What’s it about?

The Willpower Instinct introduces the latest insights into willpower from different scientific fields, such as psychology, neuroscience, economics, and medicine. While considering the limits of self-control, it also gives practical advice on overcoming bad habits, avoiding procrastination, staying focused, and becoming more resilient to stress.

About the author:

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She has received several awards, including Stanford University’s highest teaching honor, the Walter J. Gores award. She is also the author of The Upside of Stress, which deals with how stress can be beneficial for us and how we can better manage it.


The absence of willpower is a real epidemic:

The author, doctor Kelly McGonigal, teaches a popular course at Stanford that attracts people worldwide. Whenever she comes to the topic of willpower, everyone seems to be so concentrated and interested because the absence of willpower is something we all deal with!

Willpower is what grants you the power to take control over your life, including your feelings, attention, finances, health, relationships, and career. That’s why improving your willpower levels is a must.

If you are one to have a hard time with your willpower, know that you are not alone. The American Psychology Association states that most Americans claim that they don’t meet their long and short term goals because of their low level of willpower. Willpower is something crucial in our lives, but the question is: how do we enhance it?


Knowing how to fail teaches you how to succeed:

It might seem counterproductive to propose that you need to fail to succeed, but if you don’t know what makes you fail, how will you avoid it? The author ensures that the best, most effective way to better your self-control is to understand why you lose control in the first place. This enables you to steer clear of what triggers your failure.

A lot of studies proved that most people assume they have more willpower than they do. These are the ones that have a higher failure rate in times of temptation. For example, any smoker would claim that he can quit smoking whenever he wants, but he just doesn’t want to, but the truth is that he can never resist the temptation of a cigarette. Smokers think this way because they aren’t knowledgeable of failure and what triggers it; they aren’t aware of their tipping point. That’s why you need to know more about yourself.

” Self-knowledge – especially of how we find ourselves in willpower trouble – is the foundation of self-control.”

-Kelly McGonigal

I will, I won’t, and I want:

People suppose that not giving in to temptation is what willpower is, but really, it’s a bit more complicated. The willpower is divided into three parts in your brain: the “I will” part, the “I won’t” part, and the “I want.” If you want to elevate your willpower, you need to understand all three parts fully. When the three oppose each other, they cause you to question your choices and end up making the wrong ones. 

The reason as to why we have willpower comes down to the cavemen and cavewomen themselves, standing against all kind of predators to survive. For sure, the choices and decisions back then were much more straightforward, but that doesn’t make them any less critical. These days, we have to deal with more significant issues, and our brain has had very little time to catch up. The prefrontal cortex in your brain had to develop and get more prominent as a part of the evolution. 

Nowadays, our prefrontal cortex is more significant than that of other species, and it controls what you think and feel. This part of your brain is the “I will” part, different but close to the other “I won’t” and “I want” sections. The key here is to not overrule one part over the other; consider all of them equally.


Self-awareness is a crucial move towards willpower:

For you to better your willpower, you need to understand yourself and your actions fully. Self-awareness is a trait specific for humans only; most animals do not have it. In many situations, your self-awareness can help you predict the outcome and your feeling towards the issue. This can assist you in making the right decisions.

When you are experiencing situations that require willpower, slow down, and think carefully before making any choice. When your mind is busy with many ideas, your brain will be far more likely to force you into a wrong decision, i.e., giving in to temptations and abiding impulses right ahead.

“You need to recognize when you’re making a choice that requires willpower: otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest.”

-Kelly McGonigal

The author proposes that you observe yourself for a week and indicate when you are making a conscious choice versus when you are giving in to your impulses. From there, try to catch yourself earlier to avoid the wrong decisions.

She also highly encourages meditation. It is a bit intimidating at the beginning, but it gets easier the more you do it, and it is so recommended for developing self-control and self-awareness.


Stretch your self-control to make it healthier:

You need to think of your self-control as if it is a muscle – you need to stretch it and train it to make it stronger.

Your self-control will become exhausted and drained if you use it too much. The author states an example of students during “dead week” at Stanford University. This is the week where everyone is studying excessively for their final exams, working so late at night, and consuming too much coffee.

If you start using a lot of willpower since early in the morning, you will most likely find yourself drained of your willpower by mid-afternoon. That’s why you should organize your day in a more effective way where you limit your temptations in the afternoon while your self-control is weaker and be done will all of your serious work early in the day.

A lot of studies went over the fact of whether or not sugar can provide us with a controlled boost. Although it might, it’s either temporary or will lead to problems long term. Surely you should have a snack when you feel tired, and you need a bit of energy to boost your willpower. However, your meals should be healthy, like beans, nuts cereals, fruits, and vegetables. These will make sure to give you the boost you need without messing up your energy levels.

Another way to practice self-control daily in a natural way is to pick at least one topic for you to do every day and work on it. For example, decide to improve your posture and follow through with your plan throughout the day. The next day, pick something different.


Just because you are doing good doesn’t mean it’s okay to do wrong:

Our brain is built up upon a reward system; as long as we do something right, we think it’s okay to do something terrible. That means when you do a great job on a diet, you can have a little treat at the end of the day. This is where you fall into the trap of failure. In order not to lose sight of the right path, you need to stay consistent.

The human brain isn’t very good at figuring out how much good we’ve done; in terms of the reward we should receive in return. We create reasons for making mistakes when, in reality, they are just excuses.

Check your decisions throughout the day and make sure you are not excusing the bad ones. Always remember the reason as to why you are doing what you are doing. If it’s worth it, you should remind yourself to overcome the temptation and just go through with it.


Why shouldn’t you always trust your brain?

It might sound absurd to propose that you shouldn’t always trust your brain – the brain is a sophisticated organ; how can it ever be wrong? The problem with the brain is the reward system it has and how it misleads you into thinking that you are doing the thing that makes you happy when it is just a hit of feel-good factor.

Let us talk about dopamine:

Once the brain spots something that can potentially be a great reward, it releases dopamine. While dopamine doesn’t make you happy, it fills you up with curiosity and excitement. Your brain confuses this with happiness or anything that makes us feel great, like even the smell of coffee.

“When we’re stressed, our brain persistently misdirects what will make us happy.”

-Kelly McGonigal

When this response happens, it will directly take over your thinking and makes you think that you want and needs this supposedly great reward more than anything in the world.

Dopamine is also something proven to be addictive. So it’s essential to know and understand your dopamine triggers to avoid them and control them.


You aren’t capable of doing your best all the time:

We are human beings, so at times of stress, we eventually are going to give in. Our brains are always designed to cheer us up whenever we are dealing with low moods or anxiety. That’s why we switch into rewards-seeking mode. Psychological Association confirmed that the most common ways to deal with stress are eating, TV, video games, drinking, shopping, and the Internet – all ways linked to dopamine and rewards.

Deep down, we know that eating a cake or buying a new outfit will not nearly solve the problem, but your brain tricks you into thinking that they will keep your thinking off the real stressful issues. Instead, you can try activities like sport, listening to music, massage, meditating, yoga, socializing, or reading. These activities are linked to the actual happy hormones in your brain – serotonin and oxytocin. These hormones can expel the stress response and heal your wounds instead. These activities allow you to progress and better yourself, which is far more rewarding than a reward.

Despite that, you still are a human, and if you fail to resist, it’s essential to stand up, forgive yourself, and move on.


Instant gratification is a quick path to a hard future:

We always postpone things for the next day when we really can’t be bothered to finish them today. This is our procrastination when it’s at its finest, using instant gratification usually leads to a hard future.

Daniel Gilbert is a psychologist at Harvard; he claims that humans are the only creatures on the planet that think about their future in a meaningful manner. While this is a good thing, it can be a bad thing too, especially when we postpone things that should be done here and now.

Economist practices a theory called “delay discounting” – this is when you wait for a reward that you don’t want very much. A minimal delay can change the value immensely. You can practice this method for your own good. Whenever you attempt to delay something for tomorrow – using delayed gratification – try changing your mood for 10 minutes before making any decisions. By waiting, the reward, which is not doing the task today, will feel much less valuable. So you’ll be aware of the consequence of putting things off until tomorrow, and you will more likely do it right now.


Can you grab willpower?

Do you notice that whenever someone yawns in front of you, you would do the same? Yawning is a contagious thing, and so is willpower! If you surround yourself with people that make good choices and don’t procrastinate, chances are you’ll do the same.

The reason behind this is because we are humans; we care about what people think of us. This social consciousness of ours is what shapes our decisions when we feel that we are freely making them.

The human brain holds minor neurons. These neurons help us develop empathy. That’s why when someone cuts his finger, we automatically flinch because we understand their pain. Minor neurons cause this response.

If you give in to impulses regularly, ask yourself if you are imitating the people around you. Like when you see someone drinking, do you get tempted to drink too?

See if the people you spend time with care about you or not. Surround yourself with positive people with high amounts of self-control; maybe you will grab some.


Do you experience an ironic rebound?

Do you ever notice that when you try hard thinking about something, it becomes almost impossible to think about it? For instance, an over-stimulated brain might lead to sleep deprivation. You are suppressing those thoughts, especially when you’re thinking about someone you are attracted to. Dealing with these thoughts is the way to get out of the situation. Researchers found that repressing them will initiate the urge to give in to the impulses. 

Managing a thought is not the same as ignoring it. See, when you overlook a feeling, it will come back in a worse circumstance. All in all, the ideal way to deal with an “ironic rebound” is by letting this feeling or thought be without trying to push it away.