Cover of The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal PhDWhen I actually have some time between family, work, and trying to get some exercise, I try to read books about health, nutrition, and mental performance.

Recently, I read The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.  The subtitle of Dr. McGonigal’s book is “How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.”

This book is a great read for anyone having trouble achieving a goal or procrastinating out of fear of failure.

The Willpower Instinct first explains what willpower is and its evolutionary basis.  The book then goes through how we sabotage our willpower and gives us strategies to us to enhance it.

Importantly, Dr. McGonigal’s book is based on her extensive reading of scientific studies relating to willpower.  This is one self-help book that is grounded in science and is not just a collection of hortatory platitudes.


The book begins with a pep talk of sorts.  McGonigal writes:  “I believe that the best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.”  But, she does not want you to feel overwhelmed by your lack of control:

One thing the science of willpower makes clear is that everyone struggles in some way with temptation, addiction, distraction, and procrastination.  These are not individual weaknesses that reveal our personal inadequacies – they are universal experiences and part of the human condition.

McGonigal suggests that readers of her book select one “willpower challenge” – diet, exercise, writing a novel, studying, etc. – that they want to deal with and then apply the lessons in her book to it.  She suggests taking your time – reading and applying one chapter each week – to work through your willpower challenge.

If you instead decide to read through the entire book in a sitting or two, you can still get an immense amount of information out of it.  The book is filled with all sorts of “ah-ha” moments.

McGonigal’s main thesis is that self-control (i.e., willpower) is a function of self-awareness.  If we can be aware enough to predict what we are going to do before we do it, then we will have opportunity to consider our proposed actions and avoid those that might sabotage us on the way to our goals.

Increasing Self-Awareness

Indeed, The Willpower Instinct is essentially a book designed to teach us ways to be more self-aware and to learn from our willpower mistakes going forward.

For example, McGonigal tells us to track the choices we make related to our willpower challenge by keeping a written log.  Then, later, when we realize we made a wrong choice, we will be more likely to recognize our wrong choices in the future and make the correct choice to help achieve our goals.

One of my favorite scientific findings discussed in the book is that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control.  After eleven hours, researchers were able to see changes in the brains of meditators!  Scientific studies show over and over that meditation helps the brain get better at attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.

Another interesting section of the book compares the fight-or-flight response to the pause-and-plan response.

We all know that the fight-or-flight response is how the body reacts to an external threat (e.g., snake in the grass).  Your thinking brain is essentially cut off and your reactive brain goes into the self-defense mode of attack or escape.

We also know that in modern society, we experience that sort of life-of-death situation rarely.  What we do, however, experience every day are internal conflicts about what we should do (e.g., file taxes, go for a jog, eat a healthy meal, etc.) versus our desire to do nothing at all or something else more pleasurable.

McGonigal states that what we need to do in order to properly assess and act on these internal conflicts is to pause-and-plan.  In fact, evolution has put such a system in place.  When we are in a situation where an important decision is called for, our heart rate slows down, we take a deep breath, and our muscles relax.

Why?  The slackening of the body keeps us from immediately following our impulses (e.g., eat that cheesecake) and instead gives us time for more thoughtful, flexible action.

So, the next time you notice yourself taking a deep breath for no apparent reason, pay attention.  What choice are you about to make? What are the consequences of each choice? What goals might your choice affect?

But what if you make the wrong choice and recognize this later?  Maybe you eat that entire bag of potato chips and feel guilty about “ruining” your diet?

Forgive yourself

One reason we get upset when we do something that leads us away from our goals is that we feel guilty for acting stupidly.  But, according to McGonigal, it is forgiveness, not guilt, that actually increases accountability.

Researchers have found that having a self-compassionate view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view.

McGonigal says that one reason forgiveness works is that it “takes away the shame and pain of thinking about what happened.”  I agree.  I have applied the self-forgiveness technique to a long-standing personal willpower challenge of mine, and have found the results startling.

I highly recommend you read The Willpower Instinct.

Whether you have a personal willpower challenge on which you are working or just want to learn more about the mind-body-achievement axis, this book is well worth your time.


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