Customer Reviews: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
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on March 17, 2012
I'm one of those people who hate the self-help movement but can't stop hoping that the next book is actually going to make a difference, that it's the one that going to make me stop procrastinating and deal with my bad habits. So, I keep on reading books and blogs, only to be disappointed.

Not so with this book.

While the book offers the regular mix of science, personal experiences and tips, it's more down-to-earth than other books I have read. Maybe that's because it's based on a course that actually dealt with people going through the motions described in this book.

Usually, I read a book, highlight what I think makes sense and move on without incorporating what I just noted. In this case, I'm remembering on a daily basis what the author wrote and implementing her suggestions. It might actually be the last self-help book I ever read.
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on March 18, 2012
Speaking of willpower, once I started reading this book, it took every ounce of my willpower to put it down! (And, so yeah, I may have been spotted reading this book in my car while while sitting at red lights. My apologies to the drivers behind me for any [slight] delays my willpower challenges may have caused.)

As the above evidence suggests, I can't rave enough about this book. It's a gem, it's a god-send, and it's just that good. You'll have to read for yourself to see what all this gushing is about, but for now, here's a small sampling in the form of the titles' chapters with the author Kelly's big idea summary of each:

***Chapter 1: I Will, I Won't, I Want--What Willpower Is, and Why It Matters
Willpower is actually three powers--I will, I won't, and I want--that help us to be a better version of ourselves.

***Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct--Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake
Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help protect ourselves from ourselves.

***Chapter 3: Too Tired to Resist--Why Self-Control Is Like a Muscle
Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger.

***Chapter 4: License to Sin--Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad
When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.

***Chapter 5:The Brain's Big Lie--Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness
Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.

***Chapter 6: What the Hell--How Feeling Bad Leads Us to Giving In
Feeling bad leads to giving in, and dropping guilt makes you stronger.

***Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale--The Economics of Instant Gratification
Our inability to see the future clearly leads us into temptation and procrastination.

***Chapter 8: Infected!---Why Willpower is Contagious
Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.

***Chapter 9: Don't Read This Chapter--The Limits of "I Won't" Power
Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings backfires and makes you feel more likely to think, feel, or do the thing you most want to avoid.

***Chapter 10: Final Thoughts
If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention...Self-awareness is the one "self" you can always count on to help you do what is difficult, and what matters most.

Needless to say, I was enthralled and captivated throughout this book. Kelly's down-to-earth delivery of the essential insights of psychology, biology, neuroscience, and economics is beyond out-of-this-world. But, she doesn't just share the findings; she provides ways for you to see and do for yourself. Sprinkled throughout her discussions are "Under the Microscope" and "Willpower Experiment" features of this book which provide many personalized opportunities for gaining self-awareness and experimenting with new strategies to help you address your own willpower challenges--be it over-eating, over-drinking, over-spending, over-thinking, over-indulging, over-Facebooking, under-doing, or perhaps even over-reading at red lights.

In the introduction, Kelly shares her hopes that: "If this book did nothing else but help you see that common humanity of your willpower struggles, I would be happy. But I hope that it will do far more, and that the strategies in this book will empower you to make real and lasting changes in your life....By the time you finish this book, you'll have greater insight into your challenges and a new set of self-control strategies to support you."

And, indeed she delivers on that hope. Reading this book provides the insight you need to understand--and more importantly, have compassion for--your personal challenges, along with the techniques, tools, and perspective makeovers you need to gain more of that seemingly elusive self-control. Now, how can you resist that?

(Just look out for green lights while reading.)
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on September 16, 2013
The book, using an assortment of studies from psychology and neuroscience, makes a case for strengthening pause-and-plan which enhances willpower to help modulate one's impulses. Unlike many self-help books, the author does focus on lessons gleaned from meaningful studies (she calls it "science-help") and, as such, the message conveyed is overall sound.

Two remarks:

1. The book's writing could be improved. It also follows a self-help formulaic messaging format. She gave a lecture at Google (also on youtube) where she makes an effective case.

2. The part where this book is weak: how to improve willpower in the long run. The author goes through a laundry list that includes slow breathing, meditation, exercise, getting sufficient sleep, relaxing, etc.

Many of the studies she mentions are interesting, but of mixed value as the behavior modification results are related to the short-term, at the time scale of months. Meaningful changes are measured in years. Dieters know this very well. And the long-term failure rate high.

Bottom line: what the author recommends -- being more aware of one's impulsive tendencies and training oneself to be less susceptible -- is well-intentioned and useful. However, it is the difficulty implementing them in daily life, under real-life conditions, in the long run, that is the vexing problem. And on this front, the book falls short.
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on January 11, 2012
I have read every self help book ever written (ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get my point) trying to figure out why I can't conquer my weight /food issues. This is truly the first book that gives answers that not only make sense but are easily implemented. It isn't specifically about weight loss, though she does use that as an example of how people try but fail and blame it on a lack of will power. For the first time I understand how the brain works and how and what will power really is. No psychobabble about "self sabotage," or your childhood, no spiritual guidance (not that there's anything wrong with spiritual solutions). Already I have stopped rewarding myself for being "good," which I have always done in the past. Her writing is breezy and easy to u derstand even when she is explaining very complex subjects, like the parts of the brain, and what part does what. Why did the sales of Big Macs increase at MacDonalds when they added salads to the menu? The answer is here and it will surprise you. I can't say enough about the impact this book has had on me. Whatever you are struggling with, stopping smoking, curbing your spending habits, losing weight, this book will help you to understand will power and provides many tools and insights that are invaluable. This is a game changer for me, I'd give 10 stars if I could.
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on December 29, 2011
As a mom to a 15-month-old trying to reestablish healthy rhythms to my life I found this book incredibly helpful. I've been working with it for several months now (I was fortunate to get an advanced copy). I've been reading one chapter a week (ish) and then engaging with the homework in my daily life. The book has been a huge support in making positive changes in my diet, exercise, and even dissertation writing- I know that it sounds like a big claim but it's true. The information in the book rattles around in my head as I'm making choices all day long and it has had a significant cumulative effect in my life.

I've already recommended the book to a number of my friends and family members and am happy to do the same here.

The writing is clear and funny, the research is interesting and accessible, and the exercises are really useful. Highly recommend!
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VINE VOICEon June 18, 2012
The book starts off terrific. After the first 2 chapters, I felt I was about to read one of the greatest and life-altering books I have ever read (and I read a LOT). The rest of the book, unfortunately, are not nearly as good or useful.

The author is a PhD in Psychology and teaches at Stanford (she received her PhD from Stanford as well). As an academic, she doesn't venture far from the empirical psychology but provides plenty of insinuations on how we can improve our willpower. As I was reading this book, I must have seen at least a dozen PhD dissertation worthy topics being explored but not quite made concrete mainly due to lack of empirical evidence.

The book, however, does provide two concrete and empirical based suggestions on how we can often substantially improve our willpower: regular exercise and meditation. I felt these two suggestions alone were worth the price of the book.

After reading this book and trying its precepts for couple of days, I already feel my daily willpower getting stronger (I exercise regularly but I also added meditation to my regimen). If you read between-the-lines, you will also gather many subtle Psychological methods into gaining higher degree of control over your behavior and emotions.

I recommend this book.
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on February 26, 2012
Trying to make a habit of using one principle taught in this book each week. Some explanations of our motivations very memorable, like the one describing how dopamine makes us think what we want will satisfy us. Little phrases keep coming to mind when I want to eat something that I know is not good for me - especially "would you eat that same thing every day all week?" Helpful book, but only if you can discipline yourself enough to apply the principles in it every day.
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2012
Everything you thought you knew about willpower, how you make decisions, and the best ways to keep your resolutions is wrong. At least that is what it feels like after reading this book. McGonigal goes over research on willpower and reveals the various traps we put ourselves in and why we find it so hard to keep certain goals and break certain habits.

Each chapter outlines an area of research and gives several ideas on how to gain a better understanding about your own particular weaknesses and how to overcome them. This is not a typical "self help" book that promises you success if you follow a certain plan. Instead, McGonigal offers suggestions on how to face our inevitable failures and how to make it more likely that we will meet with success.

The book is entertaining and easy to read. If there is a weakness, it is that McGonigal sometimes tries too hard to be humorous. There are notes in the back of the book that cite the research she employes, but sometimes it isn't easy to tell what research goes with which anecdote. These are minor caveats, though, to a very interesting book.
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on January 10, 2013
What perfect timing! Everyone always spends January resolving to change every perceived fault, so why not read a book that will teach you how self control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get even more of it?

Thanks to the BlogHer Book Club, I started off my new year (and the end of the last one) reading The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. Dr. McGonigal teaches a groundbreaking course at Stanford University called "The Science of Willpower". This course has "helped hundreds of people achieve their goals by understanding the science behind why we give in to temptation, and how we can find the strength to resist."

The first thing I learned was that willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won't, and I want to help achieve your goals. Harnessing these power challenges can be used towards any goal, whether it be losing weight, quitting smoking, or pulling back on the excess spending. I started off the book by notating what the willpower challenge was that I wanted to focus on.

I will eat healthier.

I won't eat crap.

I want to lose weight.

After Thanksgiving I had already made a bit of a resolution to stop drinking soda. Except for one splurge on New Years Eve, I've been caffeinated soda free since. I wanted to take that a step further and encourage myself to eat better on a regular basis. My weight has been slowly climbing and I am now at the heaviest I've been without being pregnant. It's not just the number on the scale, but the way I feel about my body. My self confidence is pretty low right now. So, I wanted to learn how to strengthen my willpower when it came to making choices towards my goal.

What I really liked about McGonigal's book, was her style. The writing is very casual, with a little humor thrown in to keep it fun, and even when she's talking about what the parts of the brain do and how they affect your self control, it's in a way that doesn't make it sound like a textbook. It gave me the feeling that McGonigal would be a very fun person to hang out with.

One of the primary things I took away from The Willpower Instinct, was how important it is to train my brain to focus. I have difficulty with focusing on one thing at a time, and McGonigal attempted to teach me how to properly meditate. When I used to try, I always got frustrated that my mind kept getting away from me. I couldn't clear my mind. What McGonigal explains, is that meditating doesn't have to be about focusing perfectly on your breath and getting rid of everything else. What it's really about, is catching yourself moving away from the goal (concentrating on `inhale', `exhale') and bringing your thoughts back there. So even when I started wondering about how much time had past, what I was going to write in my review, things I needed to finish for work, what's for lunch, that was not a sign of failure. Instead, I succeeded in reminding myself to go back to the breath each time I caught my mind wandering. I'm still finding 5-10 minutes every day where I can just close my eyes and get back to my focus training.

Reading this book also helped me make not only smarter choices (towards my eating healthy goal and others), but also helped make me more aware when I am faced with a choice that could derail me from my goals. Shortly after finishing one chapter, I reached for an orange rather than a chocolate cookie. When took my lunch breaks at work, I was more conscious of my choices. More often than not, I chose to read a book with my lunch rather than mindlessly surfing the internet. I also learned to forgive myself each misstep (like when I had ice cream for dessert), and not use it as an excuse to abandon my entire goal.

I'm the type to pick out self help books, read a couple of chapters, and then eventually give up. There was something about McGonigal's writing that really kept me interested in the subject. If you're looking to read about self control and how you improve your own, you should really check out The Willpower Instinct. The difference in the way I look at my actions and my thoughts regarding my long-term goals will stay with me long after this book gets put on the shelf.

[This review originally appeared on]


I received a copy of this book from the publisher for this review. As a member of the BlogHer Book Club, I will be compensated for my review. All opinions expressed are my own.
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on June 20, 2013
I've read everything I can find about procrastination, self-discipline and changing an unwanted habit, including The Power of Habits by Duhigg. Duhigg's book is better than most, but I give it C+ for how helpful it was to me. I didn't think I'd find anything new on the topic, but Willpower Instinct is a cutting-edge research-based book and a real eye-opener. What's more, it is actually practical and very, very helpful. It goes far beyond the usual (which is make lists, prioritize, reward small steps, figure out what is motivating your unwanted behavior and find a more desirable way to meet that need - all of which one needs willpower to do). I've sent Willpower Instinct to my sister and she loved it also. I wish I could take the author's course.
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