December 4, 2018
Out of all the books on how to build self-control, the one I recommend most is The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. There are two reasons why:
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.