18 min read ⌚
MicroSummary: “The Willpower Instinct” by willpower expert Kelly McGonigal dissects the nature of the will, portraying it as an amalgam of three components (the “I won’t,” the “I will,” and the “I want” mindset) and advising you how to understand and develop each of them.
How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It
You know you have the talent, and you know you have the potential! Something, however, is constantly pulling you back! And that something’s name is “temptations.”
Temptations-shemptations! – says Kelly McGonigal.
And she makes her case in “The Willpower Instinct.”
Who Should Read “The Willpower Instinct”? And Why?
As the cover blurb says, “The Willpower Instinct” is the solution for the chronically slothful. However, since it strives to teach you how to harness the power of your will to resist temptations, it’s also a very good book for the procrastinators and the addicts.
And since we’re living in a day and age of distractions – everyone will find something about himself inside this book.
About Kelly McGonigal
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist. He is mainly dealing with topics related to stress and mindfulness. She obtained her Ph. D. at Stanford University, where she is currently a lecturer.
Read more at http://kellymcgonigal.com/
“The Willpower Instinct Summary”
Let’s be honest:
Even though you’re on a diet, you desperately want to eat the chocolate bar sitting next to you! Want to hear a little secret: we’re munching one as we’re writing this sentence as well!
Because, simply put, we can’t help it! It’s etched in our bodies and our instincts. We’re basically programmed to give in to our temptations. In fact, that’s exactly what has helped us evolve to here.
Really! We’re neither joking nor trying to find some justifications!
Just think about it:
You’re one of the first homo sapiens specimens. It’s winter, there are no apples or berries on the trees, and everything around you is as desolate as Antarctica. Suddenly, you happen upon some honey. Will you eat it or skip it?
Of course, you’re going to eat it!
Because, sugar was rare back then – and because it’s a basic form of energy as well – your ancestors didn’t really have an option. Their brain taught them to eat anything they could find, because even if they ate too much sugar, their bodies were able to convert it into fat.
And, boy, they needed fat!
You see, unlike you, they weren’t able to eat every day – or lead a sedentary life, for that matter. So, they had to have reserves with them while on the go – something like camels! That’s why they didn’t get fat either: their bodies constantly used the excess of energy to power their thinking, hunting, reproducing…
Simply put, their body mechanisms worked like clockwork.
And – ay, there’s the rub!
Because, you see, we have inherited the same mechanisms. So, even though we have everything in abundance, our brains still release dopamine to alert us to use the thing they believe will advance our case in the face of merciless evolutionary laws!
Here’s how it goes. For illustrative purposes only.
So, you’re casually walking around the room and you suddenly notice a Hershey’s on the table. You don’t even have the time to walk past it. Your brain starts shouting out loud: “Hey, eat it! Eat it I tell you! There may be no chocolate tomorrow! You’ll need it the next time… I don’t, know – you’re fighting a mammoth!”
Because, after all, your wonderful brain is still a bit old-fashioned.
Speaking of which – the same obsolete mechanism controls your sex drive as well. Even though, in your mind, you’re pretty sure it’s not a good thing to take off your clothes in front of this sexy stranger because, well, you’re married, your brain uses its friend dopamine to tell you a completely different thing.
Something along these lines: “Impregnate her. Who knows – tomorrow you may be killed by… I don’t know – a mammoth…” Again with the mammoths!
Fortunately, you are not your brain, and there’s a way to update its knowledge through your mind. And, consequently, resist temptation.
It’s called willpower and it consists of three forces: “I won’t,” “I will,” and “I want.”
“I won’t” is how many people think of willpower: it’s your ability to say “no” to the Hershey bar or the sexy stranger, even though your brain screams “yes”.
“I will,” on the other hand, is your ability to say “yes” to things your brain says “no,” because you know they’ll work in the long run. For example, studying to pass an exam or exercising regularly.
Finally, “I want” is the driving force behind these two. It’s your ability to keep in mind what you want from your life and work towards it.
And in order to be able to do that, you need to find a way to fight against temptations and distractions. And it seems like everyone who wants to teach you how to focus, eventually ends up with a simple equation.
And, believe us, you’ll get there!
Key Lessons from “The Willpower Instinct”
1. It’s Not You, It’s Your Ancient Brain’s Fault
2. Rewire Your Brain: Dopamine May Work to Your Benefit
3. May Your Friends and Your Future Selves Be Your Jiminy Crickets!
It’s Not You, It’s Your Ancient Brain’s Fault
You don’t have willpower – i.e. the power of the “will”, the “won’t”, and the “want” – because your brain still lives in the ancient past. To him, dieting, working hard when you don’t have to, having one sexual partner – they all still seem counter-evolutionary.
But, the times are different. And you need to teach him that they are not!
Rewire Your Brain: Dopamine May Work to Your Benefit
The temptation is what happens when your brain makes you feel happy by releasing dopamine contrary to what your best judgment says to you about the specific action.
Use this: anchor the feelings your brain produces with the experiences you want them associated with. In other words, if you solve mathematical equations while listening to your favorite song, next time you’ll look forward to your math class.
May Your Friends and Your Future Selves Be Your Jiminy Crickets!
Willpower is contagious. It’s also what you can get out of visualizing yourself in the future and thinking back at the present moment.
In other words, if you want to diet, diet with your friend or your sister. Or if a pick-up artist manages to knock your socks off one evening, before going to his place, think what your future divorced self would have done instead!
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“The Willpower Instinct” QuotesThe biggest enemies of willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress. Click To Tweet Self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matter most— are the foundation for self-control. Click To Tweet Meditation is not about getting rid of all your thoughts; it’s learning not to get so lost in them that you forget what your goal is. Click To Tweet When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long-term goals—will guide your choices. Click To Tweet A short practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
There’s a lot you can learn from “The Willpower Instinct” – from what willpower is, to how you can use it to your benefit. It’s a self-book of the kind everybody needs nowadays. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit longer than it’s supposed to be, so our summary works even better.
| New / Extended | The Willpower Instinct
Have you ever tried a diet, but failed a short time afterward and gave up? Ever tried to save money, but ended up always spending it on unnecessary things that were not so important? Why is it so hard to resist impulses?
In general, it is not difficult to identify what to do or what not to do. But in reality, it always seems easier to give in to temptation.
The Three Components Of Willpower
Life is full of temptations: when you are on a diet, your mother prepares your favorite dishes; when you decide to save money, you come across that outfit that is so you at the mall. These situations challenge your willpower.
In these moments, your immediate desires struggle against your long-term goals.
So what causes you to have self-control in these situations? Your willpower consists of three powers: “I will not,” “I will” and “I want.” First, your “I will not” power is the ability to say ‘no’ even when your body wants to say ‘yes.’
This power encompasses the common conception of willpower: capacity to resist temptation. Temptation comes to each of us in different forms; it may be chocolate, a cigarette or a beautiful stranger.
Each temptation can be seen as a challenge to your “I will not” willpower, which asks: Do you have the strength to say ‘no’? You can determine your most important “I will not” challenge by asking yourself:
What habit is disrupting my health, happiness or career and which I should give up?
The second element of willpower is your “I will” power – the ability to do what you do not feel like doing now to achieve a better future.
Your “I will” power helps you to perform tasks that are unpleasant but necessary to attain your goals – for example, studying to pass a test and having a degree.
You can find your most important “I will” challenge by asking yourself: what habit should I stop putting off to improve my life?
Finally, there is also your “I want” power – the ability to remember what you want. What you want is what is best for you in the long run – regardless of current temptations. To resist the present, you need clear, long-term goals to guide your actions.
These are the goals that will fuel your “I want” power, making you remember what is at stake.
You can find your “I want” challenge by asking yourself: What is my primary long-term goal on which I would like to focus my energy? What immediate desire is keeping me from achieving this goal?
Meditation Helps You Have Self-Control
Nowadays, distractions are everywhere: there are links to click, series to watch, parties to attend. We always think, “I’m going to check my email one last time.”
But you’re taking a greater risk than you think because when you’re distracted, you’re more likely to give in to temptation.
When your mind is worried, temptation can arise, disrupting your long-term goals.
That was demonstrated in a survey in which some students were instructed to remember a phone number while deciding which snack they would eat during the experiment: chocolate or fruit.
The students who were distracted chose chocolate 50% more times than the group of students who did not receive memorization tasks.
However, there is a way to deal with distractions – increasing your attention through meditation.
Neuroscientists have found that people who meditate have more gray matter – indicating high levels of performance – in regions of the brain responsible for self-awareness.
Meditation cultivates self-awareness moment by moment, which helps us to realize when we are distracted and to redirect our energy to the task.
Some scientists have shown that only three hours of regular meditation can improve self-awareness and develop greater attention. After 11 hours of practice, the changes can already be observed in the brain.
Nevertheless, sometimes distractions seem overwhelming, and you feel like you can not stop. In these situations, the fruits of meditation can also help: take a deep breath and focus your concentration on your long-term goal.
Thus, you can break the cycle of distraction and regain control over your impulses.
When your mind is worried, you lose willpower. Therefore, avoid making decisions when you are distracted and increase your self-awareness through meditation. It can help you avoid failures.
Your Natural Instinct Overcomes Temptation
What does a saber tooth tiger have in common with a chocolate cookie? Both can interfere with your goal of a long and healthy life.
That’s why evolution gave us the instinct to fight against both: the tiger and the temptation to eat a chocolate cookie.
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flee response,” instinct that comes when we deal with frightening or threatening situations. That is your body’s ability to devote all its energy to getting rid of an emergency situation.
What most of us do not know is that willpower is also based on a biological instinct. One study has shown that facing a challenge that requires willpower can activate a particular state in your brain and body, which gives you a boost.
This state is called a “pause and plan response” and, as its name suggests, is quite different from “fight or flee response.” The “fight or flee response“ increases your awareness of external threats and their speed (to avoid the tiger, for example).
On the other hand, the “pause and plan response” shifts its focus to internal conflicts between its rational self and its impulsive self, causing a deceleration to help control its impulses (to avoid the cookie, for example).
So how can we increase this instinct of willpower, to slow down our minds and make better decisions? Paying close attention to everything that stresses our mind and body, such as anger, anxiety, aches, and diseases.
Everything that stresses you interferes with your ability to achieve a state of self-control, keeping you in a state of ‘fight or flee’- preventing you from reaching the slowest and most rational state of mind.
However, there are several ways to improve your resistance to stress and thus improve your willpower.
Meditation, physical exercise, a good night’s sleep, healthy food, and quality time with your family and friends can help reduce your stress levels. And doing outdoor activities for only five minutes a day will give you a big boost too!
Willpower Is A Muscle That Can Be Trained
Have you tried running a marathon? Your leg muscles are so tired that you can not run anymore, even if you want to. Your willpower works the same way, after all, it is also a limited resource.
Every successful attempt to exercise self-control depletes some of its limited source of willpower.
It means that resisting temptation will not only weaken your ability to avoid other temptation but will also lead to procrastination and other failures. This exhaustion of willpower happens all the time.
That happens because many daily tasks you do not see as challenges to your willpower – having to take a bus, attending a boring meeting, or choosing from 20 brands of shampoo – deplete your daily reserve of willpower.
However, although we are constantly draining our willpower, we can do our best to keep it to a high level if we keep our blood sugar level stable and our energy levels high.
Low-glycemic foods such as nuts, cereals, fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich grains help keep your willpower.
There is yet another way to improve our willpower: by training our “muscle” of the will. Just as it is possible to train our arm muscle by lifting weights in the gym, it is possible to train our willpower muscle with some challenges.
By performing small but regular challenges, you can gradually improve your self-control and thus work your willpower.
Practicing regularly with this little temptation will train your willpower muscle, which will help you deal with the significant challenges.
Be Careful Not To Commit Gross Mistakes
It is challenging to spend a week without hearing about moral failures of exemplary citizens – politicians, athletes or religious leaders who have made a mistake.
Why did these supposedly virtuous people make such gross errors? In reality, thinking that you are “virtuous” lowers your self-awareness and discipline.
That was demonstrated in a study where a group of university students answered whether they agreed or disagreed with highly sexist statements.
Not surprisingly, few people agreed. A control group then received more moderate versions of the same sexist statements, and this time many people agreed.
When both teams needed to decide a hypothetical hiring situation, students who disagreed with the highly sexist statements paradoxically discriminated the most female candidates, compared to students in the group who agreed to the softer versions.
The same pattern arose when racist statements were used. That is because when we feel we are virtuous, we have less control over ourselves. That is exactly what happened in this experiment.
After the students proved to themselves that they were not sexist by rejecting the statements, they began to pay less attention to their behavior in the hiring task.
Another example of this is when we reward ourselves with something “bad” as being a good-for example, eating a donut after a long exercise routine. That is not a promising strategy for success.
The Brain Reward System
Why do we feel guilty after satisfying our immediate desires, like buying a new sweater we do not need or spending an entire afternoon watching TV? And why do we repeat these things even though we know we should not?
That is because the brain’s rewards system is not always your friend – and sometimes it leads you in the wrong direction.
So what happens in the brain when you want something? First, you see or smell something you want – and that’s enough to activate the reward system in the brain.
The system releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which activates areas of the brain that are responsible for attention, motivation, and action.
This release of dopamine can be activated by anything we associate with good feelings: a 70% liquidation in a mall, the smell of barbecue, or an attractive face smiling at you.
When this dopamine is released, the object that triggered this release becomes very desirable – even if it is against your long-term interest, such as unhealthy food, internet hours, or excessive alcoholic beverages.
That’s why we decided to do activities that seem irresistible at first, but after a while leave us feeling guilty.
However, our prehistoric ancestors were not bothered by this reward mechanism. In fact, being drawn to sweet things was their advantage, since sweet fruits were a crucial part of the diet.
Our ancestors were also freer to pursue sexual impulses without the constraints of modern society.
Although this impulsive mechanism is not currently used, it is still being used, and we need to be sure that it does not lead us to make unhealthy or foolish decisions.
So what can you do? It is possible to make this weakness turn into a strong point by associating unpleasant tasks with something that triggers your dopamine release.
For example, take a dull paper to your favorite coffee shop and finish it while sipping a glass of hot chocolate.
Bad Feelings Can End Your Willpower
Stress is a common source of unhappiness. It can be caused by professional or personal concerns, but also by external events such as bad news in the media.
Stress is one of the greatest threats to your willpower because it induces worrisome desires.
It makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. Unfortunately, sometimes the easiest way to feel better is to do what is going to hurt you later.
For example, losing money in a casino can leave you so upset that it will keep you playing until you win, which will relieve your stress. However, this boost can lead to much greater risks and eventually you may lose all your money.
So how can you overcome this? When you feel stressed, you can not immediately give in to your impulses. Instead, try some stress-relieving strategies that have a more sustainable effect, such as exercise or meditation.
These activities may involve more effort but will leave you with a sense of satisfaction, other than guilt.
However, do not make unrealistic resolutions to oppose stress – that way you are more likely to give up sooner.
When people hit rock bottom in their lives, they usually decide to change dramatically, for example by cutting their expenses by 25% to be in the black.
Great resolutions can transform our lives: we imagine that we are getting rid of problems, people treat us completely differently and so on – just because we have made a small change.
It boosts our self-confidence. However, this can also be like shooting your foot, because when we have challenging goals, it’s hard to continue fighting.
Failure to meet our expectations leads to frustration, guilt, and doubt, and we quickly give up our efforts. To avoid this fate, remember:
When you fail to achieve your goals, do not despair. Forgive yourself and try again.
Visualize Your Present And Future
Have you committed yourself to responsibilities and then felt overwhelmed? Do you sometimes regret the choices of the past when you are faced with the consequences?
Both phenomena are caused by our inability to imagine the future clearly – and especially to imagine who we will be in the future.
We do not see ourselves in the future as we see ourselves in the present. Our brains perceive us as strangers, thanks to our inability to observe our future thoughts and feelings.
That can lead you to give up tasks, hoping that your future “self” will have more willpower to deal with them – or worse, it can make you accumulate debt and expect your future “I” to pay for it.
These hopes lead nowhere, because your future “self” is no different from your present “self,” and you will also have to struggle when you meet these challenges again, either by gathering the willpower to do a nasty task or balancing your budget.
A good way to become more familiar with your future self is visualization: imagine your future “self” thinking about the decisions you are taking today and its consequences.
Your vulnerability to instant gratification also causes you to neglect your future.
When a tempting object is looking at you, resistance seems futile because the rewards system in our brain reacts powerfully to the visible rewards that make us overestimate the benefits of instant gratification and underestimate the value of self-control.
That leads us to make decisions that we will regret in the future.
Temptation becomes weaker if you create some distance between you and the object of desire, making it less visible or more difficult. It was demonstrated in a study in which office workers had access to candy.
When sweets were placed outside the field of vision, inside a drawer rather than on a table, the consumption of sweets was reduced by one-third.
Depriving Yourself Of Desires Can Get Hinder You
For the next five minutes do not think of white bears. Can you do that? Most people fail in this task.
Although you do not usually think of white bears, if you try not to think about them, it is almost impossible to stop. The same thing is true for your wishes: although repression may seem to work at first, it makes things worse.
That was demonstrated by one researcher who believed that suppression led us to do what we were trying not to do.
To test his hypothesis, he invited women to try two different types of chocolate. Before bringing the candy in, he asked participants to think about various things for five minutes.
One group was instructed to avoid any thought of chocolate while the other members were free to think about what they wanted.
As expected, the group that received instructions not to think about chocolate reported few thoughts about chocolate – but ate twice as much.
That is also the reason why most diets do not work. The more you try to resist a particular food, the more your mind becomes preoccupied with it.
When you are on a diet, do not deprive yourself of eating your favorite foods because this will only increase desire.
Instead of deciding “you will not eat fast food or cupcakes, spend your energy on the idea that you will eat healthy foods.
A decline of poor nutrition will automatically happen, and you will be able to overcome that challenge much more quickly.
Another way to overcome your desire to observe them: when a longing appears, allow yourself to watch it.
Notice your breath and what you feel. So imagine that this longing is a cloud that dissolves and walks away.
This technique, inspired by the traditions of full meditation, is especially useful if you want to get rid of an unhealthy habit such as cigarette smoking.
Willpower Is Contagious
You have already noticed that your behavior and thinking changes depending on two companions.
The people we interact with influence our beliefs, goals, and actions. Even characteristics such as willpower can be acquired by our social context.
Studies have shown that if we observe other people acting impulsively, it is more likely that we will also do so, neglecting our long-term goals for moments of pleasure.
The more we like a person we observe, the stronger this effect is, and with that, we lose our willpower.
Fortunately, this mechanism can be used for good. For example, having a close friend or family member who has lost a lot of weight recently increases your chances of losing weight as well.
So, thinking of someone you admire for their willpower and self-control increases your willpower.
Another way to harness the willpower of others is to have friends and family involved in your challenges.
The power of this approach was demonstrated in weight loss interventions at the University of Pittsburgh, which included the friends and relatives of the participants.
They were instructed to support each other to achieve their goals – for example, by writing encouraging messages or sharing healthy meals.
The results were impressive: 66% of participants maintained their weight loss months after leaving the program. However, the success rate of the control group – members who did not enter the program with family or friends – was only 24%.
Why is willpower important? Research shows that people with a lot of willpower are better in almost every aspect of life: they are happier and healthier, have satisfying and lasting relationships, are successful, earn more money and even live longer.
If you want to improve your life, improving your willpower is a good start!