“The Willpower Instinct”: Kelly McGonigal’s Views On How to Harness It

The development of willpower–I will, I won’t and I want–may define what it means to be human. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct

What could be more needed and/or relevant in early January than Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011)?

And who could be more qualified to write such a book than the woman whose course at Stanford on “The Science of Willpower” regularly draws so much interest?

What is willpower? In an interview with Kate Torgovnick May (TED blog) McGonigal states:

I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to…There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

As compiled from various sources, below are some of her main points in The Willpower Instinct:

  • The three skills of self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are what can fend off the three biggest challenges to willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress.
  • “If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.” Conversely, not paying attention is conducive to losing impulse control.
  • Want to increase your willpower? Exercise it like a muscle.
  • Your willpower will be at its peak when you wake up and decline throughout the day.
  • Sleeping enough and eating healthily helps.
  • Giving yourself small rewards also helps.
  • Guilt over setbacks does not—it often contributes to giving up, at least for a while.
  • Alarming people about the negative nature of their habits is often not beneficial.

An example of how the latter point might play out, per McGonigal:

A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words ‘WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer’ and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, ‘Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!’

What should you do when your own willpower flags? In a Psychology Today post McGonigal asserts that the following five “temptations” can actually be of use:

1. Reality Television—watch the kind that features people going after a goal. ‘Research shows that willpower can be contagious.’

2. A Snack. ‘One reason willpower runs out is because it’s energy-expensive. The brain uses more energy for self-control than for just about anything else. So if you’re running low on physical energy, you’ll be low in willpower energy.’

3. The Cute YouTube Video. ‘Research show that watching a humorous video restores depleted willpower and helps people get back on track with difficult tasks.’

4. An Afternoon Nap. Because sleep recharges your brain.

5. A Single Espresso. ‘Caffeine gets a bad rap, blamed for energy crashes and overcaffeinated jitters. But in its simplest form—straight up coffee or tea—and reasonable doses (depending on your own caffeine tolerance), caffeine can actually reduce stress.’

Leave a Reply

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