The secret behind being able to 'just do it'

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The complete version of this interview was released as a Spark Plus podcast. An edited version of this interview will air on an upcoming episode of Spark.

Just do it. Roll up your sleeves and give the problem a little elbow grease. It sounds easy, but taking a goal from dream to reality involves willpower. Why do some people seem to have more willpower than others? Are they just "better" than the rest of us? Maybe not. It turns out that scientific research into willpower and self-control has some pretty intriguing -- and often counter-intuitive -- things to teach us about how willpower works, and how we can tap into it when we need it most.

That's where Kelly McGonigal comes in. She's a health psychologist at Stanford University, and the author of the new book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. McGonigal argues that willpower is a lot like stress. When our bodies react to stress, our heart rate increases and our blood pressure goes up. It turns out that willpower does the same thing. "It unleashes a set of coordinated changes in your body that are meant to help you deal with a new kind of threat, and that threat is something that is more internal, a desire or a distraction or an impulse, that somehow your brain recognizes is counterproductive or destructive to your goals," McGonigal explained to Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview.

However, unlike stress, which often makes it more difficult to complete tasks, willpower engages your body so it is more likely that you'll succeed. "The willpower response actually slows you down," McGonigal said. "You see the heart rate slowing down, you see breathing slowing down and you see this balanced, autonomic response that's almost the opposite of a stress response." Since there are lots of techniques for controlling stress, there should be some for controlling willpower? According to McGonigal, the answer is yes.

McGonigal points to both physical activity and meditation as two practices that help willpower. "For whatever reason, the brain responds to exercise too," McGonigal said. "It becomes more efficient and better able to do the things that we need willpower for."


Another important factor in improving willpower is sleep. If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, the brain's ability to function decreases and "the brain actually has a hard time using the systems of self-control." As a result, "it's harder to control your impulses."

One of the most effective ways to improve your willpower is to exercise it regularly. Willpower is like a muscle, McGonigal says. When building your bicep, you start small, with, for example, five-pound weights. The more you work out, the more you build on this base, and eventually lifting those five-pound weights is no problem, and you can move on to the next challenge, such as 10- or 15-pound weights. According to McGonigal, willpower functions the same way. "When you take a small step towards your goal, it is hard, but the willingness to do that hard thing, even if it's just a little bit harder than what's comfortable, those baby steps become easy.You become ready to tackle the next big change or the next biggest challenge."

Finally, McGonigal says if you want to improve your willpower, you need to simply pay attention and ask yourself questions. Why are you procrastinating or giving in to cravings? Do you really want that second piece of chocolate cake? Are you really too tired to clean up the kitchen? If you can pinpoint the cause of why you aren't achieving your goal, evoking willpower will become that much easier. "These individual choices that you make can lead to something far bigger than the immediate gratification that is something you might think that you really want."