The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal

[n.b. This may seem like a weird time to publish this book summary given my last couple posts, but I actually got this book from a physical library in the pre-Covid times, and the library is re-opening, so I have to return it soon. Plus, I do think it is relevant to anti-racism work to better understand willpower; rather than have the current anti-racism enthusiasm be like the New Year’s spike in gym memberships, let’s commit the willpower to have it become part of our daily activities instead.]

Amazon link
Kelly McGonigal’s site

Kelly McGonigal is a Stanford University psychologist who created a course “The Science of Willpower”, which she eventually adapted into this book, subtitled “How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It”. As McGonigal shares in the introduction:

After years of watching people struggle to change their thoughts, emotions, bodies, and habits, I realized that much of what people believed about willpower was sabotaging their success and creating unnecessary stress. Although scientific research had much to say that could help them, it was clear that these insights had not yet become part of public understanding. Instead, people continued to rely on worn-out strategies for self-control. I saw again and again that the strategies most people use weren’t just ineffective – they actually backfired, leading to self-sabotage and losing control.

The book is structured as ten chapters, each devoted to a common misconception we have, or mistake we make, around self-control, and offers science-based strategies to actually improve self-control in that area.

The most helpful chapter for me was the science behind what practices increase or decrease your reserve of willpower, or self-control. There’s nothing new here, but a few practices that I re-committed to after reading this chapter were:

  • Meditation, to re-center myself and re-connect to my body
  • Deep breathing, to relax and calm the body and move from the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system to the parasympathetic (relax and heal) nervous system. McGonigal says that slowing our breathing to four to six breaths per minute shifts us into the physiological state of self-control. Tonglen breathing is the practice I aspire to use more regularly when I am stressed.
  • Journaling, to increase my self-awareness of how my actions are supporting or undermining my goals
  • Physical exercise, even if it’s just a few minutes a day of getting my heart rate up; as she writes, “Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered.”
  • Sleeping and napping, which I was already doing, but the research really supports how much sleep matters for self-control.
  • Eating well, as she shares that self-control requires your body to be “well fueled with food that gives you lasting energy”.

Another valuable image for me was that “Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger.” In other words, the more you use self-control, the easier it gets. It also helps to have a purpose, something you want so much that you will keep going when you feel weak, perhaps an identity you have declared for yourself such as marathon finisher. Alternatively, just knowing you can keep going, can keep you going, as I shared in my post about the doubt tax.

Another common mistake is that “We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today”. It turns out this is rarely true (also covered in Stumbling on Happiness), so McGonigal recommends reminding yourself that you are likely going to keep doing this behavior if you choose to do it today; when you can no longer use the excuse “it’s just this one time – I’ll be better tomorrow”, you can summon more willpower to stick to your goals and remind yourself of the identity you have chosen, and rejecting the person who will lapse today, and likely keep on lapsing.

I found the chapter on dopamine to be particularly interesting, as McGonigal explains that “dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy”. It does this by giving us pleasure when seeking happiness, but also increasing stress hormones so that “the need to get what you want starts to feel like a life-or-death emergency, a matter of survival”. Desire _and_ stress. She suggests the way to resolve this paradox is to use mindfulness – our behaviors are often justified by the promise of feeling good, but they don’t actually feel good if we pay attention. For instance, if I procrastinate by playing games on my phone, my brain thinks the games will make me feel better because I’m avoiding the anxiety of whatever task I’m avoiding. But when I pay attention to how I’m actually feeling while playing the games, I’m numbing myself out against a backdrop of stress and anxiety. So the activity that’s supposed to reduce stress is actually making me live with the stress for longer; if I just did the task, I’d face the stress and be done with it, rather than prolonging my stress by procrastinating.

Another myth that I have believed is that beating myself up after a willpower failure will help me do better next time, which turns out to be completely wrong. As she puts it, “feeling bad leads to giving in”; in other words, beating myself up weakens my willpower, which means I’m more likely to “fail” again, and then I’ll beat myself up again, and I’m in a vicious cycle. The counterintuitive way forward is to mindfully notice how I feel during the “failure” to remind myself of why I want to stick to my intentions, forgive myself and remind myself that I’m only human, and treat myself with the compassion which I would offer a friend. Forgiveness, not guilt, is the way to get back on track.

Similarly, “trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel, or do the thing you most want to avoid.” As above, the way forward is mindfulness – feel what you feel, accept the cravings, and yet avoid acting on them. Since willpower is like a muscle, the more you practice feeling the desire, but not acting on it, the easier it will get – you will “develop a trust that [you] can handle these difficult thoughts and feelings”. Another useful tactic is to use times when you are resourced with high willpower to anticipate such breakdowns, and plan out how you can avoid those breakdowns e.g. change the environment to not be tempted.

I really appreciated this book as a summary of the science of willpower, and tips on how to improve your ability to stick to your intentions of “I Will” and “I Won’t”. My main takeaway was to focus on the habits that increase willpower (meditation, mindfulness, sleep, exercise, eating healthy), as this book reminded me how foundational those habits are to following through on my intentions throughout my life. When I am tempted to skip those, I remind myself that I want to be the person who can model these behaviors for others as a coach, and yet I try to forgive myself when I fall short. I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep practicing.

P.S. I should have checked out Kelly’s work long ago – I am a long-time fan of futurist Jane McGonigal, who has repeatedly recommended her sister’s work.

P.P.S. I really enjoyed McGonigal’s interview with Joshua Steinfeldt on the Courageous Life podcast if you want to hear her talk about her work.

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