The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct – by Kelly McGonigal

Today we will take a look at one of the most prestigious books regarding human habits and behaviour – The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal – which received a ‘progress rating’ of 4/5 from This is indeed a good read for everyone who wants to know more about how habits are formed, what we can do to change them, what goes on in our brains before and after we make a choice and how are we influenced by external factors in doing something.

I myself found this book an interesting read and I liked the way scientific studies were presented alongside funny comments by the author in order to keep the boredom away from the average reader, although I will admit that for me the pacing was not perfect throughout the whole book.

About the author

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, an award-winning science journalist, and a leading expert on the mind-body relationship. Her teaching and writing focus on the applications of psychological science to personal health and happiness, as well as public policy and social change.

I first heard about Kelly McGonigal after watching her very interesting Ted Talk called ‘How to make stress your friend’. I encourage you to watch it to see for yourself how nice the author presents the information to a large audience – scientific research combined with humor and a pleasing personality.

And now let’s analyse the most important lessons from this book and see how they can help us progress:

1. “The first rule of willpower is to know yourself very well” – Kelly McGonigal

“Know thyself”. When you really know yourself, you tend to have more
control over your thoughts and actions. What would happen if you knew beforehand that a tough decision is coming, one that requires willpower to choose right? What will your behaviour be like if you know all your triggers that can lead you to bad actions and you can spot them right away? That’s right! You will have more time to think and change your mind about doing something you will later regret. In other words, you will be more mindful.

Even though a lot of tips and tricks are presented in this book, a lot of them are centered around mindfulness. The more aware you are about the things that you are doing in the present moment the lesser the chances of you doing not counter intuitive.

Practical advice #1: Practice mindfulness. You can start by creating a short routine (5-10 minutes) every day that consists of you sitting on a floor or a chair, and try to think about nothing else but being in the present moment. There are a lot of ways of doing that: close your eyes and focus on the breathing, mark a dot on a wall and try to concentrate in that direction, light a candle and focus only on the light, etc. The key here is for you to notice when your mind is wandering away and bring your attention back to the present moment. After practicing this for a while, you will catch yourself throughout the day daydreaming or thinking about ‘unimportant stuff’ and then it will be easier for you to stay concentrated on certain things for longer periods and also to avoid unhealthy decisions. You can find a very good video describing the basics of mindfulness on Leo’s channel.

Kelly McGonigal points out in the book that researchers found out that just 11 hours of mediation were enough to see changes in the brain in areas related to concentration, self-control and ignoring distractions. So, after meditating for a while, keep track of the choices you make every day and discover the benefits this practice brings. A very good choice to track your progress is the free app Progressive Goals.

2. “Self control is like a muscle”

Studies show that from some perspectives, self control is very similar to a muscle: it gets tired when it is used but constant exercise makes it stronger.

The willpower battery can be used in a lot of strange ways: Smokers who do not smoke for more than 24 hours are more predisposed to get addicted to ice-cream, alcoholics who do not drink for a while become weaker during a physical resistance test, and the people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their life partner. Researchers discovered that self control is at its highest in the morning and it slowly decreases towards the end of the day. Also, sugar seems to be a short-term remedy for low willpower, when our blood-glucose is going down so does our self control. Be careful though, on the long term this quick fix can bring health issues.

Practical advice #2: Put your priorities first! Observe the time of the day when you have the biggest willpower and you’re feeling more energetic and try to plan your day accordingly. There may be a good idea to do the most important things first thing in the morning.

Back in school, just before I had to run my first long circuit, a more experienced colleague of mine told me : “the 4th lap is the hardest, that is when you will go over your tiredness”. At the moment I did not understand exactly what he was trying to say, but the mini-marathon went exactly like he said: somewhere around the 4th lap I was beginning to feel tired, but I kept going and towards the end of the run I even felt a bit better. This book provides an answer to that also and how it relates to self-control:

In 1924 Nobel Laureate Archibald Hill launched the following theory: Physical exhaustion is not caused by an energetic muscle crisis but by an excessively protective tracking device located in our brain who wants to prevent exhaustion. When the body is working intensely and the heart is racing for a long time, this tracking device (which Hill named “stabilizer”) intervenes to slow things down. Later studies confirmed this idea.

It turns out, our willpower depletion works in a very similar way. Exactly how the brain tries to prevent exhaustion by slowing down the rhythm of the muscles, it also tries to avoid high energy expenditure by shutting down the prefrontal cortex. This means we did not run out of willpower, we just need the motivation to find it. To further test this theory, several studies were conducted on students which seem to have increased their willpower when someone was offering them money to abstain from a cake.

Practical advice #3: Practice strengthening your self control. For one entire week, choose one thing that you want to do daily and one thing you do not want to do at all. You need to have a clear motive of why you want to do something or abstain from doing something, and when the temptation becomes unbearable quickly bring that motive on the screen of your mind and try to take the right course of action.

3. “Delayed gratification is a recipe for success”

In our hearts we all know that delayed gratification can help us a lot if we are disciplined. Consistently giving up a short term pleasure for a long term goal is what separates the truly successful people from the rest. The famous fitness youtuber Scooby Workshop wrote a very good article about this.

Back to our book, Kelly presents us with a very clever way to resist the unworthy urges: transform them from instant to delayed gratification using the 10 minutes rule. The brain is hardwired to easily accept immediate gratifications. Changing the perspective can work wonders.

Practical advice #4: If you feel you want to skip a productive activity for no good reason, do that activity for 10 minutes. After you went over the activation phase, it ill be really hard to stop it. It works in reverse, also: if you recognize a “bad action” that you are about to take, delay it for 10 minutes. It is easier to choose running (and losing fat) over a cookie you will receive 10 minutes from now than running (and losing fat) over a cookie RIGHT NOW.

4. “Burn the boats”

Retreat is easy when you have the option. Great leaders know this, and we can turn to history to learn this powerful lesson:

  • More than 2000 years ago, roman general Caesar had ventured out to conquer England; the latter being at a great distance from Rome. Caesar had taken a considerably sized naval fleet with him though their numbers still pale in comparison to the Celts who were brutal warriors fighting for their land. To make sure his men will not panic and run using ships strategically placed for a quick retreat, Caesar ordered the boats to be burned. This sends a powerful message: there is no retreat, we either win here or die. This strategy helped Caesar won his victory and enlarge his reputation, even though in the end pressing matters in Gaul stalled the conquest of Britain for a few decades.
  • some 1500 years later, spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, found himself leading 600 men into Aztec territory. Even though his troops had advanced weaponry compared to their enemies, they were severely outnumbered. And they had to face the god-king Montezuma who was reigning over people well-known for their bloody human sacrifices. He then saw his men afraid to get away from the shores which would have given them the opportunity of a quick retreat. Much like the previous conqueror, he used the same tactic of burning the ships in order to succeed at conquering the new territory which he did.

What do those lessons teach us and what does this whole thing has to do with willpower?

Practical advice #5: If you want to get rid of a bad habit, try to be proactive and take some action that you know will not allow you to fall in to trap the mind sets from time to time. Some examples could be:

  • prepare yourself healthy snacks in the morning to avoid fast food later in the day;
  • pay for an expensive gym membership that can motivate you to not miss workout days;
  • when you go shopping, don’t take your credit cards with you. You can have in your pocket just a fixed amount of money you want to spend;
  • put your alarm clock further away from the bed to avoid hitting the snooze button again;
  • tell a close friend /mastermind ally a small thing you want to change about yourself and have him check in for the results.
5. “Everyday stand guard at the door of your mind” – Jim Rohn

There are a lot of time-proven sayings regarding this important topic, like “Birds of a feather flock together” or “You’re The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With”. In short, what you put in your mind every day will make you or break you in the long term. And the best way to keep that in check is to be very aware of who you hang out with, who you listen to. The reason you hear sounds with people laughing during comedy TV shows is to make you laugh as well because “everyone else is doing it”.

To really grasp that we need to understand what mirror-neurons are and how do they work. Mirror-neurons are all over the surface of the brain and they provide us with a detailed understanding of the feelings of other people. This is their only purpose: to track what other people are thinking, feeling and doing. Mirror-neurons that detect the moves of others are also reflecting the same moves in our own body. For example: if you are talking to a person that crosses their arms, leans backwards, or makes a certain subtle gesture, you might do that also, in an unconscious way. This unconscious mirroring of someone else’s action seems to make people get along better and creates a sentiment of connection. That is why sales agents, managers and politicians are trained to intentionally mimic the postures of other people – they know this way they can influence the mirrored person. Tony Robbins suggest in his book “Unlimited Power” that you can even try to mirror some people if you want them to feel a special bond during a conversation.

But the link between this and self-control is the fact that seeing other people reaching for a cigar, a sweet desert or a credit card can make you do the same by diminishing your willpower. A recent study suggests that after a smoking person sees an actor smoking, the cerebral regions responsible for planning hand movements are activated, as if they are about to do the same thing. Like the movements, the emotions can be transmitted in the same way: an indisposed colleague can make you feel the same way, which can lead you to grab a drink to “soften thing up”.

So now we see why the sayings from the beginning of this section are holding that much truth, they are based on our psychology. This is why obese kids usually came from families that also struggled with obesity, and if the majority of a person’s friends are smokers, that person will tend to become a smoker in the future. But the good news is, it goes the other way around too: if you surround yourself with people that inspire you to take action toward your dreams, you have a better chance to achieve success.

Practical advice #6: Try to surround yourself with positive people that can influence you in a good way, that can help you grow towards the best version of yourself and repay them as much as possible. Form a mastermind of people who are like minded and are trying to achieve a worthy goal or ideal. When you are alone, try to observe really well what else can influence you (social media, TV) and always strive to feed your mind with empowering beliefs by listening to success stories or your favorite speakers and authors. This will help you change your paradigm which in turn will change your circumstances.

The author concludes that the basis of self-control and willpower can be summarized in:

  • the attention towards ourselves;
  • the care we take for ourselves;
  • the reminding of things that matters most for us;

If this summary seems interesting to you, we highly recommend reading the entire book and find more resources from the same author.