The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
The Willpower Instinct is full of practical advice on self-control and accomplishing goals, with accompanying examples that are supported by scientific studies. The contents are applicable to all people and professions.
My Favorite Quotes
- People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.
- Your present-self wants one thing and your future-self wants something else.
- Your brain adapts to exercise in the same way muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better.
- A short practice you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off until tomorrow.
- The pause and plan response is the opposite of the fight or flight response.
- Slowing your breathing immediately increases self-control.
- Physical exercise, like meditation, makes your brain bigger and faster.
- Change requires doing.
- We wrongly, but persistently, expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.
- We wrongly predict we will have much more free time in the future than we do today.
- Aim to reduce the variability of behavior day-to-day. View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices.
- For better self-control forget virtue and focus on goals and values.
- Often the thing we are seeking happiness from can be the main source of our misery.
- Self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.
Self-compassion is associated with more motivation and better self-control.
- What is something you would like to do more of or stop putting off because you know doing it will improve the quality of your life?
- What is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on?
- How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge?
- Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge?
- How does your behavior influence your friends, family, coworkers, and community? How would your success help them?
- Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?
- How committed do you feel to your goal?
- Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?
- Do you know what your dopamine triggers are?
- What future rewards do I put on sale each time I give in to temptation or procrastination? What is the immediate payoff for giving in, and what is the long-term cost?
Nine Key Ideas
- Willpower is three powers: I will, I won’t, I want, that helps us to be a better version of ourselves.
- Willpower is biological.
- Self-control is like a muscle, it gets tired from use but exercise can make it stronger.
- When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. (This is the trap of moral licensing)
- Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.
- Feeling bad leads to giving in, and dropping guilt makes you stronger.
- Our inability to clearly see the future leads us into temptation and procrastination.
- Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.
- Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel or do the thing you most want to avoid.
The Science of Willpower is a class the author taught at Stanford.
To succeed at self-control you need to know how you fail.
The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.
Self-knowledge is the foundation of self-control.
Each chapter dispels a common misconception about self-control.
Theories are nice; data is better.
To get the most out of the book, the author recommends picking a specific willpower challenge to test every idea against.
Example: sugar, addiction, procrastination, cravings, spending, exercising, etc.
- An “I will” power challenge (something you’ve been avoiding)
- An “I won’t” power challenge (a habit you want to break)
- An “I want” power challenge (an important goal in your life that you want to give more energy and focus to)
Take your time.
This audiobook is designed to be used as if you were taking the author’s 10-week course.
First assignment: choose one of the willpower challenges for our journey.
Under the microscope: choose your willpower challenge.
I will-power challenge:
What is something you would like to do more of or stop putting off because you know doing it will improve the quality of your life?
I won’t-power challenge:
What is the stickiest habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of because it is undermining your health, happiness or success?
I want-power challenge:
What is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on?
What immediate want is most likely to distract you or tempt you away from this goal?
Chapter 1: I Will, I Won’t, I Want
What will power is and why it matters.
I will and I won’t power alone do not constitute willpower. To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power. The ability to remember what you really want.
To exert self-control you need to find your motivation when it matters.
People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.
Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence.
The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing.
References the story of Phineas Gage here.
Many temporary states, like being sleep deprived or distracted, inhibit the prefrontal cortex and mimic brain damage.
One brain, two minds. Your present-self wants one thing and your future-self wants something else.
The first rule of willpower: know thyself.
The average person makes 227 food-related choices every day.
People who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptations.
Willpower experiment: track your willpower choices.
To have more self-control you first need to develop more self-awareness.
Example goal: check email no more than once an hour.
The brain is remarkably responsive to experience. The brain grows and connects as you learn and train it.
You can train your brain to get better at self-control.
When your brain meditates it gets better at attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.
Regular meditators have more grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex.
Your brain adapts to exercise in the same way muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better.
Brain training exercise.
Sit still and stay put.
Sit in a chair with feet flat on the ground or cross-legged on a mat.
Sit up straight and put your hands in your lap. Do not fidget.
Turn your attention to the breath. Say in your mind, inhale and exhale.
Notice how it feels to breathe and notice how the mind wanders. Drop the labels, inhale and exhale after a few minutes, notice how it feels to breathe.
Start with 5 minutes a day. A short practice you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off until tomorrow.
The goal of meditation is learning not to get so lost in your thoughts that you forget what your goal is. Notice your mind wandering and train it to focus back on breathing.
The idea: willpower is three powers: I will, I won’t, I want, that helps us to be a better version of ourselves.
Under the microscope.
What is the harder thing?
Imagine yourself facing your willpower challenge and doing the harder thing.
Meet your two minds.
For your willpower challenge, describe your two competing selves. What does the impulsive version of you want? What does the wiser version of you want?
Track your willpower choices.
The 5-minute brain training meditation.
Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct
Your body was born to resist cheesecake.
Self-control can be a matter of physiology not just psychology.
Fight or flight response. It wants to make you more impulsive.
The brain releases dopamine into areas of the brain that control attention, motivation, and action.
Under the microscope: what is the threat?
Self-control points the mirror inward.
Willpower challenge: identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained.
The willpower instinct: pause and plan.
The pause and plan response is the opposite of the fight or flight response.
This starts with the perception of internal conflict, not an external threat.
The pause and plan response is also physical.
Keeps you from immediately following your impulses and gives you time for more flexible and thoughtful action.
The Body’s Willpower Reserve
Heart rate variability. An important factor in determining willpower.
Under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Heart rate goes up and variability goes down.
When people successfully exert self-control the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to calm stress and control compulsive action. Heart rate goes down and variability goes up.
Higher heart rate variability is an indication of greater self-control.
Focused meditation trains the brain and increases heart rate variability.
Willpower experiment: breathe yourself to self-control.
Slowing your breathing immediately increases self-control.
Try to reduce to 4-12 breaths per minute.
Train your mind and body.
Exercise has many willpower benefits. The benefits are both immediate and long term.
Physical exercise, like meditation, makes your brain bigger and faster.
Studies showed that the biggest benefits can come from just 5 minutes of exercise.
Willpower experiment: the 5-minute green willpower fill-up.
Green exercise. Any physical activity that gets you outdoors.
Decreases stress, improves mood and increases focus and self-control.
Exercise restores energy and willpower.
Restore willpower in your sleep.
Sleep deprivation reduces willpower.
When cells are tired they have trouble absorbing glucose, leaving you exhausted.
A single good night’s sleep can repair and restore your brain.
Willpower experiment: for sleep, try catching up, stocking up or napping to undo or prevent the effects of sleep deprivation.
When sleep is the willpower challenge.
Pulling oneself away from the things keeping you up can be the biggest challenge.
Turn off the computer, TV, and phone after a set time.
Consider what you are saying yes to instead of sleep.
The cost of too much self-control.
Dangers of chronic stress.
Self-control demands high levels of energy.
Too much willpower (chronic self-control) could be dangerous. Trying to control every aspect of your thoughts and behavior is too big of a burden.
Chose your willpower battles wisely.
Willpower experiment: relax to restore your willpower reserve. Taking time for relaxation can protect your health while also increasing your willpower reserve.
Stress is the enemy of willpower.
Tired, stressed-out people start from a tremendous disadvantage.
The idea. Willpower is biological.
Under the microscope.
Test the theory that stress is the enemy of self-control. How does being worried or overworked affect your choices?
What is the threat?
Identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained.
Breathe your way to see control.
5-minute green willpower fill-up.
Nap or one good night’s sleep.
Relax to restore willpower reserve.
Chapter 3: Too Tired to Resist
Why self-control is like a muscle.
If you try to control or change too many things at once, you may exhaust yourself completely.
The muscle model of self-control.
Trying to fit into a corporate culture that doesn’t share your values can use up your willpower well of strength.
There are things you can do to overcome willpower exhaustion and increase your self-control strength.
Under the microscope: the highs and lows of willpower.
Pay attention to when you have the most willpower and when you are most likely to give in.
Put your willpower where your goals are.
If you never seem to have the time and energy for your “I will challenge” schedule it for when you have the most strength.
Running low on energy can decrease willpower due to the brain being tired.
Diabetes = high blood sugar and low energy.
The self-control muscle can be exercised and made stronger.
Challenge the self-control muscle by controlling one small thing you aren’t used to controlling.
For example, create and meet self-imposed deadlines.
Do this for any task you have been putting off such as cleaning your closet:
Week 1: open the door and stare at the mess.
Week 2: tackle anything that is on a hanger.
Week 3: throw out anything that pre-dates the Reagan administration.
Committing to any small consistent act of self-control can increase overall willpower.
Example, tracking spending, meals, eating less sugar, etc.
Use your non-dominant hand for brushing teeth, opening doors, etc.
Commit to doing something every day that you don’t normally do.
Improve self-monitoring (www.quantifiedself.com).
Fatigue is a sensation and emotion. It is an early warning system of the brain.
Saying no will become second nature.
Willpower experiment: what’s your “want” power?
Find a renewed strength by tapping into your want power.
For your biggest willpower challenge consider the following motivations:
- How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge? What is the pay off for you personally?
- Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? How does your behavior influence your friends, family, coworkers, and community? How would your success help them?
- Imagine this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult right now. Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?
When you find your biggest want power, bring it to mind when you are most tempted to give up.
Change requires doing.
Use choice architecture.
People who are free to choose anything most often choose against their own long-term benefit.
The idea: self-control is like a muscle, it gets tired from use but exercise can make it stronger.
Make sure your body is well-fueled with food that gives you lasting energy.
Chapter 4: License to Sin
Why being good gives us permission to be bad.
Giving in is a choice.
The trap of moral licensing.
When we make progress on a goal we give ourselves permission to give in.
Ask: how committed do you feel to your goal?
Focus on the commitment to a goal, not progress.
Willpower experiment: to revoke your license (to give in), remember the why.
We wrongly, but persistently, expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.
Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow?
We wrongly predict we will have much more free time in the future than we do today.
People imagine and predict an alternate future reality when purchasing exercise equipment and determining how often they will us it.
We look into the future and fail to see the challenges of today.
People often view present-day behavior as an anomaly.
Willpower experiment: a tomorrow just like today. Aim to reduce the variability of behavior day-to-day. View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices.
Instead of asking, “do I want to do this today or tomorrow?” Ask yourself, do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?
Under the microscope: who do you think you are? Who is the real you? The part of you that wants to pursue a goal or the part that needs to be controlled?
For change to stick, we need to identify with the goal itself, not the halo glow we get from being good.
The idea: when we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad.
For better self-control forget virtue and focus on goals and values.
Under the microscope.
Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow?
Who do you think you are?
Remember the reason why.
Tomorrow just like today. Reduce variability.
Chapter 5: The Brain’s Big Lie
Why we mistake wanting for happiness.
When it comes to happiness, we cannot trust our brains to lead us in the right direction.
The Promise of Reward
The reward system of the brain. Tests on rats and humans with electrical stimulation to parts of the brain.
A dopamine rush.
Dopamine plays a role in anticipating rewards not in experiencing them.
Dopamine is for action, not happiness.
The promise of happiness keeps us hunting.
Dopamine is how technology keeps us addicted.
Under the microscope: do you know what your dopamine triggers are?
Pay attention to what captures your attention.
Daydreaming about unattainable rewards can get you into trouble.
The rewards system of the brain also responds to novelty and variety.
Our brain responds to smells, advertisers and businesses use this to attract customers.
Become a dopamine detective.
We live in a world engineered to make us want.
Under the microscope: who is manipulating your dopamine neurons?
What do you see, smell, and hear around you?
Will power experiment: “dopamize” your “I will challenge.” Visualize outcomes, reward yourself, link to things that release dopamine.
Desire can trigger stress and anxiety.
We mistake the promise of reward for happiness.
Often the thing we are seeking happiness from can be the main source of our misery. Example, food, shopping, etc.
Willpower experiment: test the promise of reward.
The importance of desire.
An under-active reward system contributes to the biological basis of depression.
The paradox of reward. Craving reward causes addiction, no reward eliminates desire.
Desire is the brain’s strategy for action.
We must distinguish wanting from happiness.
The idea. Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.
Under the microscope.
What gets your dopamine neurons firing?
Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward.
Notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety.
“Dopamize” your “I will” power challenge.
Test the promise of reward. Mindfully indulge in something your brain tells you will make you happy but that never seems to satisfy. Examples, junk food, shopping, television, online time wasters.
Chapter 6: What the Hell
How feeling bad leads to giving in.
The most effective stress-relieving strategies are; exercise, playing sports, praying, attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating, doing yoga, spending time with a creative hobby.
Least effective stress-relieving strategies are; gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the internet, watching TV or movies for more than two hours.
The effective strategies boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also shut down the brain’s stress response and reduce stress hormones.
The ineffectual strategies release dopamine and rely on the promise of reward.
Motivation idea: a woman made a voice memo to herself after yoga class telling herself how good she felt after class. She used this to help her remember when tempted to quit yoga.
Terror management theory.
The “what the hell” effect.
The cycle of indulgence, regret, then greater indulgence.
Getting rid of guilt helps improve self-control and reduces indulgence according to some studies.
Self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.
Self-compassion is associated with more motivation and better self-control.
Forgiveness. Think about a recent failure and go over these three points.
What are you feeling?
You are only human.
What would you tell a friend?
Try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, encourages you, and wants the best for you.
Resolving to feel good.
We need to believe that change is possible.
Use hope to fix our feelings, not our behavior.
The strategy for changing is different from the strategy for feeling good.
Take a moment to think about your own motivations and expectations for change.
Do you use fantasies of your future self to fix your feelings now, more than you take concrete steps to fix your behavior?
Feeling bad leads to giving in, and dropping guilt makes you stronger.
Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale
The economics of instant gratification.
Under the microscope.
What future rewards do I put on sale each time I give in to temptation or procrastination? What is the immediate payoff for giving in, and what is the long-term cost? Is this a fair trade?
Blinded by the promise of reward.
Willpower experiment: wait 10 minutes.
Wait 10 minutes for any temptation and compare the immediate rewards versus long term rewards.
If you require “I will” power, flip the rule to doing something for 10 minutes then you can quit. Example, exercise, writing, etc.
What is your discount rate?
Willpower experiment: lower your discount rate.
- When tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for whatever the immediate gratification is.
- Imagine that long-term reward is already yours. Imagine yourself enjoying the fruits of your self-control.
- Ask yourself, are you willing to give up that in exchange for whatever fleeting pleasure is tempting you now?
Illustration: a woman framed the use of Facebook as a threat to her goals. She asked herself, is using Facebook worth giving up my dream of being a doctor?
No way out, the value of pre-commitment.
For example, Cortez burned his ships upon landing in the search for gold. No return.
Consider using websites that restrict the use of social media, internet, etc.
Meet your future self.
Introduce yourself to you and you 2.0 (future you).
Future you is the person you imagine when you wonder if you should clean your closet now or later.
Willpower experiment: meet your future self.
Create a future memory. Imagining the future helps people delay gratification.
Send a message to your future self. You can use Futureme.org. Imagine what your future self would say to you today.
Imagine your future self. This can increase your present-self willpower.
Our inability to clearly see the future leads us into temptation and procrastination.
Wait 10 minutes
Lower your discount rate
Pre-commit your future self
Meet your future self
Chapter 8: Infected
Why willpower is contagious.
Fitness level in the Air Force academy. Cadets’ fitness level was influenced by the person with the worst health.
Both bad habits and positive change can spread from person to person like germs.
Willpower experiment: catch self-control.
Thinking about someone with good self-control can increase your own willpower.
Go public with your willpower challenge.
Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.
Under the microscope.
Who are you mirroring?
Strengthen your willpower immune system. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your goals.
Chapter 9: Don’t Listen to this Chapter
The limits of I won’t power.
References a study on how trying not to think about a white bear causes people to think about a white bear.
Four steps for handling cravings:
- Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving.
- Accept the thought or feeling without trying to distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white bear rebound effect.
- Step back by realizing that thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but you can choose whether to act on them.
- Remember your goal. Remind yourself of whatever your commitment is.
Replace “I won’t” with “I will”. For example, instead of “I won’t drink coffee” change to “I will have tea.”
Focus on what you want to do instead of what you don’t want to do.
Surf the urge. Anger, gossip, criticizing, etc.
Three skills are the foundation for self-control.
Remembering what matters most
Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel or do the thing you most want to avoid.
Under the microscope.
Investigate ironic rebound.
What’s on your most wanted list?
Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think.
Surf the urge.
Chapter 10: Final Thoughts
Realize the promise of reward does not always deliver.
Remember your future self is not a superhero or a stranger.