Willpower Secrets From The Willpower Instinct (Summary)

Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals. We have limited amounts of willpower, but the good thing is, all of us can learn to increase it. Click To Tweet

Ever decided to stop smoking, eat only for health, stay more outside social media? Then each time, you failed to check yourself? Promised yourself an exercise routine every January but failed every time? Was your last resort this—stopping altogether to try anything new?

You failed at those because you bottomed out on self-control. But science says you can learn to fill it up at will. When you know what causes you to give up or give in, you can resist falling prey to unhealthy behaviors. You plan before the Sirens show up.

But what are the secrets to increasing it?

We share some secrets of willpower here, sourced from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. It is a book about the science of self-control and uses research to show how willpower works and how to have more of it.

Summary of The Willpower Instinct (Maximum Willpower)

If you failed to change your life for the better, don’t lose heart. This book can teach you how to increase your odds of hitting your targets more often. It can help you get started on making the right decisions for a better life.

The Willpower Instinct gathers new insights on self-control. For this, the author dives into psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. She shows how we could replace our bad habits with healthy ones, hack procrastination, and handle negative emotions.

The book tells us how to increase our willpower and self-control, rise above our limitations, and escape chronic stress and anxiety.

“Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut).”

– Kelly McGonigal

We summarize some insights from the book that also goes as Maximum Willpower.

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Willpower goes by many names — drive, determination, resolve, self-discipline, self-control. Psychologists see willpower in more specific ways. They say it’s like a muscle that gets drained by overuse, but with training, we can learn to keep it from emptying up, much like a muscle again.

Willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t, and I want.

The strength of our willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t and I want.

  1. “I won’t” power is the ability to say no even when you want to say yes. This is simply the ability to resist temptation. Each temptation is an “I won’t” willpower challenge asking if we have the strength to say No.
  2. “I will” power is the ability to do what you dislike now for a better future. “I will” power helps take up and complete those tasks that are necessary to achieve your goals but cumbersome or unpleasant.
  3. “I want” power is the capacity to remember what you truly want. Regardless of current temptations, what you actually want is what is best for you in the long run. To fight the present, you must have clear long-term goals to guide your daily actions. This boosts your “I want” power by reminding you of what’s at stake.

Willpower is a biological instinct to protect us from long-term harm.

Our brains are complex organs. Inside, millions of processes operate in tandem to keep us alive, without our knowing. Understanding how our brains handle emotions can allow us to control our behaviors.

Our body’s fight-or-flight response system is an instinct that sets off when we confront a frightening or life-threatening situation. It’s our body’s ability to spend all of its resources to get us out of harm’s way.

Willpower, similarly, is also founded on a biological instinct. A study showed a willpower challenge can elicit a unique instinctive state in our brain and body that can boost our willpower.

This is known as the pause-and-plan reaction, and it is substantially different from the fight-or-flight response:

While the fight-or-flight response raises your awareness of an exterior threat and increases your pace (like avoiding the snake), the pause-and-plan response moves your focus to the internal conflict between your rational and impulsive sides and slows you down to help you control your impulse (like avoiding the cookie).

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Mindfulness meditation can increase self-awareness that helps to avoid distractions and boost self-control.

We have limited willpower on a given day. When our minds are busy, we run low on willpower. When your mind is distracted or preoccupied, it is easier for the immediate temptation to overwhelm your long-term ambitions.

In a study, the researchers instructed students to remember a phone number while choosing which snack to eat during the experiment: chocolate or fruit. Those with their minds preoccupied picked chocolate 50% more often than students who did not receive a memorizing exercise.

But there is a practical and accessible solution to deal with distractions: Mindfulness Meditation.

Neuroscientists have found people who regularly meditate have more grey matter in their brain regions responsible for self-awareness. So, there is an organ-level change that reflects positively on our attention and higher levels of performance.

Mindfulness meditation helps us develop moment-to-moment self-awareness, which allows us to recognize whenever we get distracted so that we can refocus our attention on the work at hand.

Scientists have discovered only three hours of regular meditation can increase self-control and create a longer attention span. And after 11 hours of practice, the gray matter changes in the brain are already visible.


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At times, distractions might overwhelm us too strongly. We may find ourselves simply unable to stop giving in a tempting act. In such cases, again, mindfulness meditation can help us refocus our attention on our long-term goals, end the distraction cycle, and regain our willpower.

So, there are two takeaways here:

  1. Whenever in such distracting situations, avoid making important decisions.
  2. Develop self-awareness through mindfulness meditation, and avoid willpower failures.

What happens when we yield to a bad habit?

When we turn slaves to a terrible habit, we react by either:

  1. feeling guilt and regret, or
  2. exhibiting the “what the heck” effect.

In either case, we are more likely to succumb to that temptation again. When that happens, it is much worse than the first time. This makes the whole self-control process shaky, and we get primed to lose control again.

Fortunately, there is a way to break the cycle: Forgive yourself (learn here how to do it).

“We think about our future selves like different people. We … expect our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage. (But) The future you is just as you as you are right now.”

6 Actionable tips to increase willpower

Here are a few science-backed strategies from the book to increase your willpower:

  1. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion increase self-control.
  2. Meditation, sleep, exercise, and relaxation—all help to boost willpower.
  3. When we submit to temptation and feel guilty, we lessen our ability to regulate future actions.
  4. The self-control of our social circle affects our own—both poor and strong self-control are easy to catch.
  5. We are more likely to do something bad if we have done something good. After good behavior, we grant ourselves unwritten permission to yield to bad behavior.
  6. Social proof has a significant impact on our actions. We are more likely to do what those around us are doing. These may be either positive or negative behaviors.
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Why it is important to boost our willpower?

According to research, people with more willpower are happier and healthier, have more satisfying and long-lasting relationships, are more successful, make more money, and even live longer lives. In a word, if you want a better life, you should start by improving your willpower.

Final Words

A few insightful words from Kelly McGonigal in an interview on the TED blog:

One of the big lessons from the science of willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences.

People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.

Here’s a short video you will enjoy:

20 Insightful Quotes From The Willpower Instinct

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If we tell you some of this wisdom had been discovered 24 centuries ago, what would you say? To find out more about the Stoic principle of Dichotomy of Control, read this.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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