Have you ever missed your goals at some point because you gave in to distractions or temptations, or failed to do what you should? Willpower failures are not a sign of personal weakness, but the result of several physical, mental-emotional and social factors. This book by Kelly McGonigal explains willpower using insights from economics, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine. In this free version of The Willpower Instinct summary, you’ll learn all about the science of willpower, with specific strategies to help you improve self-control, overcome distraction, temptation and procrastination. [Note: The kindle version goes by a different title: “Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self-Control” but it covers the same content.]
The Willpower Instinct: An Overview
Willpower is the ability to exercise self-control when you need it. To improve your self-control, you must understand why you lose control and what you can do about it.
This book is based on the popular course “The Science of Willpower” by Stanford University psychologist and educator Kelly McGonigal. The book mirrors her 10-week course, with each chapter covering (i) a key scientific insight, and (ii) practical exercises/strategies to help you develop self-awareness and address real-life challenges.
McGonigal recommends that you approach the ideas in this book like a scientist:
What Is Willpower and Why It Matters
Willpower is much more than the ability to say “no” to temptation. It’s actually made up of 3 powers to help you become better:
- “I will” power: Doing things that improve your quality of life;
- “I won’t” power: Not doing things that impairs your happiness, well-being or success; and
- “I want” power: Focusing on your most important long-term goal.
In short, self-control is about finding your motivation at the right time. It’s about remembering what you truly want so you can do what you should and resist what you shouldn’t.
All of us have the capacity for self-control. And, how far you use it determines your physical health, financial stability, academic and professional success, quality of relationships, and levels of stress and happiness.
Applying the Science of Self-Control
Kelly McGonigal systemetically breaks down the science behind self-control into several parts. In each section, she provides some scientific background to help you understand how willpower works, as well as exercises for you to (i) develop self-awareness and (ii) tackle real-world willpower challenges.
Here’s a visual overview of the key ideas:
WILLPOWER IS AFFECTED BY THE BRAIN
We struggle with self-control because we literally have multiple minds, each with conflicting thoughts, feelings, and goals.
The prefrontal cortex in our brain controls logical thinking and what we focus on. It has 3 different regions:
(i) The left side helps you to start and persist in tasks (“I will”).
(ii) The right side helps you to resist acting on every impulse (“I won’t”).
(iii) The lower-middle area helps you to track your goals and desires (“I want”). When these cells are firing rapidly, you’re more motivated to take action or resist temptation.
The prefrontal cortex is built on top of the more primal part of our brain that acts on urges and instincts. These impulses evolved to help us survive, e.g. we prefer sweet and fatty foods because they give us energy, and our feelings (e.g. fear or disgust) stop us from doing things to hurt or isolate ourselves.
In short, part of our brain seeks to feel good now, while another part manages the impulses so we can achieve long-term goals. The 2 minds are in a constant battle. We want a slim body but we also want to enjoy a cookie. We want to excel in our exams and but we also want to watch the TV.
When we’re drunk, exhausted or distracted, the prefrontal cortex loses part of its capabilities, making it harder for us to exert self-control. Students trying to remember a telephone number are 50% more likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit, and distracted shoppers are more likely to buy promotional items that aren’t on their shopping lists.
To strengthen your willpower, you need to develop self-awareness. Understand your impulses and recognize when you must exercise self-control, so you activate your prefrontal cortex to make conscious choices instead of defaulting to the easiest option. The more you exercise your prefrontal cortex, the bigger, faster and stronger it gets (just like how physical muscles are built). Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex to improve your ability to focus and exert self-control.
McGonigal uses a similarly-detailed approach to break down the remaining ideas. We’ll briefly outline each one below. Do get the complete version of The Willpower Instinct summary for more details.
WILLPOWER IS AFFECTED BY THE BODY
Scientists have found that self-control is more about physiology than psychology. This means that you can train yourself to get into an ideal physiological state for self-control.
In the 19-page version of The Willpower Challenge summary, we’ll explain our physiological responses to threats vs temptations, as well as how you can counter temptation using the “pause-and-plan response” and various stress-reduction measures.
WILLPOWER WORKS LIKE MUSCLES
Our willpower follows the same use-it-or-lose-it rule as physical muscles. It becomes weak with neglect, can get exhausted from non-stop use, but can also be strengthened with proper training.
So, it’s important to pace yourself and alternate between pushing your limits and recovery. Learn the relationship between willpower and body sugar, why you feel fatigued before you’re truly tired, how you can regulate your self-control and build your self-control muscles!
MORAL LICENSING CAN CAUSE SELF-SABOTAGE
We tend to moralize willpower, i.e. we think we’re “good” if we succeed at a willpower challenge and “bad” if we fail. This triggers mental traps which increase the risks of self-sabotage.
Research has found that more we do something “good” or moral, the more we may to do something “bad” or immoral later. Psychologists call this moral licensing. We may also feel so good about making progress that we reward ourselves with an indulgence that jeopardizes our goal. What’s more, we suffer from a range of mental biaes that lead us to make sub-optimal decisions. In our complete book summary, you can learn more about these mental traps and how to overcome them.
WE CONFUSE DESIRE WITH HAPPINESS
When our brain recognizes an opportunity for reward it releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that focuses our attention on the potential source of reward. It concurrently releases stress hormones so we feel stressed about not having that item yet.
A dopamine rush fills us with anticipation of a reward. We don’t feel happy or satisfied because it doesn’t actually deliver on the promise, yet we’re afraid to stop in case we lose out.
Get our full version of The Willpower Instinct summary to learn about the addictive effects of dopamine, how it affects our response to temptations, how you can protect yourself or even turn it to your advantage.
FEELING BAD CAN LEAD US TO GIVE UP OR GIVE IN
Often, we seek relief or distractions when we feel bad. However, false rewards like shopping or drinking only lead to feelings of guilt and self-criticism to make things worse. Learn about the “what-the-hell” effect, unrealistic optimism, and how to soothe yourself to avoid willpower failures.
INSTANT GRATIFICATION CAN BLUR OUR LONG-TERM VISION
We can’t see the future clearly since we undervalue long-term rewards, underestimate future willpower failures, or fail to address our future needs. We give in to temptations since instant gratification appeals to our dopamine-induced reward system.
In the full version of The Willpower Instinct summary, you’ll learn more about the effect of delay discounting, why immediate/vivid rewards are so tempting, why we mistreat our future selves, and how you can get yourself to make better long-term decisions.
WILLPOWER IS AFFECTED BY SOCIAL INFLUENCES
Social influence affects our personal choices and self-control. Scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that obesity spreads like an epidemic. When a friend becomes obese, it increases your future risk of obesity by 171%. The same patterns are found in drinking or smoking.
Get our full The Willpower Instinct summary to learn the biology behind our social behaviors (e.g. mirror neurons, unintentional mimicry, and goal contagion), and how you can use it to support your goals instead of thwarting them.
DENIAL AND SUPPRESSION CAN BACKFIRE
The more you try not to think about something, the more it occupies your mind—especially when you’re tired or distracted. This is known as “ironic rebound”. Women who tried not to think about chocolate ended up eating almost twice as many chocolates. Dieters who tried to suppress thoughts of food end up binge-eating. The more frequently the thought returns, the more your brain assumes that it’s true or important.
Once again, McGonigal provides a range of willpower exercises and strategies to cope with pain, stress and suffering without resorting to temptation.
Getting the Most from The Willpower Instinct
Ultimately, self-control is built on 3 skills: self-awareness, self-care, and remembering your goals. The key is to be mindful of your choices instead of running on autopilot. McGonigal invites you to test each strategy and draw your own conclusions about willpower and what works for you. If you’re ready to try out the willpower exercises in this powerful book, do check out the our full book summary bundle. This includes an infographic, 19-page text summary, and a 30-minute audio summary.
This book includes details of numerous research studies, along with examples and suggested exercises to help you apply the ideas outlined in this summary. You can purchase the book here or visit kellymcgonigal.com for more details.
Love Kelly Mcgonigal’s books? Do also check out The Upside of Stress summary!
Or, learn more about self-control (and how to apply it to your diet, exercise and productivity) in The Science of Self-Control summary!
About the Author of The Willpower Instinct
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It is written by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.– a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She’s best known for her work in the area of “science help”, which combines insights from psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and biology to provide strategies that support health and well-being. She’s the former editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, as well as the author of several books on health and wellness.
The Willpower Instinct Quotes
“Self-knowledge—especially of how we find ourselves in willpower trouble—is the foundation of self-control.”
“While we all have the capacity to do the harder thing, we also have the desire to do exactly the opposite.”
“Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.”
“Stress is the enemy of willpower.”
“We cannot control everything, and yet the only way to increase our self-control is to stretch our limits.”
“When there’s a want, there’s a will.”
“For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.”
“We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.”
“The promise of reward doesn’t guarantee happiness, but no promise of reward guarantees unhappiness.”
“Optimism can make us motivated, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed.”