Book notes: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal book summary.

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.


“Based on Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s wildly popular course The Science of Willpower, The Willpower Instinct is the first book to explain the new science of self-control and how it can be harnessed to improve our health, happiness, and productivity. Informed by the latest research and combining cutting-edge insights from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine, The Willpower Instinct explains exactly what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters.

In the groundbreaking tradition of Getting Things Done, The Willpower Instinct combines life-changing prescriptive advice and complementary exercises to help listeners with goals ranging from losing weight to more patient parenting, less procrastination, better health, and greater productivity at work.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

This was another book that I saw on my recommended reads in Audible. I picked it up mostly because it had good reviews, it had many reviews (safety in numbers), the synopsis sounded interesting, and I was looking for a yellow-colored book cover design to match the other two books I picked ๐Ÿ˜‰

Key notes:

  • Willpower: The ability to control their attention, emotions, and desires, influences their physical health, financial security, relationships, and professional success
  • The best way to improve self-control is to see how and why you lose control
  • Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower, are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted
  • Self-knowledge is the foundation of self-control
  • The classic test of willpower is resisting temptation
  • People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off in almost any way you look at it
  • Your prefrontal cortex helps you think long term and do what’s good for you
  • 3 parts of willpower: I will, I won’t, I want
  • Willpower is a battle of our two minds: our natural and older instincts versus our newer and more evolved mind
    • Without desires, we become depressed. Without fears, we would fail to protect ourselves from future danger
    • 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 defaults to what is easiest
    • Most of our choices are made in autopilot without any real awareness of what’s driving them
    • People who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptations
  • Good self-control comes from good self-awareness
  • Like a student, the brain is remarkably responsive to experience
    • Your brain remodels itself based on what you ask it to do
  • When you meditate, it not only gets better at meditating, but a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness
5-minute brain training meditation exercise:
  1. Sit still and stay put
  2. Focus your attention on the breath
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and notice how the mind wanders
    • Start with five minutes a day, and once this becomes a habit move up to 10 to 15 minutes a day

Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct

  • Self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology
    • The fight or flight instinct inhibits the prefrontal cortex and makes you more impulsive
    • Identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained
    • Heart rate variability is a good indicator of willpower
  • Anything else you do to reduce stress and take care of your health will improve your bodies willpower reserve
    • Examples: exercise, get a good nights sleep, eat better, quality time with friends and family, participate in a spiritual practice
  • Slowing the breath down, such as four breaths per minute, 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
    • It only takes two minutes of this breathing exercise to increase will power reserves
Regular Exercise
  • Regular exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug for increasing self-control
  • The willpower benefits of exercise are immediate
    • Exercise, like meditation, makes your brain bigger and faster
    • Head outside. Five minutes of what scientists call green exercise will decrease stress, improves mood, enhances focus, and boosts self-control
      • Any physical exercise that get you outdoors and in the presence of mother nature
    • Start thinking of exercise as something that gives you or restores your willpower
  • Gain will power in your sleep
    • Being sleep mildly but chronically deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptations
    • It makes it more difficult to control your emotions, focus your attention, or find the energy to tackle the big “I will” power challenges
    • The effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are equivalent to being mildly intoxicated
  • When you are chronically stressed, your body continues to divert energy from long-term needs such as digestion, reproduction, healing injuries and fighting off illness to respond to the constant stream of apparent emergencies
    • The other extreme is that too much willpower can affect your health because it requires a lot of energy
    • Choose your will power battles wisely. Relax to restore your will power reserves
  • Stress is the enemy of willpower
    • Too little sleep also creates an impulse control and attention problems that mimic ADHD
  • Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that involved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves
  • There’s only so much willpower to go around
    • Once exhausted, you are left defenseless against temptation, or at least disadvantaged
    • Self-control is highest at the beginning of the day and then slowly depletes during the course of the day
      • Self-control is like a muscle, when used it gets tired
      • If you don’t rest the muscle, you can run out of strength entirely
  • Anytime you have fight an impulse, filter our distractions, weigh competing goals, or make yourself do something difficult, you use a little more of your willpower strength
  • Schedule important goals and tasks for when you have the most will power strength
    • Low blood sugar reduces willpower
    • Studies show that modern humans are more likely to take any kind of risk when they are hungry
  • They found that fatigue was simply an emotion or feeling that the brain sent to the body when it is being exhausted
    • We often have more willpower than we believe we do
  • When willpower runs low, tap into your “I will” power and reflect on the benefits of completing the challenge
    • When training your willpower, you must be intelligent like an athlete. Push your limits but pace yourself

Chapter 4: License to Sin. Why being good gives us permission to be bad

  • Moral licensing: when you do something good, you feel good about yourself, this means you’re more likely to trust your impulses which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad
    • For licensing, we trust the feeling of doing good or being a good person in order to justify a vice
  • We tend to use progress as an excuse for taking it easy
    • The problem with progress is how it makes us feel, and even then it is only a problem if we listen to the feeling instead of sticking to our goals
  • Remembering your why for sticking to your goal will remove the effect of licensing
  • Sometimes the mind takes credit for the opportunity of accomplishment and gives you license to make a poor judgment
    • Example is the study of fast food restaurant increasing sales when a salad is present on the menu
  • Reduce the variability in your decisions so that you feel committed to your actions
  • When we want permission to indulge, we will take any hint of virtue as a justification to give in. Is this called the halo effect
    • To help us do the right thing, we have to do things that make us feel committed to our decisions
    • For change to stick, we need to identify with the goal itself, not with the halo glow we get from being good

Chapter 5: The Brains Big Lie. Why we mistake wanting for happiness

  • Rat experiment with electric shocks where they discovered the brain’s “want center”, or the promise of pleasure and satisfaction
    • The reward center releases dopamine, which creates feelings of arousal, and the possibility of feeling good
  • Dopamine is for action, not happiness
    • The promise of reward guaranteed that the participants would not miss out on the reward by failing to act
    • What they were feeling was anticipation, not pleasure
  • The Internet and social media are the new self-stimulating devices that give us hits of dopamine, which makes it so addicting and hard to put down
    • Video games are designed to be as addictive as any drug
  • Pay attention to what captures your attention, to what gets your dopamine neurons firing
    • What are your dopamine triggers?
    • Studies show that samples at a grocery store will make shoppers hungrier and thirstier, and put them in a mood more susceptible to buying more groceries
  • The dark side of dopamine is it has a carrot and stick function
    • Not only does it release wanting, it also stimulates some anxiety during the anticipation
    • Experiment: mindful indulging, pay attention to the experience of indulging and see if it truly satisfies and makes you feel afterward
  • The loss of the production of dopamine or stimulating reward center causes a person to lose hope, have no aspirations, become apathetic, and usually depressed
    • If we are able to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted
  • Desire is the brains strategy for action. It can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower
  • Idea: our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver

Chapter 6: What the Hell. How feeling bad leads to giving in

  • Stress shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state
  • The most effective stress-relieving activities are: exercise, spiritual activity, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating, doing yoga, and spending time doing a creative hobby
  • The real stress relievers, instead of releasing dopamine and the promise of reward, release mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin or GABA, as well as the feel-good chemical oxytocin
    • They also help shut down the brains stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response
    • The terror response creates within us in immediate need to do something to counter our feelings of powerlessness. Which is why commercials do well after scary stories on the news
      • Being reminded of our mortality makes a susceptible to all sorts of temptations
    • Buying things is an immediate way to feel more optimistic and in control
  • The “what the hell” effect: A cycle of indulgence, regret, and greater intelligence
  • Studies show 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
    • Self-compassion is associated with more motivation and better self-control
  • We are most likely to decide to change when we are at a low point
  • The high we get from deciding to make a change makes us feel good but doesn’t incorporate the hard work and commitment he requires to follow through
    • Which is why it is easy to start new things and give up those things rather than finish
    • False hope syndrome masquerades as self-control
  • Optimistic pessimism for successful resolutions
    • Optimism can make us motivated, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed
    • Predicting how and when you might be tempted to break your vow increases the chances that you will keep your resolution

Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale. The economics of instant gratification

  • A big prefrontal cortex is good and more than self-control, it can also rationalize bad decisions and promise we’ll be better tomorrow
  • Delay discounting: The longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you. Even small delays can dramatically reduce the perceived value
  • The problem of bounded rationality: we are rational until we are not
    • We will be perfectly rational when everything is in theory. But when the temptation is real, the brain shifts into reward-seeking mode to make sure that we don’t miss out
  • When you know your own triggers, putting them out of sight can keep them from tempting your mind
  • Wait 10 minutes before indulging in something because your brain will treat it as a long-term reward and discount the value
    • Marshmallow study on kids showed that the ability to delay gratification was a strong indicator of future success 10 years down the line
  • Most people are loss averse, we don’t really want to lose something that we have
  • One of the best strategies for self-control is to burn your ships
    • To reach our goals, we must limit our options. This is called precommitment
  • Strategies to apply your willpower challenge:
    1. Create a new default, make choices in advance and from a clear distance before your future self is blinded by temptation
    2. Make it more difficult for you to reverse your preferences. Find a way to eliminate the easiest route to giving in
    3. Motivate your future self. And make choices of immediate gratification more painful if you give inbounded
  • We treat our future selves like different people probably because we can’t access the thoughts and feelings of our future selves
    • They don’t feel as pressing as our current selves’ desires and feelings
  • Strengthening your future self-continuity can help you with any willpower challenge
  • Strategies to strengthen your future self:
    1. Create a future memory. Imagining the future helps people delay gratification
    2. Send a message to your future self. What are your hopes for your future self and what will you be like?
    3. Imagine your future self. Imagining your future self can increase your present self’s willpower
  • Hyperopia, also known as farsighted. Putting quick gratification for future rewards but then regretting it
  • Chapter summary idea: our inability to clearly see the future clearly leads us to temptation and procrastination

Chapter 8: Infected. Why willpower is contagious

  • Both bad habits and positive change can spread from person to person like germs, and nobody is completely immune
  • Humans are hardwired to connect with others, and our brains have adapted a nifty way to make sure we do
    • We have specialized brain cells called mirror neurons whose sole purpose is to keep track of what other people think, feel, and do
    • Our empathy instinct is what allows us to understand and respond to other peoples feelings
  • Goal contagion is limited to goals you already at some level share. You can’t catch a new goal from some brief exposure
  • The best way to strengthen your own immune response to other people’s goals is to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each day thinking about your own goals and how you can be tempted to ignore them
    • Reflecting on your own goals can reinforce your intentions and help you avoid goal contagion
  • Sometimes seeing someone else give into temptation can actually enhance our goal and strengthen our resolve when we are firmly committed to our primary goals
    • This is called counteractive control, or an immune response to anything that threatens your self-control
  • When we observe evidence of other people ignoring rules and following their impulses, we are more likely to give in to any of our own impulses
    • That means when we see anyone else behaving badly, our own self-control deteriorates
  • Simple contagion: it doesn’t matter who introduces the infection, the germs of a total stranger have just as much influence as the germs of a loved one, and one exposure is enough to infect you
  • Social epidemics like the spread of smoking or obesity follows and the pattern of complex contagion
    • Your relationship to the carrier of the contagion matters. Selective infection based on how much you like the other person
  • Our immune system only rejects the goals and behavior of other people only if we see the other people as not us
    • Our immune system works similarly as it only attacks things that are foreign, not things that we recognize as ourselves
  • Social proof: when the rest of our tribe does something, we tend to think it is a smart thing to do
    • Trusting the judgment of others is the glue that makes social living work. You don’t have to know everything yourself, you save your resources for whatever your specialty is
    • Because of social proof, the “because everyone else is doing it” psychological appeal is very powerful
    • The pull to the center or the average of everyone else can be more compelling or stronger than doing the right thing
    • When it comes to social proof, what we think other people do means more than what they actually do
    • Also in the example of cheating, people conform to what they believe is the norm among others and their peers
    • Join a new social group. Surrounding yourself with people who share your commitment to your goals will make it feel like the norm
  • People who imagine how proud they will feel when they accomplish a goal are more likely to follow through and succeed
    • Anticipated approval and disapproval from others is a strong motivator
  • Pride and shame rely on the emotional brain, not the logical side of the prefrontal cortex
    • Social emotions may have evolved to help us keep in good social standing with our tribe in the same way fear helps protect ourselves and anger helps us defend ourselves
    • For pride to work, we must believe others are watching, or that we will have the opportunity to report our success to others
  • Strategy for making resolutions stick: go public with your willpower challenges
    • If you believe others are rooting for your success, and keeping an eye on your behavior, you’ll be more motivated to do the right thing
  • Anytime we feel excluded or disrespected, we are at greater risk for giving in to our worst impulses. Being shamed drains will power
    • Rather than shame people for their willpower failures, we should offer social support for willpower successes
  • Chapter summary idea: self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious

Chapter 9: Don’t Listen to this Chapter. The limits of I won’t power

  • White bear thought experiment: participants couldn’t stop thinking about a white bear when told not to think about a white bear
    • The operator in your brain controls the direction, but the monitor runs automatically without the need of willpower
    • The more you try to push away a thought, the more likely it is to fight its way back into consciousness
      • This is called ironic rebound. The antidote is to give up control and suppression
    • The willingness to think what you think and feel what you feel without necessarily believing it is true, and without being compelled to act on it, is an effective strategy for treating anxiety, depression, food cravings, and addiction
    • Giving up control of our inner experiences gives us greater control of our outer actions
  • When you stop fighting your thoughts and emotions, you’ll find more freedom from them. Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think
    • Dieters who’ve suppressed thoughts about food have the least control around food
Strategy against cravings:
  1. Notice you’re thinking about your temptation
  2. Accept the thought or feeling without trying to immediately distract yourself
  3. Step back by realizing thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but your actions are
  4. Remember your goal and commitment
  • If you focus on what you want to do instead of what you don’t want to do, you sidestep the dangers of ironic rebound
    • Self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are three skills that are the foundation for self-control
  • Chapter summary idea: trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel, and do the thing you most want to avoid
Main Ideas: best definition of “willpower”
  • The promise of reward doesn’t always deliver
  • Your future self isn’t a superhero or a stranger
  • Realizing how social proof changes your behavior
  • Being able to sense a craving
  • Remembering what you really want and what really makes you feel better
  • Self-awareness is the one self you can always count on to do you what is difficult and what matters most

Closing thoughts:

This is one of those rare books that compels me pause the book after every chapter and reflect on what I just learned. There’s so much to digest and unpack with each idea, and how I can apply to my own life. Moreover, there are so many points in this book where I find myself thinking, “Wow, I never thought of that before.” Many other books will tell you things that you kind of already know and is more or less “common knowledge.” This book presented ideas that actually changed the way I think.

Another aspect I appreciated about this book was the action steps immediately following each chapter’s “big idea” that challenged you to think, reflect, and apply what you learned in your own life. I think if more books did that, it would make personal development books more effective because it’s a call to action to the reader to not just listen and absorb, but actually DO what they’re learning.


The deconstruction of what affects willpower and how to increase your own.



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