The Willpower Instinct – Kelly McGonigal

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Audible Audio-Book


  • TitleThe Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
  • Author: Kelly McGonigal, PhD
  • Publication Date: 2011
  • Recommendation Score: 4.5 / 5

Book Review

The book is written in a “coaching” style, and is full of research-based tips and practices that help you understand better the self-control mechanisms and employ them to gain more willpower.

One of the best interesting ideas that I find helpful is to mind the gap between your “Present self”, that is yourself, and your “Future self”, that super-human that can stick to any plan or budget. More details in the takeaways below.

The intelligent want self-control; children want candy.


Some takeaways:

Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves. It helps us to be a better version of ourselves.

Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger. When your are too tired, you are most likely to give in to temptations. Self-control is highest in the morning and deteriorates over the course of the day. Try to accomplish your most important tasks early in the morning. When you come back from a hard day of work, exhausted, you are less likely to exercise, and more likely to overeat. Similarly, don’t get yourself into exhaustion before moments of big decisions. This includes sleeping well and eating well.

When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad (license to sin). Even worse, sometimes the intention to do something good (helping someone, or making a “to do” list) can give us permission to do something bad (cheating something/somebody). For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.

Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver. This is how bad habits and addictions build up. Be careful when you feel your dopamine neurons (brain motivator) firing to chase something (food, shopping, facebook, email, etc.). Be aware that marketers and retailers try to manipulate your dopamine neurons (smells, pictures, sounds, etc.) to influence your decisions and behavior. Learn to make the distinction between real reward and false reward,  and recruit dopamine to motivate yourself to make the right call.

Feeling bad leads to giving in (the “What-the-hell” effect), and dropping guilt makes you stronger. Don’t be tough on yourself, don’t criticize yourself so much “I’m lazy, I’m stupid, I’m a procrastinator”. It doesn’t help. Rather, treat yourself as you would treat a good friend who is experiencing the same setback. How would you support him ? You are only human.

Present-self vs. Future-self: our inability to clearly see the future clearly leads us into temptation and procrastination. We always think that in the future we will have more time, more willpower and more money ! We push the work and duties from our present self (favorite one) to our future self. Remember that your “future self” will not be so different from you “present self”.

Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious. You are most likely to catch habits and behaviors from your closest relatives and friends, and people you like. Try to join a culture where the goals and values that you seek are the standard. It is our instinct to mimic other people’s actions.

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