The Willpower Instinct is one of the best books I’ve read about learning how to use willpower to achieve my goals and desires.
The Willpower Instinct – programmed to succeed
I always recommend people read, but I don’t often recommend books. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal is the exception because to me it is such an exceptional book.
I have always struggled with my willpower. When I read this book I found tons of useful information. It also dispelled many myths I’d held about the nature of willpower.
McGonigal teaches that willpower is key to success. People with stronger willpower are better off in almost every aspect of life. They are happier, healthier, wealthier, and have better relationships. They succeed in their goals because their willpower keeps them on task, even in the face of adversity.
The exertion of willpower is part of our DNA. It is why we are successful as a species. It balances our “fight-or-flight” response.
I’ve used her practical information and advice to increase my own willpower. Her research helps me understand when I’ve reached my willpower limits. And how some of the very actions I take actually interfere with the use of my willpower. To me, The Willpower Instinct is more than a research book or a self-help guide. It is a code programming me to succeed.
The willpower instinct in our biology
Nature has given us two basic instinct formats in order to survive. One is the “fight-or-flight” response. This kicks in when we find ourselves in grave danger. In a split second, we either throw up our defenses or seek to flee as quickly as possible when confronted with life-threatening danger.
Imagine a tiger leaping from the bushes, or a horn blaring as we step into the street. We don’t have time to contemplate the “ifs”. We must react immediately if we don’t want to be breakfast or roadkill. So our brains skip instantly to a response mode aimed at getting us to safety, whether we have to run or punch our way out.
But we have another response mode: “pause-and-plan”. This response allows us to slow down, consider our options, and make a decision in our best interest. This is where willpower is born.
We don’t want every decision to be a snap judgment, made by instinct or impulse. Willpower gives us the ability to stop, contemplate, and think before we act. It keeps us from chasing the tiger into a dark cave. Or it makes us pause before we pile our plate with food when our higher interest is to make better food choices.
Willpower instinct and meditation
Before reading The Willpower Instinct I pissed around with mediation. But it was never a serious practice.
But in the book, McGonigal links a healthy meditation practice to developing and maintaining willpower. Moreover, not having some form of mental control actually saps willpower. It is easier to be overwhelmed by life’s little details.
The practice of meditation leads to greater awareness of our situations, thoughts, impulses, and fears. It takes the pause-and-plan response and slows it to a snail’s crawl. Meditation improves concentration and focus. It actually grows the grey matter in our brains – the parts responsible for higher-level thinking.
By increasing our concentration and focus, and by improving our sense of awareness, it is easier for us to resist temptations that throw us off long-term goals. We are in more control over our impulses when our “fight-or-flight” responses are slowed waaaaaaay down. This defends us from willpower failures.
No one is born with a certain amount of willpower. Willpower is like a muscle: it grows stronger with training and regular use.
In fact, exercising willpower is a lot like working out. It is best to start small with simple willpower tasks. Stand for five minutes when you have an impulse to sit down. Wait 15 minutes when you feel an urge for ice cream, see if the feeling passes. Do 1 sun salutation. Just one. It’s not about the actual achievement of forcing yourself to stand or not eating ice cream. It is about slowly strengthening your willpower with small successes.
Now you can move onto to bigger weights, so to speak. Building longer-term goals require greater willpower strength. They also require more focus and concentration.
Daily training, mixing heavyweight willpower with lightweight willpower, following a healthy diet, and, most importantly, resting and recovering, are the ways you can, over time, build indomitable willpower.
Just like a muscle, however, willpower can be overused and exhausted. I never considered this. Even the greatest strength has its limits. Willpower is not only finite but it gets used up faster when spread too thin.
Everyday choices and decisions draw little bits off our willpower bank reserves. Deeply immersing ourselves into tasks or projects can suck our willpower dry. That is why it is hard to stay focused on a project when too much information requires our attention. Or why our ability to resist junk food is diminished after spending hours tasking ourselves.
Getting enough sleep and eating right help restore our reserves. Other methods to avoid overdrawing the willpower bank included cutting down on meaningless decisions, simplifying choices, and not working willpower to depletion.
Willpower and my team
One thing the book emphasizes is that if you want to build a strong willpower structure, it helps immensely to have people around you who are supportive. It also helps if they also exercise willpower efficiently.
Studies show that when we see people acting impulsively, we tend to act impulsively ourselves (how else to explain the mass madness of Black Friday?).
Conversely, seeing people we like or admire use willpower tends to make us more resolved and stay on task.
Reworking our environments for success makes it easier to exert our willpower. It is good to remove distractions that wear down our willpower. Connecting with other people who have similar goals raises our success rates because of the social factor. We just do better in a tribe than we do on our own. When it is the right tribe.
How The Willpower Instinct is helping me lose weight
Losing weight and getting fit is an exercise in willpower. Getting into this state was all about impulse, gratification, failure, and bad habits. The brain, a very busy organ, naturally wants to make things as simple as possible. When willpower has to fight its way upstream, it is exhausting. So it gives in, indulges, weakens my resolve, and finds the easiest path.
The Willpower Instinct is helping me in three major ways:
- Train and exercise my willpower. Sometimes I go too hard and too fast. I am learning that by making small changes and letting them settle into routines I can make my willpower more consistent. I also know now that too many big projects require more willpower. So the simpler I can make things, the better.
- By practicing mindful meditation, I can improve my willpower and my pause-and-plan instinct. Mindfulness is all about choosing our responses. I can use meditation to be aware of what I am feeling and how it is affecting me. Through my breath, I can undo stress, fear, and anxiety. All of those dampen willpower.
- I improve my willpower when I change my environment and social circle. Cleaning up clutter, removing tempting foods from the house, keeping my meal prep simple, and sticking to a routine are ways I can preserve my willpower stamina. I can connect with people who are working on being more mindful. I can seek out examples of willpower used in meaningful ways.
The Willpower Instinct is a book I go back to again and again for both education and inspiration. If I am able to stick with this goal and achieve the success I’m seeking, it will be because this book taught me how to use my willpower the right way.