The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal: Do what you actually want

The cover image from "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal“Self-control,” writes Dr. Kelly McGonigal in Willpower, “is a better predictor of academic success 🎓 than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital bliss 💕 than empathy.” Then again, of course Dr. McGonigal would say something like that – she just can’t help herself.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, is Dr. McGonigal’s guide to improving willpower. Dr. McGonigal looks at research and the physiological basis of willpower, but only to serve highly practical objectives. Her book is is plum full of simple ways of beginning to improve willpower. There were four ideas I found particularly sticky and useful, and here they are!

Mindfulness is crucial to improving willpower

Early in her book, McGonigal talks about the value of mindfulness, which becomes a recurring theme. Mindfulness is important because it allows us to be self-reflective about our willpower challenges: to start noticing when we give in, why, and what it feels like. When it comes to greater self-control, writes McGonigal, “the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.” Paying attention makes it possible to realise the willpower choices we are making (even when we are choosing to give in), rather than experiencing them as things that happen to us, “running on autopilot”.

This makes it possible to start identifying willpower challenges and observing our own capitulations. The next step is to apply mindfulness to the now-revealed impulse: to mindfully witness it and experience it…but without giving in. McGonigal describes this as “surfing the urge”:

“When the urge takes hold, pause for a moment to sense your body. What does the urge feel like? Is it hot or cold? Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut? Stay with the sensations for at least one minute. Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality. Not acting on an urge can sometimes increase its intensity—like an attention-seeking child throwing a temper tantrum. See if you can stay with these sensations without trying to push them away, and without acting on them.”

This ability – to notice inclinations without having to act on them – is crucial to willpower!

And McGonigal, kindly, gives some quick practical tips to develop mindfulness. The most important one is, you guessed it – meditation: “when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control.” If you’re not sure where to start with this one, it can be as simple as spending ten minutes a night sitting and noticing what you are thinking, and when your mind wanders.

If meditation isn’t your cup of herbal tea 🍵, there is good news: physical exercise 🏃 is like meditation with the body! “Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex [responsible for impulse control] shows the largest training effect.”

So: mindfulness is important for willpower, and you can increase it through meditation and/or physical exercise. Time for some downward dog, anyone?

Willpower is like a muscle

I think you’ve probably heard it before, but willpower is like a muscle 💪. This means that it develops when it’s used over time – if you consistently use your willpower, your willpower gets stronger.

Thus you can increase your overall willpower by “committing to any, small consistent act of self-control”, even if that act has nothing in common with your principal willpower challenge, and even if that act is trivial. For example, committing to simply put your left shoe 👞 on before your right shoe helps to train you in noticing and controlling your actions, which then makes it easier to cut down on smoking 🚭.

Sucked in by the anticipation of reward

One bit of the book that had me nodding and shaking my head in recognition was the chapter around the role of dopamine in impulse-control.

A cruel quirk of human physiology is that we are more compelled by anticipation than by actual pleasure. The possibility of winning is more compelling than actually winning. And so we tend to neglect things that bring actual satisfaction, for things that promise satisfaction (even though they never deliver): “We mistake the experience of wanting for a guarantee of happiness….We humans find it nearly impossible to distinguish the promise of reward from whatever pleasure or payoff we are seeking.”

This is why we have pokies machines, but many willpower challenges are analogous: there is a rush associated with the anticipation of reward, every stimulation encourages more stimulation, yet the stimulation itself never brings satisfaction. (Presumably, if it were satisfying, you would stop after a while?)

McGonigal suggests one way of handling this reality: “to test the promise of reward”. When you feel the dopamine craving, “mindfully indulge, but don’t rush through the experience.” Observe what feelings and sensations go on for you as you move from the anticipation to the actual experience and see what comes out of it. You may find that simply paying attention as you indulge helps you to meet your need with less. Or you may find that this reveals how little pleasure is actually on offer.

Physician, love thyself

The final point about willpower is something rather lovely: to improve your willpower, you have to practise self-forgiveness. You have to be ready to let go of your willpower failures and believe in your ability to succeed 🎖.

The phenomenon you are trying to avoid here is the “what-the-hell effect”. Studies have found that when people have a small willpower failure, they tend to throw up their shoulders in resignation and let go completely. “I’ve already blown my diet – I may as well have the whole tub of ice cream 🍨.” This happens because they are trying to escape from feelings of shame and pain associated with their slip-up.

A better option is to avoid those feelings of shame and pain altogether – “it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability.” Self-compassion increases personal responsibility for a failure, improves receptivity to feedback, and makes reflection and learning easier. If your value as a person isn’t undermined by a poor decision to snap at a coworker, then it’s easier to honestly appraise how it happened and how you can avoid it. This is I think a really beautiful and necessary point – while McGonigal is striving to help you improve your willpower, the effort isn’t about becoming a better person. It’s about getting better at achieving what you want.

The Power of Will

The Willpower Instinct is an excellent book. It’s concisely written, it’s highly practical, and it relates to one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: being mindful and avoiding distraction. Dr. Kelly McGonigal synthesises a range of relevant research to provide many useful actions to improve your willpower and self-control, helping you to get better at avoiding some things, at seeking out others, and at making long-term progress towards your goals.

3 Responses to “The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal: Do what you actually want”

  1. Thanks for sharing this homie. I feel like I got all the tools without having to read a single page of extra detail! Looord knows I need any help I get with willpower lately.

  2. Really appreciate your summary and evaluation. I will share it on my facebook page so you may get a few more viewers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: