Summary: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly Mcgoniga
Summary: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly Mcgoniga

Summary: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly Mcgoniga

Willpower consists of 3 forces

  1. I won’t – ability to say no – what’s hurting your health, happiness or career?
  2. I will – ability to do what you don’t like for better future – which habit should you stop putting off improving your life?
  3. I want – ability to remember what you truly want – What is number 1 long-term goal you would like to focus more energy on? Which immediate desires are keeping you away from it?


Meditation increases self-control

When your mind is preoccupied, immediate temptation can easily overshadow your long-term goals.It only takes 3 hours of regular medication to improve self-control and develop higher attention. After 11 hours of practice, changes are already observable in the brain regions responsible for self-awareness.

Research: Students were instructed to remember a phone number while having to choose between which snack to eat: chocolate or fruit. Students with their minds distracted chose the chocolate 50% more than those without memorization task.

Actionable Advice:

  • Avoid decision making when distracted.
  • Increase your self-awareness through meditation.


Willpower is a biological instinct that protects us from danger.

What does a saber-toothed tiger have in common with a chocolate cookie? They hurt your health.

Fight-or-flight response kicks in when we face scary or life-threatening situations. That’s when your body devotes all its energy to getting yourself out of emergency.

Pause-and-plan response on the other hand shifts your focus on internal conflict between your rational and impulsive selves, slows you down to help control your impulse.

Pay attention to everything that places stress on your mind and body (anger, anxiety, chronic pain).


Willpower is like a muscle – it can be trained and over-trained.

Like a muscle, our willpower follows the rule of use it or lose it. Bu remember every stressful attempt to exert self-control draws from same limited source. Willpower exhaustion happens all the time.

Just as you train your biceps with curls, you can train your willpower by using willpower muscle. Perform small and regular challenges you can gradually improve your self-control. For example – keep a forbidden candy jar in easily visible location you’re never allowed to touch – no matter how tempting it looks. Regular practice with this small temptation trains your willpower muscle which helps you prime for even bigger challenges.

Train like an athlete but you don’t need to run a marathon every day. Push it but pay attention to the limits.


It’s true a shot of sugar can give a short-term willpower boost in emergency. But in the long-term it’s not a good strategy for self-control.

Doing so undermine the brain’s ability to use sugar and glucose effectively. You could end up with high sugar but low energy leading to type 2 diabetes.


Past performance is not the license to indulge at present.

Just thinking you’re ‘virtuous’ lowers your self-awareness and discipline.

Research: Students who disagree with strong sexist statements were more likely to discriminate against female candidates than those who agreed to milder statements.

This is because we feel we’re being virtuous enough, we see less need to control ourselves. Students proved they’re not sexist by rejecting a statement, they then paid less attention to actual behavior. Same way, rewarding yourself with a doughnut after a workout is counter-productive. Don’t allow your success to nullify your progress. Stick to rule which serves your goal. Remind yourself on long-term goals.


When reward system for brain takes over, temptation becomes almost irresistible.

Why do we feel guilty after buying a new sweater we don’t need, or spending a lazy evening in front of TV? Because your brain’s reward system is not always your friend, and sometimes leads you to wrong direction.

When you sense something, you desire – the system releases a neurotransmitter called ‘dopamine’ which activates areas of the brain responsible for attention, motivation and action. Dopamine is release anytime you feel good (a 70% sign at a mall, a rib-eye juicy steak). Anytime dopamine is released, object that pulled the trigger becomes very desirable.

Combine unpleasant task with something that gets your dopamine firing – e.g. bring your boring paperwork to your favorite café and finish it over a hot chocolate.


Feeling bad undermines willpower.

Stress makes you feel bad, which motivates you do something better. Unfortunately, the easiest way to feel better is doing something you’ll later feel bad. It’s a downward spiral. For example – losing money at casino upsets you so you continue gambling to win. When you feel stressed, don’t give in. Try exercise or mediation which leaves you satisfied, not guilty.

The higher we set our goal, the more difficult it can be to stay on track. Failure to meet goals leads us to frustration and soon we abandon our efforts altogether. To avoid this fate, when you fall short, don’t beat yourself up. Just forgive yourself and try again.


We don’t see our future selves as ourselves, but different people.

We perceive them as strangers due to our inability to observe their thoughts and feelings. We put off tasks, hoping our future-self will have more willpower to deal with them.

Visualization makes you become more familiar with your future version. Imagine your future-self thinking back on the decisions you’re making today and their consequences.


Our instant gratification distances us from our long-term goals.

The need for instant gratification is deeply rooted in our human brains. When a tempting object is starting at you, resistance often feels futile because reward system reacts strongly to visible rewards. But temptation becomes weaker when you create distance between you and object.

Research: When the candy was placed out of sight inside a drawer, office workers’ candy consumption was reduced by one third.


Thought-suppression can make your thoughts stronger.

Research: the group that received instructions not to think about chocolate reported fewer thoughts about chocolate but ended up eating twice as much. 

Instead of deciding what you will not eat, devote your energy to what you will eat. When you feel the urge to eat unhealthily, wait 10 minutes. If you still crave after that, grant yourself a permission to eat. Accept your thoughts as they come and go, but you don’t have to believe them.


Don’t push away thoughts about eating chocolate.

Instead, accept whatever thoughts you have about chocolate but also remember you don’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings. While not having to control your thoughts, you still must control your behaviors.


Willpower is contagious.

If we observe other people acting impulsively, we’re more likely to be impulsive ourselves and neglect our long-term goals for immediate pleasure. What’s more, the more we like the person observed, the stronger this effect is.

Research: Having a family member or close friend who recently lost a lot of weigh increases your chances of losing weight.

 Think about someone who you admire for their willpower. Get friends and family involved with your willpower challenge (willpower partners). Make it a group project.

Research: Participants who joined weight-loss intervention as partners checked in more often than those who joined alone. Success rate was also higher at 66% compared to 24%.


Our taste buds delight in the foods most likely to make us fat and insatiable sweet tooth helped humans survived when food was scarce and extra body fat was life insurance.

Our ancestors however were not troubled by this reward mechanism. In fact, sweets and berries were a crucial part of their diet. It helps them preserve body fat in case of prolonged periods without food. Fast forward to our modern environment, fast food, junk food and whole food are causing extra weights and imposing health risks. Sadly because it paid off for our ancestors, our modern brains still come equipped with the well-preserved instinct to crave fat and sweet. As such the ability to resist tempting food was more important for long-term survival.


We don’t need to become better people, we need to become better rested.

When you are tired, your system cannot properly absorb glucose from your blood stream. This leads you under-fueled and exhausted. Even if you re-fuel with sugar and caffeine, your brain and body won’t get the energy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently. This explains why stock-brokers may make some stupid buys before lunch, and managers who skip breakfast may find his intern irresistible.


Restaurants add 1% virtue to 99% vice and makes us feel good about ourselves even if we sabotage our long-term goals.

When dieters saw the word ‘fat-free’, it more than cancelled out the sin of chocolate double food cookies in the inside. People are blinded by the light of fat-free halo. So adding a salad to a burger doesn’t lower it calorie, and an organic label is not your license to binge without limits.


The most effective stress-relief strategies are

  1. exercise sports
  2. praying
  3. reading
  4. listening to music
  5. spending time with friends and families
  6. massage
  7. meditation
  8. walking
  9. yoga
  10. creative hobby


People who have the greatest self-control aren’t waging self-war. They’ve learned to accept and integrate these competing selves.

If there’s a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing, the power of ‘paying attention’ rather than running on auto-pilot. So keep track of your decisions especially impulsive ones.

Were there situations you could have avoided to preserve your willpower supply?  Were there times you gave in to an impulse because you lost sight of your long-term goal? First pinpoint your weaknesses, then visualizing yourself overcoming them is key to improving your willpower instinct.