. But it’s not at all uncommon to wake up and think, “Oh no, here we go again,” instead of “What a beautiful morning!” Sometimes this can lead people to believe there’s something wrong with them because the mind produces an endless list of complaints, concerns or criticisms.

The thing is the default state of the human brain, the inner commentary and mind-wandering that pops up when we aren’t focused on a specific task, can have a strong negative bias. The brain’s tendency to worry or judge may be related to survival. From an evolutionary perspective,  you’re better off solving problems in your downtime than marveling over your blessings.

So when I hear someone struggling to think more positively, my first impulse is to say, “Hey, you’re human.” When I talk about the science on the brain’s default state, the most common response I get from people is relief. They thought they were the only one with an inner critic, judge or worrier who can find something wrong with just about anything and anyone — including themselves.

But, since you asked for solutions, research (.pdf) suggests a strategy for escaping this default state. It's called focus, or flow.  We are almost always happier when focused on something than when we allow our minds to wander. So if you want to escape negative habits of the mind, it may be more helpful to turn your attention to something, anything, specific rather than argue with your own thoughts. In fact, trying to change negative thoughts often backfires, making you feel even worse or more stuck.

If you find yourself ruminating or stressing out, find something that engages your mind completely. It could be a crossword puzzle, a fascinating podcast, cooking or practicing yoga. Create a morning ritual that includes at least one thing that helps you focus, rather than be with your own wandering mind. This isn’t escapism; it’s an act of self-compassion. Learning how to pay attention and spend less time in mind-wandering has other benefits (.pdf), including reducing depression and living longer.

Michelle R. asks: 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?

Not true at all. That popular myth appears to have come from a 1971 self-help book.  The author observed how long it took amputees to adapt to losing a limb and extrapolated it to a law of habit formation.

Many people assume this 21-day or 30-day rule is widely supported by evidence, but few researchers have tested the hypothesis. One 2010 study found that it took between 18 and 254 days for people to establish a new healthy habit, with huge variation among people. That is consistent with my own experience and observations.

I don’t think it’s particularly harmful to believe in the 30-day rule, unless you plan to give up on day 31 if you haven’t nailed it yet. For many people, it’s easier to commit to small chunks of time than eternity, and this “rule” can make it seem like a doable task. Belief in the 30-day rule may also help people believe that whatever they are doing will only be hard for 30 days. This could be very helpful, as research shows that believing something will get easier with practice can improve willpower.

So, apologies for throwing this myth under the bus, even though it may help people create new habits, or at least attempt it. That’s one of the drawbacks of science-help vs. self-help: We are required to abandon interesting ideas when the data doesn’t support them.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpowerStanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, Boosting willpower and breaking bad habitsStanford health psychologist offers tips for increasing your willpower and The science of willpower
Photo by Paxson Woelber

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