The Willpower Instinct | Kelly McGonigal

Summary of: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
By: Kelly McGonigal


Do you often feel like a slave to temptation, wondering why it’s so challenging to resist immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals? ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal is here to provide insight into the workings of willpower and empower you with practical techniques to enhance self-control. Through the exploration of the three powers of willpower – ‘I won’t’, ‘I will’, and ‘I want’ – this summary unveils the key strategies to strengthen your self-discipline, from mindfulness meditation and stress management to understanding the brain’s reward system.

Mastering the Three Powers of Willpower

Willpower is the ability to say no to temptations and exert control over your long-term goals. It consists of three powers: “I won’t,” “I will,” and “I want.” The “I won’t” power helps resist temptation, the “I will” power helps accomplish unpleasant but necessary tasks, and the “I want” power helps remember long-term goals. To find your most important “I won’t” challenge, determine which habit is hurting your health, happiness, or career. For your “I will” challenge, identify a habit you should stop putting off. Lastly, for your “I want” challenge, focus on your number one long-term goal and remember its importance. Exerting these three powers of willpower can help you achieve success.

The Power of Meditation

In a world full of distractions, it’s easy to lose focus on our goals and give in to immediate temptations. Studies show that distractions decrease willpower, making us more likely to choose short-term pleasure over long-term success. However, by raising our self-awareness through meditation, we can learn to identify distractions and refocus our energy on the task at hand. Scientists have proven that just three hours of regular meditation can improve self-control and attention span, and 11 hours of practice can create observable changes in the brain. Moreover, taking a breath and centering our concentration on the long-term goal can help break the cycle of distraction and regain control over impulses. By avoiding decision-making when distracted and increasing our self-awareness through meditation, we can save ourselves from willpower failures and achieve our goals with ease.

The Biology of Willpower

Willpower is not just a mental strength, but a biological instinct that can be boosted through stress management techniques. The pause-and-plan response is a state that helps control impulses by shifting focus to the internal conflict between rational and impulsive selves. Stress reduction techniques like meditation, exercise, healthy food, and quality time with family and friends can increase stress resistance and help improve willpower. Even five minutes of outdoor activity a day can give you a willpower boost.

The Willpower Muscle

Just like your muscles get tired after a day of helping a friend move, your willpower can also exhaust itself after being overexerted. This is because every successful attempt at self-control draws from the same limited source. However, by maintaining steady blood sugar and energy levels with low-glycemic foods and practicing small willpower challenges, it is possible to improve the strength of your willpower muscle. This muscle can be trained just like any other muscle, and gradually improved through regular challenges such as resisting small temptations like a jar of candy. With a stronger willpower muscle, larger willpower challenges can be managed more effectively.

The Danger of Virtue

The belief that one is morally superior can lead to poor decision-making and lack of self-control. In an experiment, individuals who rejected sexist or racist statements were more likely to discriminate against female or minority candidates during a hiring task. The feeling of being virtuous can lower self-awareness and discipline, leading to inconsistent behavior. Rewarding oneself with something counterproductive after successful behavior is not an effective strategy for success. It is crucial to maintain self-discipline by sticking to achievable rules rather than relying on past successes.

The Science of Cravings

The brain’s reward system can be triggered by anything associated with feeling good- a sale sign, a smell, or an attractive person. Dopamine release can cause irresistible activities that leave us feeling guilty. This mechanism was useful to our ancestors, but we must ensure it doesn’t push us towards unhealthy choices. One way to combat this is by combining unpleasant tasks with things that trigger dopamine.

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