The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

The Willpower Instinct

Summary of The Willpower Instinct: “There are many misbeliefs about willpower and self-discipline; psychological experiments allow us to understand the counter-intuitive mechanisms of willpower in order to strengthen it and achieve one’s goals in all areas.”

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, 2013, 288 pages,

Note: This article is a guest post written by Raj from the Lagouaille (“Cheeky Humor”) blog

Review and Summary of The Willpower Instinct:


Know That You May Fail

Smokers observed during a psychological experiment tried to kick their addiction.

Some of them were optimistic and convinced that they would be able to quit smoking quickly. The other smokers, more pessimistic, were afraid of never being able to quit.

In which of these two groups do you think more people were successful in achieving their goal?
In the group of pessimistic smokers. Contrary to popular belief, optimism is not the best ally of self-discipline because it can make us less vigilant.

The first rule to follow to strengthen your willpower proposed in the book The Willpower Instinct is to predict why, when, and how one is likely to fail in the pursuit of a goal.

A Practical Psychology Course

Based on numerous statistical studies, the author debunks misconceptions about willpower and lays out rules to be observed in order to better control oneself.
The book The Willpower Instinct came about from the “courses on willpower” given by the author over several weeks.

The lessons it contains must be applied and integrated one after the other, in a progressive way, not all at once.

As we will see in the 3rd chapter, willpower is a muscle that we can exercise and strengthen in a particular area to use it in all other aspects of our life. The lessons presented in The Willpower Instinct are therefore applicable to physical exercise, diets, studying for classes, entrepreneurship as well as learning to meet and seduce people.


Why We Have Willpower

Self-discipline is not an unnatural human ability. It is a primary instinct that has been in our genes for over 100,000 years.

100,000 years ago, the members of a tribe were bound by complex social relationships.

Sometimes, they had to refrain from eating their fill to share their food with the group and not be excluded. They had to keep their cool in the face of predators. They also had to refrain from sleeping with a cousin or the partner of a jealous male.

Therefore, willpower is a survival instinct deeply rooted in the human brain.

Why You Have to Train Your Willpower Today

With the increasing complexity of human societies and the rising number of temptations and distractions, the daily need for willpower has become too great for our natural ability to control our impulses.

All the studies show that today people who have more willpower are more successful in their studies, their jobs, and that they are generally happier and live longer.

The Neuroscience of Willpower

Willpower and self-discipline in humans come from a natural evolution of the brain. The human brain can be divided into 3 parts: a reptilian part, a mammalian part, and a uniquely human part.

  • The reptilian part, the oldest, is at the center of the brain. It directs our reflexes and primary impulses without our being aware of it.
  • The mammalian part, shared with other mammals, is related to affection, love, and the need for social relationships.
  • Finally, the prefrontal part, the most recent in evolution, has developed considerably in humans to allow us to think and learn.

It is thanks to it that we can, among other things, write and do mental calculations.

Willpower resides in the prefrontal cortex, and it enables it to take over the older parts of the brain when necessary.

“When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses, not your long-term goals, will guide your choices.” Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct

An Extraordinary Case of Willpower Lost

Phileas Gage’s story illustrates this divide in the human brain. A railroad worker in 1948, he suffered an accident that damaged his prefrontal cortex. He then became a whole different person: rude, rarely punctual, aggressive, etc. He lost his willpower, no longer filtered his words and no longer controlled his actions.

Even without suffering a brutal accident, anyone can lose the use of their prefrontal cortex. All you need to do is be hungry, tired, or drunk…

Train Your Prefrontal Cortex with Meditation

A few minutes of meditation daily enable you to be much more aware of your emotions. By focusing on your breathing for 10 minutes – even imperfectly – you can significantly improve your self-control. It is not necessary to pay 100% of your attention to your breathing but just to notice how your attention can sometimes deviate from it and then try to bring it back to it.

The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard is the author of an excellent book about meditation which has become a true reference.


Pause and Plan

In the face of imminent danger, the human brain has a response known as “fight-or-flight”.
This response enabled us to make a quick decision in the hostile environment of prehistoric times, in the face of very swift predators.

But there is another response, complementary to the “fight-or-flight”. It’s the “pause-and-plan” response.

During prehistoric times this response was already necessary, but it was not yet overused because we did not often come across cheesecakes and other appetizing, albeit unhealthy, foods.

Today, the “pause-and-plan” response is needed all the time, whether walking in front of store windows or surfing the web.

The Willpower Reserve

Our willpower level depends on our physiology. In a study of alcoholics trying to kick their addiction, it was found that people with greater heart rate variability had a greater chance of doing so.

Heart rate variability, or the irregularity of the space between heart beats, is directly related to general health. The greater it is (for example for a marathon runner), the healthier one is. Less processed, more natural food and better air quality also have a positive influence on our willpower.

Reduce Your Breathing Rate

By breathing less often and more slowly, one can also increase one’s general willpower by reducing stress. This can be done by training to breathe only 5 or 6 times in a minute.

The Miracle of Physical Activity

In a clinical trial on drug users, it was observed that those who exercised regularly were more likely to quit using drugs.

But how much exercise should you do to improve your willpower? This is the question the author is most often asked when she explains this lesson in willpower.

She always responds: “How many exercises are you willing to do?”

The ideal is to set a realistic goal and achieve it every week.

What type of exercise is best to do to improve your willpower? There is no consensus on this question. The ideal is to choose a physical activity that you like and that you will be able to maintain over the long term.

Gain Willpower While You Sleep!

In the human body, the brain is the organ that consumes the most energy. The prefrontal cortex, the seat of willpower, is the region that consumes the most energy in the brain.

As a result, when we are tired, the prefrontal cortex slows down. Not being necessary for our immediate survival, it partially shuts down in favor of other parts of the brain, which consume less energy.

Therefore, if you lack willpower and self-discipline, it may be due to a simple lack of sleep.

A Stressed Nation

In the United States, it seems that the new generations are less self-disciplined and less focused than the previous ones.

When you are familiar with the physiology of willpower, you can easily understand why: we walk less, we sleep less, we eat less naturally, and we are more stressed.

All the conditions are met for willpower and self-discipline to decrease on the scale of an entire nation.


The Model of Willpower as a Multitasking Muscle

Willpower is a limited resource that must be used strategically so as to never run out.

By exploiting it in one area you can lose it in another. People who try to quit smoking are more likely to cheat on their partners; students during periods of intense testing tend to eat less healthily than in normal times.

A Willpower Exercise

In one experiment, a first group of testing subjects were asked to force themselves to use their non-dominant hands (the right for left-handed people and vice versa) to eat, brush their teeth and open doors for 2 weeks.

A second group was also asked to always say “yes” instead of “yeah”.

A third group of people observed did not receive any instruction from the experimenters.

After 2 weeks, the members of the first 2 groups were found to be less angry and less jealous with their partners than those of the third group.

Therefore, by exercising one’s willpower daily in one area, one gains more willpower and self-control in all areas.

Willpower is a muscle that can be exhausted over the course of a day but also strengthened with regular exercise.

Are the Limits of Self-control Real?

Timothy Noakes, professor of sports science, studied the phenomenon of abandonment and fatigue in runners.

He demonstrated that the feeling of “exhaustion” and the sudden desire to give up were not of physical origin, but only of cerebral origin.

The moment when the athlete feels compelled to stop does not correspond to any muscular event. However, the brain produces the feeling of fatigue so that the body maintains a certain minimum energy reserve.

To exercise one’s will, it is necessary to identify these illusory limits and to go beyond them regularly.

Personal note:

This phenomenon of false fatigue is not specific to physical activity. I observe it regularly with my students during dating coaching. The brain can make us feel like we are physically tired to have an excuse and not get over our fears.

“Meditation is not about getting rid of all your thoughts; it’s learning not to get lost in them to the point where you forget what your goal is. Don’t worry if your concentration is not perfect while meditating. Just practice catching your breath over and over again.” Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct


From Saint to Sinner

Cases of adultery and serious misconduct are common among presidents, athletes, and religious leaders. The reason is that good deeds, sacrifices, and efforts psychologically allow us to cut some corners.

When Exercise Licenses Junk Food

After a smoke-free period, you are likely to smoke more than usual.
In a relationship, just after rejecting the opportunity of adultery, you are much more likely to give in to a new temptation.

The sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from achievement can make you self-indulgent to the point of lacking vigilance and of giving in more easily than in normal times.

The Reassuring and Strange Logic of Moral licensing

In a psychological experiment, students were asked what they thought of the following sentence: “Some women are not very smart, and some women are meant to stay at home.”
The students then agreed or disagreed with this affirmation in a public or anonymous way.

In the second part of the experiment, the students were put in a fictitious situation where they had to hire a man or a woman with the same qualifications for a job.

Students who strongly agreed with the sentence “some women are not very smart (…)” hired women more often, while those who did not agree with the sentence hired men more often.

This result was entirely contrary to the expectations of the researchers, as it was previously believed that individuals tended to match their actions with their words.

On the contrary, it seems that the expression of a feminist opinion by an individual, even anonymously, authorizes the individual to make a sexist choice in favor of men.
This phenomenon is called moral licensing.

Moral licensing is a serious threat to self-discipline, for it can nullify our efforts. For example, it can make us allow ourselves to eat in a fast-food restaurant just after an intensive workout and consequently bring us back to square one in the pursuit of a goal.

You must be aware of this phenomenon so as not to become complacent or lower your guard after tasting initial success.


The Promise of Reward

In a controversial experiment, electrodes were placed on the heads of several people. The experimenters sent electric shocks to the testing subjects in a dopamine-stimulating region.

The shocks only produced a feeling of frustration and no pleasure in the testing subjects.

Yet when these ended, they demanded more electric shocks, to the point of becoming angry with the experimenters refusing to continue the experiment.

Dopamine stimulation is addictive, and it compels us into action. It is a promise of happiness that does not bring any positive emotions.

What we desire and what gives us pleasure are two fundamentally different things.

To be happier, you have to become a dopamine detective and point all of the dopamine triggers in our day to day in the direction of our long-term goals.

Dopamine on Demand

In our society, dopamine triggers are omnipresent. A simple notification on Facebook or a new email gets us to act because these events carry with them a promise of happiness and uncertainty. Yet 9 times out of 10 it does not correspond to anything useful or interesting.

In 2005, Lee Seung Seop, a 28-year-old Korean, died of cardiac arrest after playing the Starcraft video game for 50 hours on his computer.

He probably wasn’t happy playing that long, but video games are all about boosting gamers’ dopamine by always making them dissatisfied and motivated to play longer.

Become a Dopamine Detective

To push yourself into action, you can identify your personal dopamine triggers and place them behind your goals. You can, for example, allow yourself to watch your notifications on Facebook only after you have finished reading an article about willpower and self-discipline ;).
Doing so, you will be more immediately motivated to achieve an important objective of which the interest is less obvious in the short term.

The Importance of Desire

Adam, a 33-year-old man who suffered from numerous addictions to hard drugs, overdosed one day. Since then, he has been cured of all his addictions, but he no longer has any desire for anything.
His overdose damaged his brain’s reward system, which secreted dopamine and compelled him into action.

Deprived of it, Adam fell into depression.
The brain’s reward system, while imperfect and often causing us to make the wrong choices, is nonetheless essential for happiness.

Why Stress Stimulates Desire

When we are stressed, the brain tends to direct us not towards relaxing activities but rather towards dopamine-releasing activities, that is to say towards false promises of relaxation. If you have just spent too much money and it makes you feel guilty, you might, for example, buy and eat chocolate to make yourself feel better. This can make you feel more guilty and cause you to smoke a cigarette to relax.

This chain of bad choices can go on endlessly without you ever being able to truly relax.

Try a truly stress-relieving activity.

The methods that are proven to reduce your stress the most effectively are:

  • Exercising
  • Praying or participating in a religious event
  • Reading
  • Doing yoga
  • Practicing a creative hobby

The least effective methods of de-stressing are:

  • Shopping
  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Eating
  • Betting
  • Playing video games
  • Surfing the web
  • Watching TV
  • Watching movies

To manage a stressful situation and maintain self-control, you must refrain from activities that are appealing but dopamine-releasing and opt for activities that are truly de-stressing.


Why Guilt Is Ineffective

In a psychological experiment, 2 groups of dieting women were asked to eat cookies. The first group was then reassured with words to relieve them of guilt: “Everyone can give in to temptation, no one is perfect…”. Nothing was said to the women in the second group.

During the second part of the experiment, the women of these 2 groups had to taste skittles that they could grab from a bowl. The experimenters then counted the number of skittles eaten by each of the women.
Those who had been reassured in the first part of the experiment ate fewer skittles than the women in the second group, who probably felt guilty.

The guilt within them caused stress and a feeling of failure, which made them say to themselves: “Whatever, I have already failed anyway.”

Anything but Self-forgiveness

During her willpower classes, the author explains that the effectiveness of self-forgiveness is the lesson that her students have the most difficulty accepting. Everyone imagines that it does not apply to him/her. Our education and culture have often accustomed us to continuous self-flagellation. Yet, forgiving oneself and removing guilt is one of the most effective solutions to strengthen self-discipline.

“When we are stressed, our brains always poorly predict what will make us happy.”Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct


Apes Wiser than Humans

In one experiment, chimpanzees were given the choice to eat 2 bananas immediately or 6 bananas in 2 minutes. Human were also given the choice to either eat 2 pieces of candy immediately or 6 pieces of candy in 2 minutes.

When candy or bananas were placed in front of them, most humans chose not to wait while chimps preferred to wait longer. When the same experiment was performed without putting the candy in front of the humans, they then also chose to wait longer.

Blinded by the Reward

Our more developed neocortex of human beings should allow us to have more self-discipline and willpower than chimpanzees, but it also makes it easier for us to find excuses not to make an effort.

Unlike monkeys, we can say to ourselves, “No, actually, I don’t want to eat 4 more pieces of candy. I’ll get some later.” So, when we come face to face with the object of our temptation, we are much more likely to invent excuses to give in to it.

Wait 10 Minutes

In order to ward off temptations, you may decide to give in to them only after waiting 10 minutes. If you want to stop reading an article to check your emails; wait 10 minutes before doing so to see if you change your mind in the meantime.

No Site is Worth a Dream

By adding a 10-minute delay between when you feel the temptation and when you give in to it, you can put it in perspective with your goal and ask yourself, for example, Would I rather:

  • “Waste 20 minutes on Facebook, or finish my project as soon as possible?”
  • “Eat that candy bar or have my dream physique?”
  • “Smoke a cigarette or live longer?”

By putting off all your temptations for 10 minutes you will often find that your long-term goals are more important than mere instant gratification.

The Optimism of the Future Me and Humanitarian Organizations

In the streets, members of humanitarian organizations offer their potential donors to start donating not immediately but several weeks later. In fact, they noticed that the donors were more generous if they looked into the future.

We always imagine that we will have more willpower in the future than in the present. It is this same optimism of the future self that prompts us to postpone projects that require a lot of effort and self-discipline.

When the Future Looks Different

Howard Rachlin observed that smokers who set a consistent daily number of cigarettes more easily cut back than smokers who gradually tried to quit smoking altogether.

By setting a consistent, daily goal rather than a progressive and overly ambitious goal, one eliminates the illusion of a future self that is different and brimming with willpower.

No Plan B: Why Burn Your Ships?

The king of Syracuse, before invading Carthage, decided to burn the ships of his army so as not to leave the choice to his soldiers between victory or death. By “burning your ships”, that is to say by eliminating your escape routes (for example, by giving up a job) one can force oneself to make more efforts to achieve one’s objectives.

Meeting Your Future Self

In a psychological study, students were allowed to interact with 3-dimensional models of themselves while older.

They and other students who had not seen an aged version of themselves were then offered the option of taking a small amount of money immediately or a larger amount a few days later.

Students who interacted with their future selves more often made the wise choice and preferred to take more money later. More simply, in order to be more aware of your future self, you can also use the site and write emails addressed to yourself that you will only receive in one or thirty years.


The Spread of an Epidemic

In the US Air Force, it was observed that in a new squadron, the physical condition of the weakest recruit was a very good indicator of the physical condition of all members of the squadron after a few months. It was also observed that obesity was more likely caused by a social factor (being around obese people) than by a genetic factor. Willpower, good or bad, is a disease that is transmitted gradually.

Member of a Tribe

Two different messages were given to residents of a building.

  • The first residents received information on the consequences of overconsumption of water for the planet.
  • The others received the following message: “Everyone in your neighborhood is careful about their water consumption.”

It was then observed that the residents of the second group changed their behavior more and adopted ecological practices more often than those of the first group.
Therefore, the fate of the planet motivates us less to act than the desire to do like everyone else.

The Power of Honor

In Chicago, attempts have long been made to curb prostitution with prison terms and heavy fines. It was then found that the publication of photographs of prostitute clients was much more effective.

To be sure to achieve your goals, you have to choose your social environment to gain additional motivation through the group effect and fear of shame.


Why Suppressing Thoughts Is Ineffective

In a psychological experiment, 2 groups of people were asked to resist the temptation to eat chocolate by using 2 different strategies.

  • The first group was to avoid thinking of chocolate and try to suppress the idea and desire to eat it.
  • The members of the second group had to accept their desires and identify the different feelings that arose within them. They had to accept their thoughts without actually eating the chocolates.

People in the second group resisted temptation much more often than those in the first group.

Avoiding the Ironic Rebound

When we try to suppress a thought, we reinforce it by the effect of the ironic rebound. For example, it is impossible not to think of a yellow elephant when you consciously try not to think about it. This is why by dieting you can become obsessed with a food you deprive yourself of.

In order to avoid the ironic rebound, you must learn to accept the thoughts that cross your mind and never try to suppress them. In general, you have greater willpower when you are more aware of your thoughts and mental habits.

Conclusion on The Willpower Instinct by Raj from the Lagouaille site

Kelly McGonigal’s “The Willpower Instinct” taught me many effective lessons that I have been able to use in my daily life. Here are the 11 lessons I learned from the book The Willpower Instinct:

  1. To strengthen your willpower, you must take into account its physiological dimension by sleeping as much as necessary as well as by adopting a more natural diet.
  2. Meditation and daily physical exercise are proving to be excellent solutions to becoming more self-disciplined in all areas.
  3. You must push the limits of your willpower dailyin order to strengthen it.
  4. Success is an enemy of motivation; you must be careful never to fall into moral licensingor to become complacent.
  5. You must identify the activities that trigger the release of dopamine and compel you into action. By allowing yourself to do these activities only after achieving a goal, you get a much stronger source of motivation.
  6. Stress is the enemy of self-discipline. To reduce it, you must not mistake actual de-stressing activities for activities that release dopamine and towards which you go more naturally when you are stressed.
  7. Always waiting 10 minutes before giving into a bad temptation is a good way to put a sudden impulse into perspective with a bigger goal.
  8. You must beware of the optimism of the future self by realizing the risks of failure. Burning your ships, setting daily and consistent goals or even regularly contacting your future self are effective ways to eliminate this blind optimism.
  9. You must forgive yourself when you fail because the feeling of guilt depletes your willpower reserve.
  10. Social pressure(the fear of shame, the desire to conform to a group, or the desire to impress) is the most powerful motivatorin human beings.
  11. You must accept the thoughts and temptations that cross your mind because by trying to suppress them you only reinforce them through the ironic rebound

The lessons of “The Willpower Instinct” are at odds with those of many personal development coaches; but they are much more reliable because they are based on sound scientific studies.

Although these experiments are often limited to easily measurable activities (exercise, diet, drug use), they apply perfectly to all other areas. I successfully integrated the principles explained by the author not only as a blogger but also to give more willpower to my students during and after my weekend dating coaching.

Strong points of The Willpower Instinct:

  • The book is filled with very effective teachings that are against the flow.
  • The topics of willpower and self-discipline seem to be dissected from A to Z.
  • Each lesson is based on serious scientific experiments and not on the author’s impressions.
  • The Willpower Instinct is a book nevertheless accessible to those who know nothing about psychology.
  • Each lesson is followed by practical exercises that the author has already tested with her students during her willpower classes.
  • The author does not lack humor and the book is a fun read.

Weak points of The Willpower Instinct:

  • The Willpower Instinctis very dense and difficult to apply fully after reading too quickly through it. But the author amply warns us on this point.
  • It is not translated into French, and the passages detailing the psychological experiments may be difficult for a non-English speaker to understand.
  • Chapters and sub-chapters may not be optimally structured, and some principles are repeated throughout the book.

My rating : The Science of Getting Rich Wallace The Science of Getting Rich Wallace The Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich WallaceThe Science of Getting Rich Wallace

Have you read “The Willpower Instinct”? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (No Ratings Yet)

Read more reviews on Amazon about “The Willpower Instinct”

Buy on Amazon “The Willpower Instinct”

One thought on “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *