The Willpower Instinct

Kelly McGonigal

The author walks you through what goes on in your brain during a decision-making process and how to use that process to your advantage. A good book for improving willpower, goal setting and motivation.

🧠 Psychology

I Will, I Won't, I Want

Willpower is actually three powers—I will, I won’t, and I want—that help us to be a better version of ourselves.

  • "I will" — something that you would like to do more of
  • "I won't" — something you'd like to give up or do less of
  • "I want" — what is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on? What immediate “want” is most likely to distract you or tempt you away from this goal?

To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.

To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters (“I want” power).

There’s the version of us that acts on impulse and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals.

The part of you that wants to give in isn’t bad—it simply has a different point of view about what matters most.

The Willpower Instinct

Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.

Just five minutes of what scientists call “green exercise” (being outside, near greenery) decreases stress, improves mood, enhances focus, and boosts self-control.

Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation.

When you are chronically stressed, your body continues to divert energy from long-term needs such as digestion, reproduction, healing injuries, and fighting off illnesses to respond to the constant stream of apparent emergencies. This is how chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic back pain, infertility, or getting every cold and flu that come around.

Trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy.

Self Control Is Like a Muscle

Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger.

The limits of self-control present a paradox: We cannot control everything, and yet the only way to increase our self-control is to stretch our limits.

Like a muscle, our willpower follows the rule of “Use it or lose it.” If we try to save our energy by becoming willpower coach potatoes, we will lose the strength we have. But if we try to run a willpower marathon every day, we set ourselves up for total collapse.

Our challenge is to train like an intelligent athlete, pushing our limits but also pacing ourselves. And while we can find strength in our motivation when we feel weak, we can also look for ways to help our tired selves make good choices.

Willpower is the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest.

If you can imagine a time when saying no will be second nature, you’ll be more willing to stick out the temporary misery.

Moral Licensing

When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.

In the quest for self-control, it is a mistake to frame every willpower challenge in moral terms. We are too quick to give ourselves moral credit for good deeds done or merely contemplated, and too good at justifying giving in.

Thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong” instead of remembering what we really want will trigger competing impulses and license self-sabotaging behaviour. For change to stick, we need to identify with the goal itself, not the halo glow we get from being good.

Progress can be motivating, and even inspire future self-control, but only if you view your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal. In other words, you need to look at what you have done and conclude that you must really care about your goal, so much so that you want to do even more to reach it.

Do you tell yourself you’ve been “good” when you succeed at a willpower challenge, then give yourself permission to do something “bad”?

Are you borrowing credit from tomorrow? Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behaviour tomorrow—and if so, do you follow through?

To revoke your license, remember the why. The next time you find yourself using past good behaviour to justify indulging, pause and think about why you were “good,” not whether you deserve a reward.

Remembering the “why” works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence. That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won’t look so good.

We Mistake Wanting for Happiness

Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.

Desire is the brain’s strategy for action. As we’ve seen, it can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower.

When dopamine points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness. But we can also recruit dopamine and the promise of reward to motivate ourselves and others.

When dopamine is released by one promise of reward, it also makes you more susceptible to any other kind of temptation (e.g. erotic images make men more likely to take financial risks).

When you really understand how a so-called reward makes you feel, you will be best able to make smart decisions about whether and how to “reward” yourself.

If we are to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.

If we can remember Olds and Milner’s rat pressing that lever, we may find just enough clarity in moments of temptation to not believe the brain’s big lie.

Feeling Bad Leads to Giving in

Feeling bad leads to giving in, and dropping guilt makes you stronger.

To avoid stress-induced willpower failures, we need to discover what really makes us feel better—not the false promise of reward, and not empty promises to change.

Stress—including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety—shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state.

When we do experience setbacks—which we will—we need to forgive those failures, and not use them as an excuse to give in or give up.

If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.

The decision to change is the ultimate in instant gratification—you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. The effort of actually making the change cannot compare, from a happiness point of view, to the rush of imagining that you will change.

The Economics of Instant Gratification

Our inability to clearly see the future clearly leads us into temptation and procrastination.

When we contemplate the future, our imaginations fail us in predictable ways. Far-off rewards seem less compelling, so we choose immediate gratification.

We fail to predict how we will be tempted or distracted, so we fail to protect ourselves from abandoning our goals. To make wiser decisions, we need to better understand and support our future selves.Delay discounting — the longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you.

We take what we want when we want it (now), and we put off until tomorrow whatever we don’t want to face today.

Visualising your future self can make you more willing to invest in them—and, by extension, themselves. High future-self continuity seems to propel people to be the best version of themselves now.

Lower your discount rate.

  1. When you are tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for whatever the immediate gratification is.
  2. Imagine that long-term reward as already yours. Imagine your future self enjoying the fruits of your self-control.
  3. Then ask yourself: Are you willing to give that up in exchange for whatever fleeting pleasure is tempting you now? (e.g. studying for med school: "Is this worth not becoming a doctor?")

Willpower is Contagious

Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.

To a remarkable degree, our brains incorporate the goals, beliefs, and actions of other people into our decisions.

The flip side is also true: Our own actions influence the actions of countless other people, and each choice we make for ourselves can serve as inspiration or temptation for others.

Who are you most likely to catch something from? Who are your “close others”? Are there any behaviours that you’ve picked up from them, or that they have caught from you?

There is a fine line between the self-control benefits of anticipating a negative social emotion like shame, and the willpower-draining effects of actually feeling ashamed.

The Limits of I Won't Power

Trying to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings backfires and makes you more likely to think, feel, or do the thing you most want to avoid.

If we truly want peace of mind and better self-control, we need to accept that it is impossible to control what comes into our mind. All we can do is choose what we believe and what we act on.

Ironic rebound — when you attempt to push a thought away, it boomerangs back.

We estimate how likely or true something is by the ease with which we can bring it to mind (see Availability Bias).

When you stop fighting thoughts and emotions, you can find more freedom from them.

The opposite of thought suppression is accepting the presence of the thought—not believing it.

The more you try to avoid the food, the more your mind will be preoccupied by it.