3 min read

The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct is a book about the ins and outs of human willpower, and how we can best leverage this resource.  It is an extremely powerful and fun read, and highly recommended for anyone who has ever tried to make a change in their lives.  I find myself nodding and smiling along with the anecdotes, and I've learned powerful lessons to gain control in my next willpower exercise.

  1. Willpower is a Finite Resource.   Willpower, the ability to overcome our animal instincts and act in favor of long term interests, is managed by our pre-frontal cortex.  The pre-frontal cortex, as with the rest of our body, can get tired with over-use, needs breaks and requires nourishment.  That is why every time you feel tired or hungry, you are more likely to give in to temptation.  Manage this finite resource carefully and make a note of low-willpower and high-willpower moments.  Choose high-willpower moments to make important decisions, and be aware of the pitfalls of low willpower moments. Plan accordingly and defer decisions during low willpower moments.  For example, my everyday willpower challenge is to avoid junk food.  When I get home hungry after work I have a low willpower moment so I tend to go for the junk food.  To mitigate this, I keep the junk food hidden and the healthy food prepared ahead of time, so the decision to avoid junk is easier during my low willpower moment.  After I eat and rest, I regain my willpower.  At which time I am motivated again to cook healthy food for the next day.
  2. Beware of the License to Sin.  Have you ever completed your exercise goal for the day, then gave yourself license to indulge in sweets afterwards as a "reward," thereby negating calories burnt during exercise?  This is the effect of License to Sin.  When goals are being associated with "being good," it is tempting to indulge in a reward afterwards.  To work against this effect, de-associate goals with "being good."  Goals are strictly goals being met or not being met.  Instead of thinking "I have been good, therefore I should be rewarded."  Think instead "I have met my goal.  I feel good that I have met my goal."  The meeting of the goal should be a reward, or the goal is set inappropriately.  In the case of exercise, indulge in the positive surge of energy and endorphins gained from exercise.  Enjoy the intrinsic reward of the goal rather than use it as a license to sin.
  3. Beware of the Social License to Sin.  Rule-breaking and loss of self-control are contagious.  An environment where bikes are parked in the "no bike" zone and litter is strewn on the street will encourage people to follow suit.  In fact, it will also encourage people break other rules.  The good news is, self-control is also contagious.  Taking inspiration from self-control masters such as athletes and spiritual leaders are a good way to boost self-control.  Building relationships with people who exhibit your desired self-control habits will also "rub-off" on you.
  4. Wanting is not Happiness, unless it is.  Dopamine is released every time the body experiences desire.  But desire is not happiness. In fact, desire is associated with frustration.  Do you remember a time you were excited about the promise of a reward, but when the reward comes, there is a slight feeling of loss and perhaps depression?  Maybe it's Christmas Day after opening the presents.  Be clear about whether it’s the "promise of reward" you are seeking or the reward itself.  In some cases, the strongest vices, such as shopping, may be a desire for the "promise of reward" instead.   If that's the case, window-shopping may serve as the reward itself and the credit cards can stay home.  Separating the "desire" from the "reward" can help with goal setting and goal adherence.
  5. Beware of the "What the Hell" effect.  Failure to adhere to a goal one time can trigger self-blame and shame that leads to a declaration of "what the hell" and lead to further failure.  Self-blame and shame also triggers your body to seek a dopamine hit so it can feel good right now, which encourages indulgence.  Prevent yourself from going over the cliff by exercising self-compassion.  Contrary to common perception, studies show that those who forgave themselves for missing the mark on occasion, will quickly get back on track.  Those who wallowed in self-blame will spiral into a cycle of bad feelings and failure.

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