Book Notes: The Willpower Instinct - Kelly McGonigal

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford. She created a course, "The Science of Willpower" which has become one of the most popular courses offered by Stanford. This course brings together insights about self-control based on research work across psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. The book has ten chapters which reflect her ten week course. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of how Willpower works, then this is a must-read. It is quite practical and hard to put down once you start reading it.

Notes from the book:

To succeed at self-control, you need to analyze how you fail. Smokers who are most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are most likely to relapse. Overoptimistic dieters are least likely to lose weight. Why? They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in.

Theories are nice, but data is better. Treat everything like an experiment. Document the inputs, outputs, variables, and observations. Before you can change something, you need to see it as it is. This includes paying attention to how you talk to yourself about your willpower challenges, including what you say to yourself when you procrastinate, how you judge your own willpower failures and successes. As you experiment, take the approach of a non-judgmental, curious observer - just like a scientist peering into a microscope, hoping to discover something fascinating and useful.

Start the experiment by picking a specific willpower challenge. Willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won't, and I want to help you achieve your goals. Document:

  • "I will" power challenge: Something that you would like to do more of.
  • "I won't" power challenge: What is the "stickiest" habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of?
  • "I want" power challenge: What is the most important long term goal you'd like to focus on?

The above three different ways help, because they engage three different parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex to be more specific).  Some neuroscientists go as far as to say that we have one brain but two minds - or even, two people living inside our mind. There's the version of us that acts on impulse, and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long term goals. Every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself. For your willpower challenge, write down what the competing versions of your mind want. Some people find it useful to give a name to the impulsive mind like the "cookie monster", or "whiner", or "prorastinator". Giving a name to this version can help you recognize when it is taking over, and help you call in your wiser self for support. No matter how bad you think your other mind is, it has its own advantages and is important for your survival. Don't fight it, or try to change it, just recognize and observe.

The key to self-control is self-awareness. Most of our choices are made on auto-pilot, without any real awareness of what's driving them. Most of the time, we don't even realize we are making a choice. A research showed that a typical person makes an average of 227 food related decisions in one day. Experiment - Commit to watching how the process of giving in to your impulses happens. You don't even need to set a goal to improve your self-control yet. See if you can catch yourself earlier and earlier in the process, noticing what thoughts, feelings, and situations are most likely to prompt the impulse.

Neuroscientists have discovered that like an eager student, the brain is remarkably responsive to experience. Ask your brain to do math every day, and it gets better at math. Ask your brain to worrry, and it gets better at worrying. Same way, brain can be trained to get better at self-control. When you ask your brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Neuroscientists have found that regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness. It doesn't take long time of meditation to see the benefits. Start with five minutes a day, and when it becomes a habit, try extending it to fifteen. Being bad at meditation is still good for self-control.