It’s still the first week in January, and many of us have already broken our New Year’s resolutions. In this hour, we’ll look at the latest research on how to successfully change behavior over the long term. Whether you’re trying to drop a few pounds, find a new job, or manage stress, our experts share scientific insights on increasing self-control and changing entrenched habits.

Show Highlights: 12 Ways to Improve Your Willpower and Achieve Your Goals

1. Reflect on What's Important to You

"I can't tell you how many people I talk to, who make a resolution that they don't even want to do, they [simply] think they should do it. Maybe they are feeling self-critical about something or they feel the right thing to do is make this resolve. And frankly, people should be thinking more about what it is that they really care about and how they want to take care of themselves." – Kelly McGonigal

2. Focus on One Resolution at a Time

"Willpower is limited. Choose what's important. I suggest with New Year's resolutions, if you make multiple ones, each one takes away your will power for working on the others, so trying to do several things at once is counter-productive. Do them in sequence. Start with the easy one." – Roy Baumeister

3. Start Your Day Thinking About Your Big Picture Goals

"There's ample research that if you make time in the day to think about your larger goals, your bigger values and vision, that it actually sets up a kind of goal automaticity, that you're more likely to recognize opportunities throughout the day, to make choices that actually prioritize what matters rather than what feels urgent. I would encourage [the listeners] and others to start the day by thinking about what matters most. If you're thinking of a New Year's resolution, rather than focus on a behavior you want to change, why not pick a theme for your life for the next year?" – Kelly McGonigal

4. Move From Habit to Conscious Action

"Goals are largely a sort of metaconcept. We are very cognitively engaged when we set goals. For most people, what happens on a day-to-day basis seems to transcend a lot of our conscious decision making.

There was a woman named Wendy Wood at Duke University who followed around hundreds of people and what she found was that about 40 to 45 percent of what they did everyday were habits as opposed to deliberate decisions. So it begs this question, 'What exactly is happening when someone is in the grip of a habit?' What we found through research is that often times what's happening is that there's some kind of cue, a trigger, that's triggering some kind of pattern our brain has learned, remembered and is attracted towards because it delivers a certain kind of reward.

Teaching people to be more deliberate, and understand and diagnose those cues and rewards in their lives, it gives them power over those patterns that they would like to have more control." – Charles Duhigg

5. Embrace Rewards, Eschew Punishment

"The key isn't to punish yourself into making some type of change, because we know that the brain shies away from punishment. The key is to figure out what rewards drive the behaviors that you actually want, right? Whenever I talk to people who have started an exercise routine, they say, 'Well I woke up this morning, I went for a great run, and then I got home…' and instead of taking a nice long shower, or having a smoothie, or patting yourself on the back, you get home and you're late for work, so you're anxious, and you rush out the door, and your kids are driving you crazy. You're essentially punishing yourself for going and exercising. And your brain, your neurology latches on to the signals of punishment and reward. When you're punishing yourself for doing something that you really want to do, you're making it harder and harder to make that into a habit." – Charles Duhigg

6. Practice Your Willpower Muscle

"A muscle is a very good analogy. It gets tighter after you use it. We also find it gets stronger if you exercise it regularly, and so it can increase the capacity and improve at least your stamina until you can go on exerting self-control in multiple places." – Roy Baumeister

7. Stop the Negative Self Talk

"Many people, in my experience, feel like guilt and criticism actually improves motivation but what it tends to do is make us feel so bad that we're going to, by habit, turn back to the one thing that makes us feel better. So the gambler who feels guilty for losing money will go back to the gambling table to try to win it back because they feel so bad about the loss. The dieter who feels guilty and ashamed of a setback on their diet will turn to food for comfort. One of the best things that you can do when you experience a setback is practice self-compassion. It's counter intuitive for some people, but when you forgive yourself for a setback, what it does is it makes space for the part of you who really does care about your long-term goal to come back online and make a better choice for moving forward." – Kelly McGonigal

8. Lose the Time Expectations

"It's sort of an old wives' tale about [habits taking 21 days to form]. It takes different amounts of time for different people and different patterns. If you want to create a habit involving ice cream, you can probably do it in 12 minutes. Exercise might take a little bit longer." – Charles Duhigg

9. Try Meditating

"Meditation seems to be one of the few things that actually trains willpower in all areas of your life because of the way that it changes the brain. It actually strengthens the systems of self-awareness and self-control and motivation, and so it's a wonderful thing to do. And it's actually the first thing I recommend to people in my Science of Willpower class at Stanford — that they spend the first week meditating, rather than trying to change something else in their life.

And many people have a kind of a misperception about meditation. They think that they need to sit down, and they're going to punish themselves by sitting perfectly still and then they have to stop all thoughts and if their mind wanders they're doing it wrong. In fact, what we know from the science of meditation is that often it's the meditation sits where you feel really distracted and you notice your mind wandering a lot, and you aren't able to suppress, say, the difficult memories or images that come up — those are exactly the meditation sessions that are doing what we would hope…

So if you're someone who is trying to meditate and make it a habit, one of the best things you can do is recognize that actually the more uncomfortable or the bigger a failure the meditation feels like, the more it's actually strengthening your ability to sit with discomfort, and the more it's giving you the ability to not allow those thoughts, or those memories, or those sensations to determine what it is you do with your life." -Kelly McGonigal

10. Take Your Whole Self, Cravings and All, Along for the Ride

"When I start to talk about these competing selves, people often want to get rid of the instincts, to get rid of [the self that wants] immediate gratification. We start to really criticize and judge that part of us who doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning, and that's as fundamentally important to being a human as our ideal self, or a wiser self. And when we talk about strengthening willpower and making change, it's important to recognize you're not going to get rid of that other part of yourself, that part of you is going to be along for the ride as you move toward whatever your goals are." – Kelly McGonigal

11. Delay Gratification, If Only for 15 Minutes

"If people, if they are strongly tempted for something, if they can just say, 'Well, I won't have it now but I'll have it later.' If they can postpone it, then, well, later if they really want it they can have it, which sometimes they do, but often the crisis of wanting sort of passes and when they get to the point where it's later and they could have it, they decide not to. So it's successful both ways. Again it's going a little bit for the longterm rather than yielding to the momentary impulse." – Roy Baumeister

12. Believe That Change is Possible

"Keep in mind, any habit can be changed. I mean, studies show it doesn't matter if you're 40, you're a smoker, if you're 65 years old and have been overweight your entire life, people quit smoking every day. They lose weight everyday. You just have to think, you have to believe that it's possible, and then find a real structured plan for doing it. But don't lose hope. It's within reach." – Charles Duhigg

Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University; and author of "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What you Can Do to Get More of It"
Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University; and author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength"
Charles Duhigg, reporter for the New York Times; and author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business"

  • Ben Rawner

    What are the best rewards that have the most effect to pet the will power? Food, dancing, movies, activity, etc…?

  • Cathy

    Is it true that a habit can be created if you can do or not do something for 3 weeks in a row, assuming it is something done daily or to avoid daily?

  • Guest

    I took today off work to get organized and restart my thesis work on the eve of my 14th and final semester before being kicked out university for not finishing. I have unprecedented anxiety about undertaking and finishing this task. I take it as an encouraging omen that this subject is on Forum as I sit here with coffee and donut, further procrastinating. I can do it! Or can i? I need a DAILY mantra or affirmation (or threat) to start of on each thesis work day. Any advice?

    • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

      Hi Amanda. Saw your note and appeal. For some reason they seem to de-post ANYTHING which mentions a specific group or program here (I disagree with this stifling rule!) But let me recommend you see my post at under Michael Pollan’s segment today, January 3, 2014. Best of luck to you!!

      • Amanda

        Thank you, absurdist, for the encouragement. You reinforce the only method that has gotten me this far: break down the vague enormity of it into achievable tasks.

        And thank you, Peter DuMont. I also listened the SciFri segment on plant neurobiology and found it similarly provocative on the heels of this will power Forum segment, and my stated thesis dilemma. I spent the morning considering my understanding of my own “intelligence” and how I go about obtaining and using “intelligence” in my life.

        Here is Peter’s comment re “Can Plants Think?” on SciFri:
        Peter DuMont · UC Berkeley
        Thanks to Michael Pollan and host Ira Flato for the refreshing discussion, in today’s “Science Friday,” about defining intelligence — one of the most important topics imaginable.

        I like to use the Latin derivations of the word to help gain critical insights: inter: “between,” and legere: “to gather, choose.”

        A good working definition of intelligence derived from these roots is: “The ability [and action of] gathering information, organizing it, and making beneficial choices.”

        I believe we should give young people and adults alike the empowering benefit of this definition in public education, as early as possible.

        An additional critical insight here is that inaction — the ability to be mentally silent — is a vital condition to maximize intelligence because it provides [obvious when you think about it] the quietness, sensitivity or “sense-ability,” necessary to optimize applied human intelligence.

        That is why meditation techniques are so important, apart from belief. The technique that may help most people get most easily, directly, and efficiently to their own, inner state of “least excitation,” is the Transcendental Meditation or “TM” technique. This statement is made based on an overwhelming body and preponderance of scientific evidence that is still growing. Not surprisingly, the TM “Quiet Time” technique is getting a real foothold in public education in some areas, now including several countries, I understand.

        Given the challenges of violence and unnecessary waste generated by poor individual and collective choices in America and the world, it’s not a moment too soon to popularize this critical understanding, and to support this particular technique.

    • absurdist

      Advice: stop thinking about the final result, or that you’ve procrastinated all this time. Fear of success or failure? Doesn’t matter. Break down, into a list, of all the tasks you must complete to finish this semester. Break down each task if necessary. Then do each, one by one. Very satisfying.

  • Jon Gold

    These days, it seems more and more challenging to have focus and will power in accomplishing one thing at a time. I do not believe that multi-tasking exists. For example, I’m reading an interesting article on line and there’s a lot of surrounding extra ‘news,’ like photos of celebrities as children. I guess my concentration is becoming stronger in the midst of all the excess distractions. I’ve lived the rewards of will-power through successes. I do read paper books and newspapers…so how do we hone our will power with all the distractions and abstractions!?

    • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

      Hi Jon. See my comment under Amanda’s post below. It may be helpful. Feel free to look me up and get in touch, too, even by (Amazing!) that old-fashioned tool, the telephone! PBD

  • Jeff Shankle

    everything here is music to my ears. as a track and gield athlete, ultramarathoner, and later ironman, i never set goals for time or performance. i always concentrated on my liefstyle and training habits… my performaces were almost always encouraging. cant wait to read everyone’s work

  • Matt

    I am a classic procrastinator and diagnosed with ADD, which makes starting tasks very difficult, but that isn’t my biggest problem. When I am working on a task, the closer I get
    to finishing, the stronger the urge to stop and put it off. If I have only one or two last little
    things to do, the urge to stop and do something else (anything else) is almost overwhelming.

    • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

      Wow. Thanks for sharing. See my reply to Amanda below. It might be helpful.

    • absurdist

      When my mother died, I learned a lot about her by looking at the paintings she left behind. Most were unfinished, unresolved. She’d get to that wall point in a painting when everything looks like shit and she couldn’t power through. That’s the hard part- continuing when you want to quit.

  • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

    One everyday, recurring choice that people are often not aware of, it seems to me, which requires “want power,” good habits, and will power, just as the term implies: is to project a good will — and to wish for good outcomes in the face of conflicts, large and small.

    Only too easily we human beings can have a habit of lashing out mentally, emotionally, and/or verbally (if not physically) — whether on the defensive or on the attack — at the first sign of any disagreement or irritation in daily life situations, not to mention major scenarios.

    Even people who fervently believe in peace, politically and otherwise, may unconsciously project a wish for harm — the simple opposite of good will, after all, is ill will — on those with whom they disagree, often by their own premature assumptions rather than reality.

    By becoming more conscious of this complicating, harmful, only-too-common human phenomenon, and by trying our best to “reset the reflex” from within; each citizen of the world can make a significant contribution to the social atmosphere of families, communities, nations, and world.

  • tjnighthawk

    In my younger years I was never challenged to meet deadlines for studies or having the discipline to sit and practice piano for hours between lessons. As an adult in both the profressional setting as well as trying to complete personal tasks, I suspected I had become a chronic procrastinator for which I sought professions help with two different psychologists, neither one of which seemed to have a sense of direction on how to help me get out of this situation. Now I’m wondering if whether what I described a procrastination is the possibly Attention Deficit Disorder?
    I recongize a tendency to fill my day with comfort activities such as watching old movies but I have important things that really need to accomplish yet these keep getting kicked down the road. Don’t know if seeking the comfort zone is considered a habit that needs breaking or whether the ADD factor may be real shortcoming and there’s a need to develop as skillset to address that matter. Any advice on any of these thoughts/issues?

    • Steve

      Do you ever get done what needs to get done or do you avoid it altogether? Are you afraid you won’t do it right? If not, try setting a timer for 20 minutes and then tell yourself you’ll work on it until the timer goes off and then take a break. This will help give your mind a beginning and an end point that it probably thought would drag on and on.

      • tjnighthawk

        Thanks Steve. I do manage to get certain things done but I think your onto something about the fear that things won’t come out right. I’ve given this considerable thought i.e. having to face success vs failure if the end result falls short but my biggist issue that’s frustrating me now is the inability to disposition many stacks of paper that I had thought needed to be scanned or filed. I don’t seem to have the discipline (ADD focus) to sit down with one stack and work through it. In that case what’s there too judge as right/wrong? I suspect nothing as no one else is affected and the only consequences appear to be my self-criticism and the overwhelming mountain of work that continues to grow. One of the counselors also proposed setting a definite time window for a task and if you don’t make it, you’re not allowed to slip the timeline as if you had an infinite amount of time to do everything. You have have to reschedule for another time slot and try again but get on with the next task on your list. Again these are commitments to myself so there’s not the obligation of a “deliverable” as in a professional setting where I do seem to perform much better, but still at a level that could be better.

        • Steve

          The timer idea is not mine, wiki Pomodoro Technique
          The actual use of the timer might be beneficial to you. Its great for tasks that aren’t all that complicated or you just need to get started on.

          • tjnighthawk

            Thanks again. Checked out the P T process and will look further at that method to get things started as I believe that would help with a quick test of ease of application.

          • Giorgos Maltezos Kedros

            what seems to be your problem is one of the style reward or punish. as long as you know you have tons of work and either if you finish something or not this will again seem like mountain then you get discouraged to start any task.. the key is to question your self if you really enjoy what you do if not change it.. or try to reward yourself after finishing a task..the reward must not be earning more relax time as this goes controversially to the whole idea of completing the projects on time..(eg thinking if i complete this timeline i ll do pointless things for 2 extra days is wrong). note that giving the reward to your self needs the same or more discipline as when you complete the actual work projects.. i think that free time must be self regenerating. performing actions that have only target to regenerate body and mind making it ready to accept the next day at work.. and those are not watching tv or sleeping.. (some ideas might be a relaxing walk,some easy gym time, sauna, hot bath.. meditation or massage sessions or anything that u enjoy and it is also useful at refreshing your body and mind) making this reward at first times will feel like extra load on schedule until the body will adobt the changes, yet later the body will remember that when this work is done comes refresh..

          • tjnighthawk

            Thank you for the thoughts on helping me resolve the challenges ahead. What’s interesting in these inputs from those replying is that I’ve had most of these thoughts stirring around for years and I feel I’m so close to a break out on this that it’s time for action and to convince myself there’s is no magic elixir just around the corner. What’s amazing is how quickly I become productive after simply hitting the OFF button on the remote. Someone once suggested I put my TV in the garage for six months and report back…I think the discipline to simply do it and following up with the reward is worth a try.
            Thanks again.

  • Naomi Goodlet

    I loved this interview. The Willpower Instinct & The Power of Habit are two of my favourite books. Awesome to have the two authors together!

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