August 9th, 2012/Books/By /

Books: Book Review: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.

If there’s one thing we could all use more of, it’s self-control. Think about the most successful people you know vs. the ones that aren’t. What’s the main difference? It’s their self-control and their ability to continuously do the right actions.

I started reading this book just because I was curious if Willpower was natural or if it could actually be improved. I also wondered why there were periods in my life where I had an iron will, and other times why I just didn’t feel like doing anything.

The Marshmellow Test

There was a famous test in the 1960’s called the Marashmellow test. They took a bunch of 4 year olds and put them in a room. They told the kids…you can eat one marshmellow now, but if you wait 15 minutes…we’ll give you two marshmellows. I think I would’ve kicked ass at that experiement because marshmellows are disgusting.

They followed up with the students a few decades later. The kids who resisted the marshmellow were shown to generally be more successful. They had better grades in school, SAT scores, were less likely to do drugs, etc.
It means going with choices that are better for your long term purposes, than the choice that fuels your immediate gratification. Self-control means doing your work instead of surfing Facebook, drinking water instead of Mountain Drew, and resisting temptations when you’re in a relationship.

Here’s a more in depth article about the Marshmallow Experiment

Can You Increase Your Willpower?

The big idea I understand is to think of your willpower as a muscle. It gets tired from too much use.

As with all muscles, they can get stronger with exercise. The author gives us a practical example. Decide on something you want to do more of, and something you want to do less of. Also keep track of it. There’s a lot of apps these days you can use for tracking, but I like to keep it simple with an excel sheet.

an example of an excel log to keep track of your willpower exercises

Key Takeaways

  • The easiest hacks to improve willpower are to exercise a few times a week, meditate daily, and get enough sleep.
  • Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from continous use, that’s why you should do your work in the morning when you’re at full power. In the book are various “exercises” you can do to strengthen your willpower.
  • There’s basically two you’s: the one that constantly ones immediately gratification, and the other one that aims for a higher purpose in your life. It’s a constant battle between that two, which one is winning on a daily basis?
  • Willpower is contagious. Who interact with most can affect your level of self-controls. Think about your friends, co-workers, and even people on your Facebook / Twitter. Are they helping you achieve your goals? I guess that’s why they say you are who your 5 closest friends are.
  • We’ll all have setbacks and failures. How we respond to them decides what happens in the end. It’s better to forgive yourself than to harshly criticize yourself when you fail.
  • Don’t use good behavior to give yourself permission to be bad. By doing something good such as exercising in the morning, we might decide that it’s okay to eat that cupcake later on. Just because you achieved one goal, doesn’t mean you can slack off later on.
  • Do you “borrow credit” from the future? Sometimes we procrastinate because we’re overly optimistic. Whatever happens today, we’ll take care of it tomorrow.
  • Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver. The chapter on dopamine is actually my favorite part of the book. It talks about how marketers, businesses, & even video games try to manipulate us into taking action by triggering our dopamine.

Some Exercises to Strengthen Your Willpower

  • If you’re tempted by something, wait 10 minutes.
  • People that are distracted are more likely to give in to temptation; their impulses will be stronger than their long term goals. When it’s time to make a decision, focus.
  • When faced with temptation slow your breaths to very long ones…4 to 6 per minute. A few minutes of this will help shift the body from a state of stress to self control mode.
  • Track your choices. You can’t change anything unless you’re aware of the situation. You can just keep things simple with an Excel sheet and your goals. If one of your goals is to be less distracted by the internet then I suggest installing http://www.rescuetime.com
  • Attach rewards to tasks. I’d been putting off this one boring task for a while so I made a deal with myself that I could go get a massage if I completed it.

Do I Recommend This Book?

93/100. Not only does the author make the science easy to understand, but she also gives you practical exercises to implement your learnings. Reading this book really made me understand some of my past issues and how to really improve my willpower.

Buy the book