“The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal (Book Summary)
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal is easily the best book on willpower I’ve ever read. It’s fun, easy to read, and packed with helpful theory and practical strategies for improving our self-discipline.
If you’re someone who struggles with procrastination, temptation, or lack of motivation, or if you're someone who wants to achieve their goals more effectively, or who just wants to improve their life, this book is a great place to start.
The summary below can’t do the book justice.
Who Is The Willpower Instinct For?
- Anyone looking to live a happier, healthier, and more successful life
- Anyone interested in behavioral psychology, especially the science of self-control
- Anyone struggling with cravings, addiction, procrastination, or lack of self-discipline
1. Why Willpower Matters
“We may all have been born with the capacity for willpower, but some of us use it more than others. People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma (sorry, Tony Robbins), and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut). If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.”
Willpower matters a lot.
Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower and one of the leading researchers in this field, says that there are two scientifically validated predictors of success in life: IQ and willpower. While the former is mostly fixed, the latter is very much subject to change.
He also mentions that most major problems in life – reckless spending, alcohol abuse, drug addictions, procrastination, lack of exercise, crappy diet, anger issues, and general underachievement in life – center on a lack of self-control.
If you want to improve your life, willpower is where to start.
2. Willpower Requires Awareness
“Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless. You need to recognize when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest.”
“Most of our choices are made on autopilot, without any real awareness of what’s driving them, and certainly without serious reflection on their consequences.”
The first necessary ingredient in boosting willpower is improving your self-awareness. Without it, you’ll never get the chance of changing for the better in the first place. Without awareness, you’re like the incredible Hulk, who only realizes what damage he’s done when Bruce Banner “wakes up.”
Without awareness, you simply act out your autopilot tendencies and impulses. You simply live out your conditioning. You’re living a mechanical life, kind of like a programmed robot.
Jon Kabat Zinn beautifully encapsulates this idea in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are: “If we are unaware of what we are doing a good deal of the time, and we don’t particularly like the way things turn out in our lives, perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention, to be more in touch, to observe the choices we make and their consequences down the road.”
You could have all the willpower in the world. If you don’t recognize the need for it in the moment, it won’t help you.
So, how do you become more self-aware?
First, tracking. Whatever you’re tracking, you can’t help but become more aware of it. Why? Because you’re forced to pay attention. I personally try to keep track of at least one thing at all times. Sometimes, it’s my food intake. Sometimes, my time. Sometimes, my choices. Sometimes, the number of steps I take.
Second, meditation. That’s the major way for increasing your self-awareness. Speaking of meditation…
3. The Problem of Two Minds
“Some neuroscientists go so far as to say that we have one brain but two minds – or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of us that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protects our long-term goals. They’re both us, but we switch back and forth between these two selves. Sometimes we identify with the person who wants to lose weight, and sometimes we identify with the person who just wants the cookie. This is what defines a willpower challenge: Part of you wants one thing, and another part of you wants something else.”
That’s exactly how I describe the problem of procrastination in my book, Stop Procrastinating: A Simple Guide to Hacking Laziness, Building Self-Discipline, and Overcoming Procrastination.
There, I refer to one self as “the monkey” and the other self as you or the rational version of you. While the monkey seeks immediate gratification, the rational you seeks long-term success. The monkey wants to watch TV, but you want to study for your upcoming exams. When the monkey wins, that’s a willpower failure and oftentimes an act of procrastination. When the rational part of you wins, that’s an act of willpower – you used the strength of your will to resist the temptation and veto the monkey’s urge for short-term gratification.
Strengthening the rational you (the pre-frontal cortex and seat of your willpower) while weakening the monkey (the limbic system and seat of your impulses and desires) is the long-term solution for all of our self-control issues, including procrastination.
4. The Physiology of Willpower
“Science is discovering that self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology. It’s a temporary state of both mind and body that gives you the strength and calm to override your impulses. Researchers are beginning to understand what that state looks like, and why the complexity of our modern world often interferes with it. The good news is that you can learn to shift your physiology into that state when you need your willpower the most. You can also train the body’s capacity to stay in this state, so that when temptation strikes, your instinctive response is one of self-control.”
Your body and mind are deeply interconnected. Change one and you’ll change the other. Change your physiology and your psychology will follow. Change your psychology and your physiology will follow.
For example, feeling anxious (body) leads to having anxious thoughts (mind). Having anxious thoughts (mind) leads to experiencing anxious feelings and accompanying bodily symptoms such as speeding up of heart rate, palms sweating, and so on.
Willpower works the same way. There’s a distinct bodily state that activates your mind’s capability for exerting self-control. If you put your body into that state, you’ll have more willpower. If you put your body out of that state, you’ll have less willpower.
So, what does the state look like? It’s a state of slowing down, of being calm, and of experiencing low-intensity emotions such as peacefulness, serenity, gratitude, or acceptance. It’s a state of high heart rate variability – a state of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a state of low stress (not zero stress, but much less than we’re used to in our hectic world). And it’s a state in which our prefrontal cortex (the seat of our willpower) comes fully online while the limbic system (the seat of our impulses) slows down.
That calm state allows you to pause and plan. It allows you to behave more rationally, more thought-through, and in a more controlled manner.
Anything that puts you into that state will boost willpower. Anything that takes you out of it will reduce willpower.
So, what puts you in or out of that state? Stress, negative emotions, lack of sleep, low energy, or too much stimulation kicks you out. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, high energy, and a general slowing-down will put you into it.
5. Stress: the #1 Threat to Self-Control
“Stress is the enemy of willpower. So often we believe that stress is the only way to get things done, and we even look for ways to increase stress – such as waiting until the last minute, or criticizing ourselves for being lazy or out of control – to motivate ourselves. Or we use stress to try to motivate others, turning up the heat at work or coming down hard at home. This may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress. The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible. Both the fight-or-flight and pause-and-plan responses are about energy management, but they redirect your energy and attention in very different ways.
The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively, and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision making. The pause-and-plan response sends that energy to the brain – and not just anywhere in the brain, but specifically to the self-control center, the prefrontal cortex. Stress encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind. Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.”
Here’s the highlight reel from that passage:
- “Stress is the enemy of willpower.”
- “Nothing drains willpower faster than stress.”
- “The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible.”
- “Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.”
Chronic stress affects almost all of us. We live in a world of overstimulation that stresses out our ancient brains in ways we can’t even imagine. Stressors are all around us, whether we are aware of it or not. Our brains get stressed out by television news, noise pollution, light pollution, EMFs, social media, emails, and so much more. Even things like clutter, multitasking, or self-criticism are enough to stress out our brains.
If we’re serious about tackling big challenges, we need to take good care for ourselves. And stress management is a great way to start.
6. Stress Management: What Works and What Doesn’t
“When you’re feeling down, what do you do to feel better? If you’re like most people, you turn to the promise of reward. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.”
When we’re feeling stressed out, it’s only natural to want to feel better. Unfortunately, we don’t really turn to things that make us feel better. Instead, we turn to things that promise to make us feel better, but ultimately, make us feel even worse: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.
It’s our natural instinct to run towards these strategies. It just turns out that these are the exact strategies that don’t help us feel better and combat stress.
So, which strategies do?
“While many of the most popular stress-relief strategies fail to make us feel better, some strategies really work. According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)”
Stress-relief strategies that don’t work:
- Playing video games
- Surfing the Internet
- Watching TV or movies for more than two hours
Stress-relief strategies that do work:
- Exercising or playing sports
- Praying or attending a religious service
- Listening to music
- Spending time with friends or family
- Getting a massage
- Going outside for a walk
- Meditating or doing yoga
- Spending time with a creative hobby
Next time you’re feeling stressed out, realize that you feel an urge to engage in the first category of activities. You may want to watch some television, hop on Facebook, or play video games. Don’t trust this urge. Instead, opt for a strategy in the second category. Go for a walk, call a friend, or bust out a workout.
7. To Become a Finely Tuned Willpower Machine: Meditate
“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.”
If you’re not meditating yet, you’re missing out. In my opinion, it’s the #1 most valuable activity we can engage in if we’re interested in personal growth, health, wealth, and happiness.
Scientifically validated benefits include better health, higher levels of happiness, improved social life, greater self-control, emotional resilience and stability, a healthier brain, enhanced productivity, and much more.
If you wish to give meditation a try, I suggest downloading the Headspace app. It teaches you the practice of mindfulness meditation over a ten-day period consisting of theory, encouragement, and ten-minute daily meditations. Alternatively, Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week meditation program for beginners gets raving reviews as well. It’s something to consider in case you want some more guidance.
Oh, and check out our beginners guide to meditation.
8. Exercise: The Closest Thing to a Willpower Wonder Drug
“Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.”
Regular exercise, just like daily meditation, is another game-changer you don’t want to miss. It may not be sexy. It may not be fancy. But it’s effective.
It’s one of the best things you can do, not only for your willpower, but your brain health in general. John Ratey, a Harvard scientist, describes in his book, Spark, how physical exercise improves everything from learning, attention, focus, addiction, stress, anxiety, depression, aging, and more.
He writes, “In order for your brain to function at its peak, your body needs to MOVE.”
The good news is, you don’t need to do much. Intense exercise 2-3x per week coupled with lots of intermittent movement throughout the day (think: 10,000 steps and less sitting) is all you need to get the 80/20 of exercise and movement.
9. One Way to Immediately Boost Willpower: Slow Your Breathing Down
“You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”
Taking slow and deep breaths is probably the fastest way to activate the physiology of self-control. It slows down your heart rate, activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, raises heart rate variability, and puts you into that calm and slowed-down space of control.
Best of all, your breath is accessible at any minute throughout your life.
If you need a quick willpower boost, I suggest doing three (or more!) rounds of something called box breathing. You breathe in for five seconds, then hold for five seconds, then breathe out for five seconds, then hold for another five seconds – that’s one round. (If five seconds is too much or too little, you can go longer or shorter.)
10. Self-Compassion, NOT Self-Criticism Leads to Greater Willpower
“If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control. Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.”
I have talked about self-compassion versus self-criticism countless times on this blog. As I write in my article on how to overcome extreme procrastination, self-compassion has been one of the four most important strategies in my own battle against the dreadful habit of procrastination.
As far as willpower goes, self-compassion once again comes out on top.
If you enjoyed this book, you’ll probably enjoy other books on self-discipline and willpower as well. Some of my favorites include:
- The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel. This is a science-based book written by the guy who did the original marshmallow studies. It focuses mainly on the hot versus the cool cognitive system and how it relates to self-control.
- Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Roy Baumeister is the leading researcher in the field of self-control. Though some of his ideas have been criticized as of lately, this book still offers plenty of useful strategies.
- Getting Things Done by David Allen. Not a willpower book per se, but setting up a GTD system will without a doubt make you more disciplined.
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