How To Change

If you want to aim higher and achieve the higher goals you probably need to become a better version of yourself. Some aspects of life will simply have to change.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a Stanford health psychologist talks and author of book “The WillPower Instinct”. She says (4.10) that a willpower challenge is anything that involves two versions of yourself having competing goals. For example a part of you may want to eat a candy bar for a snack but another part of you has longer-term health goals and would prefer that you don’t eat the candy bar. Depending on your mindset, your stress levels and other factors one part of you will win out over the other. This is why you may make one choice today in a different choice tomorrow. 

There are five experiments that involve very small interventions that shaped people’s behavior and had very large outcomes. This is something that we all want. People want to be able to make a small change that can result in huge payoffs down the road.

When you are feeling tired it turns out that every willpower challenge is very difficult. The intervention in this experiment was a sleep intervention where the objective was to help people sleep more or sleep better. Everybody in this group (recovering substance abusers) was getting approximately 7 hours of sleep as the starting point. The researchers found that a few minutes of breath focused meditation each day resulted in sleep increasing from 7 to 8 hours per day. Although meditating for a few minutes a day appears to help you sleep better the more important result in this experiment was that these substance abusers that had practiced approximately 10 to 15 minutes of meditation per day and slept for an extra hour per day and showed a significant increase in their ability to avoid relapsing. The number of minutes per day of meditation also predicted the likelihood of relapse. The more minutes of meditation, the more their ability to avoid relapse increased. 

The combination of meditation and extra sleep was giving the subjects more willpower to deal with one of life’s major willpower challenges. The question is why? Another experiment involved taking brain scans of people that were a little sleep deprived (defined as less than six hours of sleep per night) and compared them with people that were not sleep deprived. The scans show that the parts of the brain that are required support a willpower challenge are mostly inactive when the subject has had less than six hours of sleep per night and other parts of the brain that are associated with impulse instinct were active. When you get less than six hours of sleep per night your brain is unable to utilize the parts of the brain that you need to be the best version of yourself. The part of your brain that is logically thinking (the prefrontal cortex) that the right thing to do is to avoid the candy bar is undernourished due to sleep deprivation and cannot help to combat the more emotional part of the brain that simply wants you to eat the candy bar now. Therefore,  remembering who you are and what your big goals are is heavily dependent on this part of the brain using energy well and sleep deprivation deprives this part of the brain of the energy required to do this. 

However, there are other things, in addition to sleep, that also impact the frontal regions of the brain and its ability to help you focus on your long-term goals and being the best version of yourself. McGonigal says that the research indicates that they include: 

1. Sleep as discussed above

 2. Meditation as discussed above

3. Physical exercise. Meditation and physical exercise have been shown to not only make your brain more efficient and using these self control systems but they also make these systems bigger and better connected to the regions of the brain that they are supposed to be controlling. The brain can literally look different in as little as two months for people that start meditating for 10 minutes a day. Brain scans have shown that these regions grew bigger and better connected. Researchers have also seen the prefrontal cortex getting bigger and better connected in people that were sedentary and then work out for as little as two months. 

4. Low glycemic, plant-based diet. What you eat has a very big influence over your brain and your ability to be this better version of yourself. The research shows that big spikes in sugar levels followed by big drops in sugar levels significantly negatively impact your brain’s ability to use energy effectively. 

The interesting thing is that, although doing these things will improve your willpower, many people want to find the willpower to do these things in the first place. However, not doing these things makes it more difficult to do them. McGonigal says that there is evidence showing that doing more of these things makes it easier to do them. Everything that you do on this list that requires willpower ends up giving you back many times more willpower than they take to do the. These actions also worked together. For example, studies show that exercising also helps you eat better, stop procrastinating and pay better attention. All of these things have a global training affect on what you can think of as your willpower muscle.

Experiment 2. “Promoting self compassionate attitude toward eating among restrictive and the guilty eaters”. “Journal of social and Clinical psychology”]. Think about a recent will power failure. Did you feel bad about the failure? Did you think that feeling bad was going to help you next time you were faced with the same willpower challenge? The objective of this study was to understand whether feeling good or bad about the willpower failure had an impact on the long-term success of the target behavior. This was a study of people who were trying to manage their weight and eat healthy. When these people attended the study they were forced to eat a donut. They also had to choose among the various types of donuts in order to make them feel complicit in their own behavior. Finally, they had to drink one glass of water in order to feel uncomfortably full. The next part of the study involved a taste test where the subjects were presented with many different types of candy and were told to evaluate the candy to eat the candy if they wanted to eat it – but there was no forced behavior. The experimenters could measure exactly how much candy each of the subjects ate after eating the doughnut. 

The hypothesis of the experimenters was that the guilt associated with eating the first donut would undermine their future self-control. They wanted to create an intervention that would get rid of the guilt and shame. Therefore 50% of the dieters received a special “letting themselves off the hook” message after eating the doughnut and before being presented with the candy. The experimenter told them that they realize that some people feel guilty after eating the doughnut and this gave the dieters an opportunity to realize that they might be feeling guilty. Experimenters also said something to the effect of: everybody indulges sometimes and we asked you to do it so please don’t be too hard on yourself about it. Then the dieters were presented with the candy. The result of the experiment showed that the women that had received the self forgiveness message had eaten less than half of the candy than was eaten by the other women that didn’t receive this message. This result is the opposite of what most people predict will happen. 

Most people think that saying nice things to yourself after a willpower failure is a green light for even more indulgence but the experiment shows that this is not the case. McGonigal says that there are several other studies that support the findings in this study. The harder you are on yourself when you have a willpower failure the more likely you are to fail next time you attempt the same challenge. 

Another study of problem drinkers had them keep track of how much they drank and how bad they felt the next day. They found that the people that were most self-critical and felt the most ashamed and guilty wanted to drink more immediately and actually drank more that night and the next day. There was something about being self-critical and the guilt that was driving people back to what they felt badly about. The same result has been observed for several addictions including smoking. When you have a relapse and the more you beat yourself up about it the more you need something comforting and the best thing may be the thing that you’re feeling bad about. This may be the reason that you are doing it in the first place. The same results have been observed for gambling. The more that people beat themselves up over losing money the more likely they were to borrow more money and try to win back and end up losing more. The same goes for procrastination which does not involve any addiction. The research shows that the harder somebody is on themselves for putting something off the longer they procrastinate the next time. 

McGonigal  says that when we are feeling stressed out and guilty and ashamed we have created a mindset that is much more susceptible to immediate gratification, temptation and anxiety. It’s the biological opposite of what should to be happening in your brain and body to remember your long-term goals and be that better version of yourself. When you start piling on the guilt and shame your brain switches into that other mode in which everything is going to be more tempting – including procrastinating, smoking or drinking. 

McGonigal says that addressing this situation involves a self compassion message that includes the following:

 1. Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings. Noticing that you’re feeling guilty or that you are feeling self-doubt, being self-critical, maybe angry at yourself and actually allowing yourself to see those feelings. One reason that people go from feeling guilty to giving in again is that they just want to get rid of that feeling and they want to distract themselves from it by doing something but if they do the wrong thing it will get them into further trouble.

2. Common humanity. One of the reasons that we find it difficult to find our willpower is that we think that there is something uniquely broken in us. We think that  there is something about who we are that is wrong and weak and that attitude makes it very difficult to take back your motivation for your strength. Tell yourself that this is part of the process of change. Sometimes we fall of the wagon.  We are all imperfect. This willpower failure does not say anything about who you are, it is just how the process works and all that matters is how you respond as opposed to the fact that it happened 

3. Encouragement over criticism. Think about what you would say to a child or a friend or a mentee if they had a setback and say this to yourself. You would not say, why did you do that again? You’re so stupid. You’re never going to change. Research has shown that talking to yourself in an encouraging way as opposed to using self-criticism has been more effective in quitting cigarette smoking than nicotine replacement therapy.

Experiment 3. This was a virtual reality experiment conducted using undergraduates where the experimenters had created a 3-D avatar of the student at retirement age. The first group of students used the virtual reality equipment to meet their future selves and the second group of students didn’t. When the first group of students put the virtual reality equipment on they could see themselves sitting across from a retirement age version of themselves. When they talked the avatar would talk and when they moved the avatar would move in the same way. The students were asked to interview their future selves. They were encouraged to ask questions like “what’s going on in your life right now, what’s important to you right now” then they had to answer the question and they would watch themselves answering the question to themselves. They interviewed themselves for approximately one hour. The researchers found that the more that you think of your future self as a stranger the less likely you’re going to do anything to protect your future self’s health and happiness. 

After the experiment was done they let another hour lapse and then had the students come back and create a budget for how they would spend $1000. They found that students that had met their future selves had allocated twice as much money to a retirement account and students that had not met their future selves. 

The more connected you feel to your future self the more willpower you are likely to have in numerous present situations will may impact your future self. McGonigal says calls it “the power of self continuity” and it results in less procrastination, more ethical behavior at work, less debt with more wealth and better health. She says that you can and should get to know your future self by:

1. Writing a letter from your future self. Write about who you are, where you are living, what you’re doing, what’s important to you, what do you wish you would have done differently, write about a challenge that you are dealing with now and include something from your future self thanking your current self for doing it and dealing with it the right way. Research shows that it is better to be optimistic and pessimistic in this letter. People don’t understand that future happiness and pain is going to feel every bit as real as it does now. The challenge here is to really feel like this future self really is you and that you will be having this experience 

2. Send yourself “back to the future”. This is an exercise in imagining yourself in the future. For example, imagine yourself grocery shopping in the future. This makes the content that you’re thinking about more real and therefore makes it easier for you to connect with that person. There is also research that indicates that you can imagine future scenarios relating to your willpower challenges and that these positive or negative scenarios can have an impact on your ability to deal with the challenges now. In one study the experimenters told people that wanted to improve their health to imagine the consequences of not making this change. They had to imagine it very vividly. They had another group imagine the positive consequences of making this change and vividly imagine how that would feel. Both of these helped improve behavior in the present.

Experiment 4. Is it more helpful to imagine and visualize yourself failing or succeeding? Most people think that imagining success is most helpful but the research shows that imagining failure is much more helpful. Imagining success is not necessarily bad but imagining failure is better. This was a study of women that were not exercising but had a goal to exercise. Some of them were told that it was good to exercise and they were told why it was good to exercise. 

They were told to think about their goal and imagine themselves doing it. The other group was given a “obstacle condition” where they had to imagine failing. They had to answer questions like “when are you not going to exercise?”, what is the obstacle that caused you not to exercise and what are you going to do if you encounter this obstacle? Experimenters made these subjects write this down every day. They were also told to listen to what they were saying to themselves when they were not going to exercise listen to all of the reasoning and excuses and how to recognize them as they occur. The women were becoming detectives of their own failure. Typical answers included “I didn’t exercise because I told myself that I would do it later” or “I didn’t do it because I got busy at work and I ran out of time”. They became very clear about how they would fail and they were able to predict future failures as a result of this. 

The results of the experiment show that this behavior had an immediate effect (in the very first week) of doubling the amount of time that they spent exercising to approximately 100 minutes per week (which is very close to the amount of exercise needed to have serious health benefits – both mental and physical). The other group showed a very small improvement. After 16 weeks the amount of exercise from the group that were mindful about how they would fail was maintained at approximately double the rate of the other group. 

So why is pessimism helpful? Studies have shown that the most optimistic smokers and dieters are more likely to fail and that if people make optimistic predictions about what they are going to do then they are more likely to not do it today. People that intend to exercise tomorrow are more likely to eat something healthy today and skip the exercise tomorrow. Knowing that you’re going to be just as tempted tomorrow and just as busy tomorrow ends up being an important source of willpower for today.

McGonigal says  that optimism about future behavior licenses self-indulgence today. 75% of cases investigated for fraud by the SEC are the result of unrealistically optimistic initial profit projections that the management was unwilling to let go of. People need to remember that doing the right thing tomorrow is going to feel every bit as challenging as it does right now and therefore predicting what will happen (and what you will say to yourself) helps to develop the willpower required to meet the challenge.

Defensive pessimism 

1. What is your goal?

2. What would be the most positive outcome?

3. What action will I take to reach this goal?

4. What is the biggest obstacle?

5. When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur?

6. What can I do to prevent the obstacle?

7. What specific thing will I do to get back to my goal when this obstacle happens?

McGonigal says that this is like stress testing a goal (not so much the goal of the strategy to achieve the goal). After establishing your goal strategy put it to the test and see how it’s going to break or how it’s going to fail.

Experiment 5. The time that you can hold your breath happens to be one of the best predictors of people succeeding at their goals. Psychologists call this distress tolerance. The ability to stay put when things get uncomfortable. This experiment tells us how to ride out physical discomfort that gets in the way of making a change. There are two studies that use the same technique. McGonigal calls the first one the torture chamber [Bowen & Marlatt (2009). Surfing the urge: brief mindfulness-based intervention for college students smokers. Psychology of addictive behavior] and [Forman et al. (2007). A comparison of acceptance – and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings. Behavior research and therapy]. This was a study of smokers that wanted to quit but were unable to. The researchers asked the smokers to abstain from smoking for 24 hours then to come into the lab with a fresh unopened pack of their favorite cigarettes. The students were carbon monoxide tested to check that they had not smoked for 24 hours. They were seated at a table and told to put away all distractions except for a lighter and the cigarettes. The experimenter to told them to take out the pack of cigarettes but, as the students started to anticipate smoking a cigarette and were desperate to do so, the experimenter abruptly told them to stop and told them to look at their pack of cigarettes for two minutes. Then they were told to pull the cellophane off the cigarette pack and then they were told to stop again and wait another two minutes. Then they were told to take out a cigarette and stop and wait two minutes. Every two minutes the students had to write down how intense their cravings were and how much they wanted to smoke. Then the experimenter told them to smell the cigarette then stop and wait two minutes, put the cigarette in their mouths, stop and wait two minutes, take out a lighter then stop and wait two minutes. This it went on for more than one hour and nobody was ever allowed to light a cigarette. 

Prior to starting the experiment 50% of the students were taught a technique called “surfing the urge” where they were required to pay attention to the physical discomfort involved with wanting something and not getting it. This involved giving it their full attention and trusting that they could tolerate the physical sensations and trusting that, if they could just be patient and wait, the craving would go away. They could see that they didn’t have to act on every impulse or emotion. They were imagining that each craving was a wave and they just had to wait until the wave eventually ended. 

The second study was similar to the study involving the smokers. It involved using people that had problems controlling themselves around food, especially sweets. They gave them a clear container of Hershey’s kisses. They had to carry this container around with them for 48 hours and they were not allowed to eat any of them. Each item of candy was uniquely marked so it was impossible for people to eat them and substitute them. These people were taught the same technique about how to handle the cravings by surfing the urge – allow yourself to feel the craving but don’t act on it and wait for it to go away. 

In the smokers study, the smokers that were taught to surf the urge reduced their smoking by 40% the very next week even though the researchers had not ask them to change their behavior. The control group did not reduce their cigarette smoking at all and for the people that were taught to surf the urge there appeared to be a removal of the link between psychological stress and smoking – likely because they had learned a technique that allows them to cope with the situation. 

In the chocolate study, 100% of the people that had been taught to surf the urge succeeded did not eat any candy at all over the next 48 hours while the other group that the had been given strategies like distraction were more likely to give in and found the whole experience considerably more stressful. McGonigal says that this “power of acceptance” that comes from learning this technique has been shown to assist with anxiety, intrusive thoughtsweight loss, substance abuse, schizophrenia.

McGonigal says that the research showed that this technique tripled the long-term success rate of dieters compared to other dieters that were using a conventional weight-loss plan.

This is the technique that people were taught in both of those studies:

1. Notice the thought, craving or feeling. This is mindfulness – allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling or think what you’re thinking and actually attend to the experience as opposed to trying to escape it. If you’re hungry, notice what it feels like to be hungry or if you’re anxious, what does the anxiety feel like right now? Breathe it out. Use breathing as a source of stability. Then look for the first opportunity to recommit to your goal (this is part is important). It takes approximately 30 seconds to practice this technique and it can help with any willpower challenge.

2. Accept and attend to the inner experience.

3. Breathe and give your brain and body a chance to pause.

4. Broaden your attention and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal.

Summary  of the will power rules:

1. Train your willpower physiology (by meditating, sleeping, exercising, the right diet)

2. Forgive yourself.

3. Make friends with your future self.

4. Predict your failure.

5. Surf the urge.

McGonigal cites a study [Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, et al. 2012. University of Wisconsin, school of medicine and public health] that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years. It started by asking people how much stress they had experienced in the previous year. They also asked the subjects if they believed that stress was harmful to their health then they used death records to find out who died and when. People that had experienced a lot of stress in the previous 12 months had a 43% higher risk of dying but – and this is an extremely important “but” – this was only true for the people that also believed that stress was harmful to their health. People that experienced a lot of stress in the previous 12 months but did NOT think that stress was harmful had the “lowest” risk of dying out of everybody is study including people that had relatively little stress. The researchers found that 182,000 Americans died prematurely during this eight years, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is harmful. 

So the question is, can changing the way you think about stress change your health? The answer is yes. People that learned to interpret their stress reaction as positive, meaning that their body is preparing for action, were less anxious and more confident. In a typical stress response your heart rate increases and your blood vessels constrict [Jamieson, Nock, & Mendes 2012. Harvard University Department of psychology]. This is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. People in the study who viewed this stress response as helpful had blood vessels that remained relaxed (even though their heart was still pounding). This reaction is very similar to what happens in moments of joy and courage. McGonigal says that next time you find yourself in a stressful situation you should remember to say to yourself that this is my body helping me to rising to the challenge. 

McGonigal also argues that stress makes you social. Oxytocin (sometimes called the cuddle hormone because it’s released when you hug someone) is a neuro hormone. It fine-tunes your brains social instincts and primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. It makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It helps you to be more willing to help and support the people you care about. However, oxytocin is also a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps it out as part of a stress response. When it is released it motivates you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell somebody how you feel instead of bottling it up. The stress response wants you to be surrounded by people that care about you. Oxytocin does not only act on your brain it also acts on your body. One of its main roles is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effect of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. Further, your heart has receptors for these hormone. Oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart. The benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. Therefore, when you reach out to others to seek support, or you support someone else, you release more of these hormone and your stress response becomes healthier and you recover from stress more quickly. Therefore your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection.

Another piece of research [Poulin, Brown, Dillard & Smith. 2013. University at Buffalo, NY, Department of psychology] tracked approximately 1000 adults in the United States ranging in age from 34 to 93. They asked the subjects how much stress they had experienced in the previous year. They also asked, how much time they had spent helping out friends, neighbors and people in their community. Then they used public records to find out who died over the next five years. For the people that had major stressors such as financial stress or a family crisis there was a 30% increased likelihood of death. However, there was no increased likelihood of dying for the people that were stressed but also helped others during the previous year. Caring for and helping other people appears to have created resilience or somehow offset or diminished the impact of the event that caused the stress. When you view your stress response as helpful you allow your biology to help you as opposed to working against you. You can do this when you connect with others during times of stress.

We have not been programmed to face challenges alone. We have been programmed to face challenges together regardless of whether we are the one that is experiencing the challenge whether it is someone else in our circle of family, friends, community, that is experiencing the stress.

Next article in this series: “Fear”

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