Kelly McGonigal on Willpower & Compassion: NTC Symposium Day 1

Willpower. Not necessarily a new concept. I’ve been thinking of willpower primarily as the ability to activate self control. When one has high willpower they are better able to resist temptation, restrict behavior, and work through the push to act impulsively. I also thought that willpower was fixed. Some people have a lot, some people have a little bit, and that’s all you get. After spending six hours with Kelly McGonigal as part of the New Teacher Center Symposium, I’ve learned that I held an incredibly impoverished view of willpower, how to activate it, and how to grow my own capacity for willpower. After one day, her work on willpower has completely invaded my life.

For McGonigal (a psychologist) willpower encompasses the regulation of three primary impulses: I won’t, I want, and I will. These three components work as a unit to create a willpower system that we activate differently. We may activate willpower to decline dessert, to encourage ourselves to jump off a high dive, or to maintain focus on a long term goal.  All three of these impulses require the work of the prefrontal cortex in different ways and based on our experiences and our neural pathways we are more or less adept at activating different aspects of our willpower.

With a base definition out of the way McGonigal proceeded to add her own definition for willpower layered on top of that three part system, framing issues of willpower as a competition between different versions of our self. These different selves exist concurrently and it is through our willpower that we balance their competing influences in order to create the best version of ourself. The version of ourself that best aligns with our values. By recognizing and accepting this duality we can best leverage and grow our willpower. This is an incredibly empowering concept of willpower as it honors one’s current status and expects growth and change will occur.

Willpower with a Growth Mindset

Central to the entire framework that McGonigal established is the assumption that willpower is a growable skill. In short that Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset for intelligence is immediately applicable to one’s willpower. There’s been research lately around willpower that we have a finite amount of it, and once depleted it needs to be restored. McGonigal did not refute this, however, she made it very clear that this store of willpower, while finite in the short term, is expandable in the long term. This is an extremely important distinction because it means we can get better at leveraging willpower and McGonigal used a muscular model to explain the concept.

In the muscle model of willpower we have to work our willpower much in the same way we develop physically. This means that we can begin to develop our willpower now. It’s an easy misconception to think that we need to fix something before we work on a difficult task, but part of the point of developing willpower is that difficult actions get easier when we take action. It’s the whole point of the growth mindset. Jumping off that high dive looks extremely intimidating until you do it the first time. Do it once, and it’s immediately much easier to do again. The other key component is that we need to see failure as progress. When you’re weightlifting, you regularly push your muscles to the point of fatigue and the recovery day is where your body rebuilds itself you get stronger. You only know your max deadlift by hitting your max, and then failing the next rep. The same goes for willpower. You need to get to the fatigue point in order to know where your limits are, then you recover, recharge your energy, and come back stronger. This can be easily leveraged by setting up willpower challenges for yourself in the same way you’d design a muscular or cardiovascular workout. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that this will work for my willpower in the same way that it works for my posterior muscle chain.

The last important piece of the growth mindset framework for willpower is that the feedback loop has to focus on effort and growth. You improved your ability to resist refined sugar by 10%? Fantastic! Honor that growth and keep growing. Set the next benchmark. You worked really hard to avoid that cigarette, but finally gave in? Honor the effort you put in. You probably resisted longer than you did last time. Respect that you tried, and try again next time. Beating yourself up for failure won’t help. In fact, beating yourself up over failure or relapse completely undermines the growth mindset and often encourages us to double down on the coping mechanisms or behaviors we’re trying so hard to change. We need to act from a place of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Willpower Requires Self-Connection and Compassion

This is where McGonigal’s talk seriously opened a crack in my reality. I could easily accept that willpower is potentially infinite and we can develop it through practice. That concept fits for me right next to my thinking about a growth mindset, but when I hit the failure wall with willpower I’m pretty quick to apply some guilt and try to shame myself into correcting the behavior. The theory goes like this: I hate that I procrastinate, so if I give myself the third degree when I procrastinate then I’ll be motivated to stop procrastinating. Right? Wrong.

Turns out that doesn’t work. When we apply shame or guilt to an action (or lack of action) we encourage ourselves to apply the coping mechanism that we already use and we run back to familiar neural pathways. When I berate myself for procrastinating I make it more likely that I will continue to procrastinate because I want to avoid the feelings associated with thinking about procrastination. Simply put, you can’t shame or guilt yourself into improvement. You need to honor the fact that the self that wants to procrastinate and the self that wants to change that behavior coexist in you. This may be frustrating to think about the self that procrastinates, but it also means that your best self already exists. You just have to activate it.

In order to facilitate this process McGonigal claims that self compassion and forgiveness is the proper path forward. By practicing self-compassion we can be mindful of our stress, suffering, and failure, without perseverating on them. This allows us to act from a position of non-attachment and without judgment. (McGonigal definitely has some semi-covert Buddhism going on in her work.) By doing that we can perform what she calls “self-mentoring,” meaning that we can advise ourselves as a mentor or coach would: maintaining big picture perspective, and encouraging corrective action instead of perseverating on our failures. This is extremely important because it’s so easy to spiral in on ourselves and dwell in our perceived failure without performing the necessary actions to correct for that failure. By removing our self-attachment, while still acting from a position of self-compassion we can remove judgment, which can be paralytic, and act.

Know Yourself

The cherry on top of the self-compassion sundae is self-connection. If willpower is making decisions that align with our long term goals when those goals conflict with short term rewards, then we can only properly exercise our willpower if we understand our long term goals. Similarly, if willpower helps us maintain a personal agenda when other try to hijack it, we need to be sure enough of our personal agenda that we are confident that the agenda of others is inappropriate. Therefore in order to use our willpower effectively we need to know ourselves and understand our goals.

I did not initially expect this, however, it became immediately clear when McGonigal explained it by saying that when we feel a weak connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our current self, while if we feel a strong connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our future self. Said another way, if we don’t know what we want in the future, we ignore it, and focus on the present. This immediately highlighted the importance of self-reflection to our ability to grow our willpower. If I want to stop eating sugar, and eat some celery instead, I need to have a very clear image of the long term benefit of eating less sugar. Without that clear image I’m weighing an immediate, concrete, desire to eat sugar against a vague image of “I want to be healthy.” This vague goal simply cannot compete against the concrete desire for sweet things.

To this end McGonigal introduced a practice of vividly imagining self defining future moments from a self-compassionate perspective. She described it as creating future memory. Want to get fit? Create the most detailed image of yourself being fit as you possibly can. What will you look like? Where will you exercise? What will you eat? How will it taste? What will it smell like? What does it feel like to be covered in sweat? What’s it going to feel like when you do push-ups until you fatigue? The more completely you can create that future memory, the more clear your target is for your willpower. By concretizing (new vocab word!) your long term goal, you make it easier to make decisions that lead you do that goal and you begin thinking about the process by which you can achieve it. You’re building pathways that support your willpower to replace your current neural pathways.

Conclusion

Willpower is about control. Physiologically, It’s about using your prefrontal cortex to rationally control your midbrain urges. In more everyday terms it’s about subordinating your immediate urges in favor of your more long-term goals for yourself.

It turns out this is pretty difficult. Those immediate impulses are strong, and there are a myriad of internal and environmental factors that encourage us to act on impulse. We are well trained to listen to our midbrain In order to more reliably act in support of our long-term goals we need to practice and grow our willpower. This includes creating a concrete image of our future self, thus allowing more equal competition between long-term goal, and immediate impulse. We also need to reframe willpower and failure within the framework of a growth mindset. This allows challenge to become a growth opportunity, and failure becomes a learning experience. Lastly we need to practice a mindful acceptance of our failures as observation without judgment. This will allow us to understand the influences that cause us to submit to impulse while viewing ourselves with compassion, thus helping us to stop perseverating on failure, and encouraging positive action.

This five hour talk has seriously invaded my life. It’s only been a couple days and I already know that I will continue to reorganize and apply the information to my work as an instructional mentor, my work as a spouse, and my work as a human being. There are significant portions of McGonigal’s work that I’ve omitted (like her excellent presentation technique and her focus on the role of the physical in developing willpower) for the sake of space, and I’m sure, as with Mindset, I will be continually revisiting these concepts.

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4 comments
  1. Andy McCormick said:

    It’s interesting that you mention Buddhism when discussing compassion for the self. One of the teachings in Shambhala Buddhism is that while meditating it is best not to berate oneself when the mind wanders, which it will do on its own, but rather simply bring it back to concentrate on the breath, and to do this without judgment on how well one is meditating, but rather have compassion for yourself and let go of any judgment to focus on the breath again, and again, and again. As we cultivate compassion for ourselves in our meditation practice we will have an easier time developing compassion for others, because we will understand at a deeper level that they are in the same struggle as we are and thus deserving of the same level of compassion. It seems that this practice alone will build willpower, and it seems the teacher has a good handle on it.

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