The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Rating: 5/10

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High-Level Thoughts

A good book on willpower, but I no longer recommend it since it seems like most of the research in it hasn't held up.

Summary Notes

Americans say lack of willpower is the biggest reason they don’t hit their goals, likely why you don’t accomplish what you want to.

People with more control over their emotions, desires, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.

The best way to improve self-control is to recognize when you lose control. If you can adjust those situations, greater control comes naturally.

Self knowledge, especially of when we need and lose willpower, is the foundation of self-control.

When people say they “don’t have willpower” it usually means they have trouble resisting some urge of their body. But sometimes it’s about saying yes when you need to say yes, too.

Many temporary states (drunk, sleepy, horny) inhibit the prefrontal cortex and reduce the effectiveness of your decision making, and lower willpower in the process.

Know what your impulsive self-wants, and what your wise self-wants. Recognize when one is in control.

Recognize when you’re in a situation that requires willpower, otherwise, your brain will default to what it wants in the moment.

People who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptations.

Habit causes us to do things against what our wiser self wants, notice when your habits are leading you to have lower willpower.

Meditation is the best thing you can do for your willpower.

When you notice yourself doing something on autopilot, or against your long term interests, use the “pause and plan.” Instead of reacting impulsively, pause, and plan out what you actually want to do in response to that stimulus.

Stress also significantly lowers willpower. So, you know, don’t get stressed.

Even very brief exercise can significantly improve mood and willpower.

Willpower is a resource. If you use it in one thing, you have less for another. People on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse.

If you have no time or energy for your biggest willpower challenge, schedule it first when you have the most willpower to use for it.

A diet that reduces blood sugar fluctuations (low carb) will give you more willpower in the long term. In the short term, a bit of sugar can help.

Committing to a small consistent act of self control, like improving your posture or not using filler words, can increase your willpower.

Most mental and physical exhaustion is all in your head. If you push through, you’ll be fine. Imagine someone offering you $100 to resist those cookies, not so irresistable now is it?

If you reward yourself too much for being “good” you’ll break later and justify it to yourself. Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. This will even happen in cases where we could have done something bad, but didn’t. E.g. you didn’t get dessert with lunch, so now you’re allowed to get it with dinner.

Making progress on a goal encourages us to do goal sabotaging behavior right after. Measure your commitment to the goal, not your progress, looking at progress can motivate you to slack off.

Sharing your goals too much can make you feel like you already hit them, and never make any actual progress on them. Keep it private.

We wrongly predict that in the future we’ll have more free time, more willpower, etc. Assume the future will be just like today.

Only do things that you would be comfortable doing every day for a year (candy bar, blasted drunk, etc.)

Creating rules is much easier than moderation.

Very little is as addictive as our technology. They provide a constant dopamine hit that undermines our willpower.

Small stimuli can mess up our willpower. Seeing a snack commercial on TV makes us go get one from the fridge, free samples make us buy more, etc.

We get more excited about a possible variable reward than a guaranteed one. We love lotteries.

Is there a way to remind your stressed out self what actually makes you feel better? Find it.

News lowers your willpower by keeping you in a constant state of fear. Don’t follow it.

Giving in makes you feel bad, which makes you do something to feel better, which can lead to more giving in.

Self criticism doesn’t help, it just makes the problem worse.

An easy way to shortcut the willpower need is to just wait 10 minutes before doing what you’re thinking of doing.

Imagining your future self can help improve your willpower, and change what you want in the short term to fit that person.

Willpower is contagious, if you hang out with low willpower people yours will get weaker too. Fat friends make you fat.

Trying to suppress desires and negative thoughts make them stronger, instead of supressing them, learn to let them pass (meditation).


Track your choices for a day. Look back and see when you acted with and without willpower, what decisions would you change? What caused the bad choices?

Start meditating at least 5 minutes a day. (I like Headspace)

Practice slowing down your breath before making a decision. It makes resisting temptation easier.

Go for a walk in nature when you need more willpower.

Sleep at least 8 hours, following good sleep habits.

Figure out what you can bring to mind to help yourself resist temptations, some sort of strong force or desire in your life to remind yourself of. It doesn’t have to be noble (e.g. lose weight to get laid more).

An easy way to avoid bad short term decisions: imagine yourself having whatever you want in the future, see how good that feels, now ask if you’re willing to give that up for what you want right now.

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