If you’re a follower of real estate investments expert Jason Hartman, you’re already familiar with the third commandment of his 10 Commandments of Successful Investing: “Thou shalt maintain control.”
Thou shalt also maintain control, as in self-control, when you use your reserve of willpower to fight stress, a leading health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, told Hartman recently when appearing as a guest on his “Creating Wealth” podcast show.
McGonigal is the teacher of a popular course at Stanford University, “The Science of Willpower,” and has authored a best-selling book on the subject, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.”
During the recent podcast, McGonigal sat down with Hartman to discuss the subjects of the science of willpower, stress and self-control, all of which are behaviors that, once understood, can be important to you as a successful real estate investor.
Meet Kelly McGonigal and Her ‘Science of Willpower’
McGonigal’s 2013 TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,’ is one of the 20 Most Viewed TEDs of all time with 10 million views.
Other books she has written include “The Upside of Stress,” which The Huffington Post named one of the Top 10 Best Health and Fitness Books in 2015.
McGonigal also is passionate about the benefits of physical exercise and has been certified as a group fitness instructor since 2000. In her free time, she continues to teach group fitness classes, noting that “sometimes moving, breathing and sweating” are the best things you can do to create health, joy and resilience.
After receiving bachelor’s degrees in psychology and mass communication from Boston University, McGonigal earned her doctoral degree in psychology from Stanford with a concentration in humanistic medicine.
In her guest appearance on Hartman’s podcast, McGonigal says she once was one of those psychologists who thought stress was bad for you, until studies in more recent years started showing the opposite to be true.
“To me, this actually was pretty scary news,” she tells Hartman. “Because as a health psychologist, I was trained ‘stress is bad, stress makes you sick, stress will kill you.’ And I spent a lot of time telling people that in my classes, and basically making people scared of stress.
“A few years ago, I came across the first study showing that stress only seems to increase the risk of death among people who believe that stress is bad for you. Whereas, people who experience a lot of stress but don’t believe that stress is harmful had the lowest rate of mortality than anyone—even compared to people who don’t have a lot of stress in their lives.”
Since that first study was released, there have been a number of other studies by different researchers and different labs on who researched different populations and those studies showed the same effect.
“I mean, you really rethink the way that I was talking about stress, and it motivated me to find a way of reframing stress that would avoid possibly the more toxic effects,” McGonigal says.
She went to work on the subject of willpower.
First came her class, “The Science of Willpower,” which was followed by the book, “The Willpower Instinct.”
“I got really frustrated by the fact that I would talk to people, undergraduates at Stanford, people in the community, who would say things like ‘I have this really big goal’ or ‘I know need to change this thing but I don’t have the willpower to do it,’” McGonigal tells Hartman.
“That really is at odds with what I knew about research on self-control and change, which says that willpower is not a trait that people lack, it’s more like a strength that can be trained.”
Her class and book specifically teach people how the science of willpower can help empower them and others to realize that change is possible. The fact that you may be struggling with things like temptation, distraction or motivation is “utterly human” and doesn’t say that there’s something “uniquely wrong or weak” about you, she says.
Understanding the science of willpower, she adds, actually “gives us a tremendous amount of self-compassion for why change is hard” and also can lead to some helpful strategies for making changes.
How ‘Self-Care,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘I Won’t’ and ‘I Want’ Help You Gain Willpower
McGonigal agrees with a Hartman analogy that willpower is “like a muscle,” which, when exerted, becomes stronger and more durable and gives you more stamina.
“It’s a great analogy,” she says. “It also explains why, when we’re making a change or moving toward a goal, we sometimes feel willpower-exhausted, that we can also fatigue that strength, but as we challenge ourselves more and more, we develop more of a willpower reserve.”
If you were to go to McGonigal as a personal trainer for willpower, what might ensue?
“The first thing I actually encourage people to do in the class and in the book,” she says, “is rather than try to change something or to control themselves, to think of themselves like willpower athletes who need to be well-rested and well-fueled.”
“There’s a real biology to willpower which says that in order to be the best version of ourselves, we actually need to have a brain that is well-rested and a body that is well-energized. You know, when we’re sleep-deprived, or when our blood sugar is low, the brain and the body shift into this state of being impulsive, being distracted, being stressed out.”
“Before I even try to have people make big changes in their lives, I ask them to commit to an act of ‘self-care,’ one that will support the energy of their brain and body. It could be prioritizing sleep a little bit more. It could be exercise or movement. Not necessarily a killer workout, but any sort of physical activity actually fuels the energy of the body. It could be something like meditation, which really improves how the brain uses energy and how the body deals with stress.”
All of these acts of “self-care,” she says, are ways to build willpower before meeting a challenge such as trying to quit smoking or starting a new diet.
McGonigal has coined such phrases as “I will power,” “I won’t power” and “I want power” to define willpower in general.
“I define willpower as the ability to make choices that reflect your highest goals and values, even when it’s difficult—and even when some part of you doesn’t want to,” she says.
“So, we need some mental toughness to do that, to deal with setbacks, to find the energy to do things that are difficult, and I actually call that ‘I will power’—the ability to not give up, the ability to do things to make progress toward your goals even when you’re tired, to really prioritize what matters instead of dealing with what feels urgent.
“But, we also need something called ‘I won’t power,’ which is the ability to actually recognize and then control impulses that move you away from your goals. When you’re facing a temptation, when you’re about to say something that may hurt someone’s feelings, (you can) recognize that before you do it and actually hold yourself back.
“And we also need a different kind of strength that I call ‘I want power,’ and that’s the ability to actually know what your goals and values are. It’s a tremendous strength that most people don’t invest a lot of time in—to every day think about ‘what matters to me most.’ Not what feels urgent, not what’s worrying me and stressing me out, but ‘who do I want to be’ and ‘what do I want to make my choices on the basis of,’ and that’s also a strength that we can train.”
McGonigal says it’s helpful to think in terms of your challenges with such catch phrases as “I will,” “I won’t” and “I want.”
“We’ve already talked about self-care as being the foundation for self-control, and I like that phrase, because it actually points to a whole number of things that the science of willpower tells us that goes against many people’s intuitions.
“One of them is the intuition that most people have, that self-criticism is the foundation for self-control. And the science suggests that self-criticism, guilt and shame actually deplete our willpower, even more than sleep deprivation would … self-care, self-compassion actually restore our willpower.”
People who fight such addictions as smoking, alcohol and other drugs may look weak to others, but they actually pack plenty of willpower, McGonigal says.
“I actually want to point out for people who are dealing with behaviors like addiction or smoking that often they have more willpower than people who have never struggled with addiction,” she says. “We can be very quick to judge because (the addiction) looks like a weakness, but, man, people who have made any attempts to overcome addiction have tremendous willpower.”
Escapism’s OK, to a Point, and the Concept of ‘Your Future Self’
Hartman wonders in the “Creating Wealth” podcast whether escapism—or seeking distraction from unpleasantness by seeking out entertainment or fantasy—is an acceptable way to avoid stress. He thinks it is, and that it should be part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in fact.
“I think it’s absolutely OK,” McGonigal says. “There’s what I guess you would call ‘wholesome escapism’—there’s a lot of activities that give us the experience of being completely immersed in that activity. It could be a great narrative TV series that you watch, maybe a few episodes of it in one sitting. It could be a great book; could be a hobby; could be being outdoors, sports or exercise.”
With wholesome escapism, she adds, “we tend to feel nicely resolved at the end of it and ready to re-engage with some other aspect of our life.”
Escapism is only a problem, she says, when it starts to take over areas of your life where you really should be spending time on something else.
Alcohol, for example, “probably is not helpful.”
“I mean alcohol, having a glass of wine could be a positive way to restore yourself,” McGonigal says. “But the things that are not helpful escapisms are the things where they never really end with satisfaction, when they start to look more like an addiction. Is it a case where you can play video games for 20 minutes and feel great? Or, do you not stop until you pass out?”
Hartman also wonders whether psychology should be more of a part of medicine, which he calls a “hard science” as opposed to a “soft science” like psychology. “You may not like that—that I called psychology a soft science … but a lot of people view it that way,” he says with a laugh.
“Sure, it’s soft in the sense that it’s critically complex,” McGonigal replies.
“I wish we could do lab experiments that say ‘we’ve proven this, and it’s all nice and neat.’ One of the psychological things that really plays a role in willpower has to do with how we think about our ‘future self,’ and a lot of the choices we make that lead to negative health consequences come from a place of feeling like your ‘future self’ is a stranger.”
“… We don’t feel that motivated to take care of our ‘future’ self because it’s kind of like we’re throwing away our pleasure and our resources and our time on some old person who’s somehow not really us.”
“In a lot of the most interesting psychological interventions now, we’re trying to help people feel connected to and caring toward their ‘future self’—to understand that, ‘you know what, when that day comes, it’s going to be you.’ And that experience is going to be just as real and vivid as the experience you’re having now. You really are going to be the recipient of the choices you make today.”
“That’s the main thing we spend some time with in the class and in the book, thinking about ways to feel connected to your ‘future self’ so you are willing to invest” the time and energy.”