The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

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In 100 Words or Less: Our failures aren't a moral defect; rather, a misunderstanding of willpower. Mindfulness helps you to become aware of exactly how and when you go off the rails; recognizing the thoughts and feelings that lead you astray and creating a space between impulse and reaction. Body affects mind; a healthy, rested body is a sharper, more resilient mind. Willpower is like a muscle; it tires with use. Our brains often insist that something will make us happy, which doesn't. Distraction reduces willpower; if you know you'll be tempted, consider making important decisions in advance.

Sometimes, I get angry with my kids.

I visit the Halloween candy bowl for one Crunch bar and end up taking … six.

I’d like to wake up early to write, but I keep hitting snooze.

Knowing is half the battle, but we all struggle with doing too. Fortunately, The Willpower Instinct can help.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist and professor at Stanford who had this to say about willpower:

“After years of watching people struggle to change their thoughts, emotions, bodies, and habits, I realized that much of what people believed about willpower was sabotaging their success and creating unnecessary stress. Although scientific research had much to say that could help them, it was clear that these insights had not yet become part of public understanding. Instead, people continued to rely on worn-out strategies for self-control. I saw again and again that the strategies most people use weren’t just ineffective — they actually backfired, leading to self-sabotage and losing control.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Here are my takeaways:

  1. Know thyself. Take a close look at what you want (“I want to be fit”). Define either something you will do (“I will exercise!”) or won’t do (“I won’t eat my entire pizza plus the kids’ crusts”).

    Try to observe your thoughts and actions throughout the day to figure out exactly how and where you go off the rails. What do you turn to when feeling anxious or overwhelmed? Exactly what sense of relief do you gain (or does your brain tell you will you gain)?

    For example, I might compulsively check my phone because I “want to stay in touch”, when in reality I’m reflexively trying to squash an internal tension or anxiety.

  2. “Self-knowledge — especially of how we find ourselves in willpower trouble — is the foundation of self-control.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

  3. Meditate for as little as five minutes a day. Meditation improves focus and actually enhances the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain which is responsible for dispensing willpower. Meditation does not mean sitting cross-legged in an orange robe atop the Himalayas; you can accomplish a lot in as little as five minutes per day, at home. Simply breathe slowly and deeply, observing your breath and gently dismissing whatever thoughts come to mind.
  4. The state of our body affects the state of our mind. When we fail, it’s easy to think of ourselves as weak-willed, but often our internal chemistry has been stacked against us. In order to align it in our favor, we have to make time to exercise, sleep well, eat healthy-ish and relax.

    When faced with temptation (say, anything served at the Cheesecake Factory), forcing yourself to breathe slowly and deeply can actually activate your prefrontal cortex.

    The science in favor of exercise is overwhelming. However, you can keep it simple and brief; there’s no sense in setting an enormous goal that you’ll abandon in a week. Like many efforts, it may help to start small and gradually increase your commitment.

    Low blood sugar undermines our willpower (and also is exactly the reason why your brain craves sweets at the end of a long day).

  5. “It is as if running low on energy biases us to be the worst versions of ourselves.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

  6. Our willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired with use. (This is one reason why it usually helps to tackle your willpower challenges one at a time, if possible.) For example, a smoker who has gone twenty-four hours without lighting up is more likely to destroy a pint of ice cream. Our sense of self-control is generally at its peak in the morning and it slowly dwindles throughout the day.

    In general, things which require strong mental effort (solving a tough problem or even trying to impress a date) also deplete our willpower.

    Like a muscle, it also gets stronger as we regularly exercise it. Picking a small challenge — i.e. reducing soda intake — can carry over into the things we really care about.

  7. “The important ‘muscle’ action being trained in all these studies isn’t the specific willpower challenge of meeting deadlines, using your left hand to open doors, or keeping the F-word to yourself. It’s the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest. Through each of these willpower exercises, the brain gets used to pausing before acting. The triviality of the assignments may even help this process.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

  8. It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook. We’ve all had the experience of putting in a great workout at the gym, only to come home to a bowl of ice cream that we’ve “earned”. It’s an unfortunate side effect of feeling virtuous; we are more likely to do something not-so virtuous. In such times, it helps to be especially mindful of our goals.
  9. What prompts us to indulge? Often, our brains will loudly insist that having something will make us happy, but once we’ve had it, we’re not really happy. (Think, eating too much pizza, buying something expensive or having a few too many at the bar.) Often, there is a specific stressor which triggers the craving. In these moments, it may help to grant yourself permission to mindfully indulge. What exactly do you feel inside; how does the reward stack up to the anticipation? These observations can help you to exercise greater self-control the next time.
  10. Beware the “what-the-hell” effect. It’s all too easy to fail, get discouraged and then compound the mistake. Rather than berate yourself, it may help to imagine how you would respond to a loved one or a person you’re mentoring (i.e. with compassion).
  11. “When we do experience setbacks — which we will — we need to forgive those failures, and not use them as an excuse to give in or give up. When it comes to increasing self-control, self-compassion is a far better strategy than beating ourselves up.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

  12. Whenever possible, consider committing in advance. Decide what you will order before arriving at the restaurant, or pack a healthy lunch instead. If compulsive spending is a problem, consider leaving your credit card at home. If you’re trying to give up TV, you might simply disconnect your cable.

    You don’t need to make it impossible for you to change your mind; it just needs to be inconvenient.

  13. Willpower is contagious. We tend to mirror the behavior of those we surround ourselves with. It’s good to maintain awareness of the ways in which someone else’s choices will influence ours; likewise, we can recruit our family and friends to help us with our willpower challenge and keep us accountable.
  14. “Our sense of self depends on our relationships with others, and in many ways, we only know who we are by thinking about other people. Because we include other people in our sense of self, their choices influence our choices.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

  15. Don’t fight your thoughts; accept them. Our brains secrete thoughts; that’s what brains do. If you’re trying to reduce your chocolate intake, your brain may talk about chocolate. It’s okay. We can’t always choose our thoughts or feelings; we do, however, own the decision as to whether or not we act on them.
  16. “Trying to control our thoughts and feelings has the opposite effect of what most people expect. And yet rather than catch on to this, most of us respond to our failures with more commitment to this misguided strategy. We try even harder to push away thoughts and feelings we don’t want to have in a vain attempt to keep our minds safe from danger. If we truly want peace of mind and better self-control, we need to accept that it is impossible to control what comes into our mind. All we can do is choose what we believe and what we act on.” — Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

If there’s a common thread to the work of acquiring greater willpower, it’s simply developing the capacity to know thyself. Understanding exactly what you do and why you do it is the first step; after that, change becomes relatively straightforward (not easy, but simple).

Whether you’re trying to kick a nasty habit or you’d simply like to make better choices in your everyday life, we all stand to benefit from a little more willpower. If you’d like to know more, I loved this book and think you will too.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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