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The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It Paperback – Illustrated, December 31, 2013
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—Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else
"The Willpower Instinct is a new kind of self-help book. Using science to explain the why and strategies for the how, McGonigal has created a must-read for anyone who wants to change how they live in both small and big ways."
"Each chapter could stand on its own as something helpful, but taken as a whole, this book could be downright life-altering. If you are trying to lose weight, become more successful at work, rid yourself of toxic habits...heck, if you're HUMAN, you need to read this book."
“This book has tremendous value for anyone interested in learning how to achieve their goals more effectively. McGonigal clearly breaks down a large body of relevant scientific research and its applications, and shows that awareness of the limits of willpower is crucial to our ability to exercise true self control.”
—Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., co-author of You Are Not Your Brain and author of bestselling Brain Lock
” **** out of four.”
—USA Today Book Review
“A fun and readable survey of the field, bringing willpower wisdom out of the labs.”
About the Author
- Publisher : Avery; Illustrated edition (December 31, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1583335080
- ISBN-13 : 978-1583335086
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.71 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #19,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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- A registered replication report (multi-site randomized controlled experiment) found that the ego depletion descriptions of Chapter 3 are dubious.
- The Marshmellow test described in Chapter 7 has been repeated in a study with a sample size ten times as large as the original study, and the conclusions didn't replicate.
- Wenzlaff and Bates' alternative concentration strategy should be included in Chapter 9 as their work qualifies some potential misunderstanding with suppression research. To the author's credit, she does mention a similar idea ("Turn your 'I won't' into 'I will'"), but one that is significantly weaker in my view (i.e., substitution with a similar but slightly more beneficial task and reframing/embellishment of the challenge).
Additionally, while the author highlights interventions in every chapter that have been empirically supported (cited at the end of the book), I'm not convinced that these methods are very powerful, however - especially for people who struggle significantly with self-regulation and/or impulsiveness. I don't entirely blame the author for that. Research in this area has been lacking. I view the book mostly as a well-written and comprehensive survey, albeit outdated, of the existing literature, rather than a novel contribution to the field. I also am not overly enthusiastic about the overall maturity of self-regulation research. However, Duckworth et al.'s contributions in the Annual Review of Psychology this year (2019) have made me more optimistic in this regard.
First, this book is optimistic. After reading what some people have to say about willpower, you might be left with the impression that if willpower is a limited resource, and you deplete it, especially if you have lots of stress in your life, you’re out of luck.
McGonigal, on the other hand, while acknowledging the limits of willpower, tells us how to strengthen our willpower and avoid depleting it in the first place. She also reminds us that the more we use our willpower, the easier it gets in the future, and that just like muscles, we can train our brains to get stronger at self-control.
Second, I found that The Willpower Instinct gives the most practical recommendations. The author is a Stanford psychology professor and her book is based on science, but she doesn't stop at reporting experiments, she translates research into action strategies. You are urged to be your own scientist, and try your own willpower experiments, keeping the tools that help the most, and discarding any that don't.
The book begins by explaining what willpower is and why it matters:
You learn that your challenge could come in the form of "I will," which is doing something good for you that you've been avoiding, or "I won't," which is stopping a bad behavior or habit. It could also include "I want," which is remembering an important goal when it matters most.
Willpower, she says, is about harnessing all three of these powers – I will, I won't, I want – to reach your goals and avoid trouble.
Willpower matters because everyone has self-control struggles, and most people feel like willpower failures; they feel in control one moment, and out of control the next. Most people also believe lack of willpower is the biggest reason they fail to achieve their goals – health, fitness, money, career, academics, time management and relationships.
McGonigal suggests that the best way to understand self-control is to understand why you lose it. This theme recurs throughout the book, as it highlights willpower traps and willpower mistakes.
Some chapters I found especially helpful, as well as fascinating...
Chapter four is about moral licensing, and you learn why we justify being bad because we did something good ("I just ran 6 miles, so I deserve this extra pizza!").
In chapter six you learn how to defeat the diet trap called, “The what the hell effect” ("I already blew my diet with that piece of cake, so WTH, might as well eat the whole thing"). You also learn how to break the cycle and deal with failures or slip-ups, which is (spoiler) self-compassion and forgiveness instead of self-criticism and guilt.
And in chapter eight, titled, "Infected! Why Willpower is contagious," you learn about the massive impact of social influence. One study found that obesity spreads through social networks. If a friend becomes obese, a person's odds of also becoming obese increase by 171%.
Fortunately it works both ways. If you hang out with a group of people who are setting goals and taking on willpower challenges, you're more likely to join in and succeed yourself. Goals are infectious, and hanging out with the right people can increase your willpower.
Other willpower-boosting strategies explained in the book include awareness, meditation, relaxation, breath control, exercise, nutrition (including maintaining blood sugar), time in nature, and willpower training. You also learn how to deal with things that drain your willpower including distraction, stress, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, and being surrounded by triggers (food etc).
Readers will feel inspired, because McGonigal writes with empathy and makes sure you know you’re not alone: “Everyone struggles in some way with temptation, addiction, distraction, and procrastination. These are not individual weakness that reveal our personal inadequacies - they are universal experiences and part of the human condition.”
The ideas in the book can help you resist temptation, control impulses, avoid distraction, end procrastination, change habits, and control your attention, emotions and desires, in any area of life.
The potential benefits to be gained by mastering self-control are so huge, this is a book you'll not want to skim. Take your time and study this one.
The author leaves no stone unturned as she cites study after study to explain why we lack willpower and how we can get more of it. An important theme throughout the book is awareness-- once we understand the circumstances under which we fail to exercise willpower, then we can began to make changes. And as the author points out at the close of the book, the mere act of becoming more self-aware is sufficient enough to create change in some people's lives. However, do not mistake this to mean that this is simply a book full of academic theory about willpower; rather, each chapter is replete with "experiments" that provide clear-cut guidance as to how you can put the theory into practice in your own life.
Here's a brief breakdown of each chapter:
1) The author defines willpower, distinguishes between "I will" (I will begin exercising each day) and "I won't" (I won't eat fatty foods) challenges, and discusses how we have essentially two warring sides to our personality (the side that wants instant gratification, and the side that wants to achieve our long-term goals). She suggests tracking your willpower choices to increase your awareness and meditation as a means of building willpower (willpower is like a muscle and can be trained to become stronger over time).
2) The author discusses the evolution of willpower and why a lack of willpower may have served an evolutionary purpose (our ancestors would have been wise to consume large amounts of fatty food if given the opportunity, since there was more uncertainty back then about when their next meal might arise), as well as the ways in which stress reduces our willpower (you are sad after a relationship ended and decide to eat a piece of cake as comfort food). As a means of increasing willpower, the author suggests engaging in focused breathing, outdoor walks or activity (just five minutes is sufficient to have an impact), getting adequate sleep, and lying down to relax.
3) The more frequently we exercise willpower, the easier it becomes. Willpower can become drained, and it ebbs and flows throughout the day. Sometimes we think our willpower is exhausted but this is just our brain trying to trick us into conserving energy-- this explains how long-distance runners are able to push on. The author suggests eating a better diet and engaging in certain activities intended to increase willpower.
4) This is easily one of the best chapters-- the author discusses "moral licensing" and how we can use our good behavior (not eating chocolate cake) to justify being bad (eating chocolate cake). The author's solution is to remind yourself why you were being good in the first place. This section also discusses how we discount the future and assume that tomorrow will be different than today. We tell ourselves we'll have more willpower tomorrow, but the fact is we will face the same challenges tomorrow that we face today.
5) The author discusses the function of dopamine and how it can prompt us to behave like rats pulling a lever to get an electric shock. Many of our willpower failures (e.g., checking email excessively) are simply us pointlessly trying to get a reward because of a rush of dopamine (that occurs when we hear a trigger, like "You've got mail!"). Fortunately, by understanding how dopamine works we can turn it to our advantage by linking rewards to tasks that we've been procrastinating.
6) This chapter was counterintuitive and thus incredibly helpful. It turns out that beating yourself up over willpower failures (e.g., I shouldn't have eaten that Twinkie!) actually makes us more likely to fail again because we're making ourselves sad (and what do we turn to when we're sad? More Twinkies, of course!). The author recommends self-acceptance and positivity instead of guilt and self-criticism-- fantasize about how good you'll feel when you eat healthier foods instead of guilt-tripping yourself about that chocolate bar you ate at lunch.
7) Many of us see the future far different than we see the present-- we naively assume that we'll be more responsible or have more willpower in the future, so we put off onerous tasks for our "future self" to deal with. Unfortunately, our future self is the same person as our present self, and we're only tricking ourselves if we think otherwise. An additional problem is that some of us deeply discount the value of future rewards and place far too much emphasis on present rewards (taking $10 today instead of $50 one year from now). The author suggests thinking more about your future self (e.g., using FutureMe.org to write a letter to your future self) to become accustomed to the notion that you and your future self are one and the same. Also, you can "pre-commit" to your future self by doing things like purchasing an expensive gym membership to exercise, but this struck me as a little superficial as someone who is struggling with willpower can simply ignore the commitments they made. On a side note, the author suggests waiting 10 minutes before engaging in any behavior that the present self is screaming for (I NEED to buy that book now!) that I have found incredibly useful.
8) Willpower is contagious-- if you hang out with a bunch of people who are unmotivated, you will be tempted to "mirror" their behaviors and emotions. "Social proof" even suggests that we engage in foolish behavior due to a herd mentality (everybody else is doing it, so I should do it too). The author recommends finding a willpower idol we can look up to (someone we believe exerts exemplary willpower), spend some time reviewing our goals at the beginning of each day, and publicly commit to our willpower challenges so the pressure of not disappointing our friends and family can motivate us to exercise self-control. I can personally attest to the power of publicly committing to a challenge, as I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and saw many hikers continue onward simply because they didn't want to tell everyone they didn't have what it takes to go on. Of course, this strategy isn't fool proof-- otherwise hundreds of people wouldn't quit the trail each year. But knowing that other people are watching is certainly an incentive to exercise willpower. The author also mentions getting a willpower buddy and holding each other accountable, which works for the same reasons that making a public commitment does.
9) This chapter seemed a little out of place. The book had been discussing willpower and then all of a sudden it takes a U-turn and starts discussing how unpleasant thoughts can intrude in our minds. However, I soon saw the value in what the author was saying as well as how it fits into the overall willpower picture. The main idea is that we cannot control whether we have unhelpful or even disturbing thoughts, and suppressing such thoughts only causes us to focus on them more. Instead, we need to accept these thoughts, but also acknowledge that we are not compelled to act on them. The author cites an entertaining study about a group of people who were asked not to think of white bears but subsequently could think of nothing else. The trick is to allow yourself to permit the thought (or urge, say to smoke a cigarette) rather than fighting it. We can't control our thoughts, but we can control whether we choose to act on them, and trying to suppress our thoughts only increases the probability we will act on them. Again, it's counterintuitive, but it's supported by an ample amount of research which the author weaves into the narrative of the book.
10) A good conclusion, albeit a little brief.
This book is an excellent addition to the positive psychology genre, and I can easily see how this became such a popular class at Stanford (where the author is a professor).
If you want to know why you don't have the willpower you wish you had and how you can take action to change this, then stop procrastinating and exercise the willpower to buy this book :)
Top reviews from other countries
In the grand scheme of humanity, the modern society we live in now has only just been invented, and so most of the things our brain does, isn't necessarily required in todays world, but there it is, all still happening. When you first fully understand that neuro-marketing is real, and then how they do it and how your brain responds to such inmputs, this book will kind of give you a superpower... improved willpower, and the ability to get sh*t done.
You'll need to actively practice, read and review and you will build the habit and strengthen your willlpower muscle.
Knowledge *is* power, and will you be a total Willpower god after reading this? Of course not, but you will have the blueprint to improve it. Stopping the "I've been good, so I'll be bad" mindset is worth the price of the book alone, I challenge anyone to read it and not identify some part of themselves in this book, and then think "Oh yeah, I do that... all the time!"
If you're about to take on a tough challenge of any kind, or want to change the way you think or just generally have more control over the things you do (like stopping doom scrolling on social media), this book along with Mindset by Carol Dweck are the two best books I can recommend.
Since reading these books (and a few more), in the last two years I've gone from being an uneducated overweight and ignorant estate agent that was blaming everyone else for my own failures, to a rock climbing (not overweight) self taught software engineer working for a Silicon Valley tech company, who can recognise failures, own them, and do something about them.
This book is the icing on the cake, and I'll forever recommend it to anyone who wants more freedom in their life.
I find it easy to read which is important to me as a dyslexic. It has changed the way I think of willpower in a way that has been useful.
I believe that the information and techniques will continue to be of benefit through my life, in other words BUY IT