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Willpower hacks that really work

To make a new habit stick, steal these secrets from a Stanford health psychologist.

It won’t hurt to visualize yourself (finally) knocking out 10 pull-ups or crossing the finish line of your first 70.3. But the best way to make those goals happen months from now, says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., the author of The Willpower Instinct and a certified group-fitness instructor, is to shift your focus to today. Here’s how to do it—and make 2015 the year you tick off every goal.

never talk to strangers - including yourself.

“We tend to treat our future selves like ideal strangers who have more time and energy to do the things we currently find uncomfortable, boring, and hard,” warns McGonigal. “The truth is that whatever you’re willing to do right now is a really good predictor of what you’ll do next week, next month, and after that.” When you hear yourself promise to start something tomorrow, whether it’s flossing or foam rolling, bump it to today’s to-do list.

let yourself off the hook, then gauge how it makes you feel.

So you’ve shifted your deadline to the present—and missed it. McGonigal’s counterintuitive remedy: Forbid yourself from working toward your goal for the rest of the day or even the week. If you feel relieved, you were probably going after a “should” that needs tweaking to align with an actual “want.” But if you’re disappointed, you’ll know that your goal is a good one. Forgive yourself and view the setback as a chance to let the anticipation build until you’re chomping at the bit to have at it again.

don’t wait to feel ready.

If you hold off until you feel 100 percent ready to tackle something scary, there’s an almost 100 percent chance you’ll stay on the sidelines. “I would never have given my TED talk if I waited for my anxiety about public speaking to go away first,” says McGonigal. “The same goes for exercise and eating healthy: They’ll seem difficult and maybe even impossible until you do it.”

shrink your goals.

Let’s say you want to spend less time attached to your phone. Instead of vowing to go cold-turkey on social media apps, “start with what I call a ‘once-and-done,’ which is the smallest version of the change that’s consistent with your goal,” says McGonigal. This could be as simple as not clicking on the Twitter icon the next time you get the urge to check your feed. “Change isn’t an all or nothing process. It happens over time, not overnight.”