The Willpower Instinct: How Self‑Control Works, Why It Matters - Deepstash

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The Willpower Instinct: How Self‑Control Works, Why It Matters

The Willpower Instinct: How Self‑Control Works, Why It Matters

by Kelly McGonigal


26K reads

  • To succeed at self-control you need to know how you fail.
  • The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.
  • Self-knowledge is the foundation of self-control.
  • Theories are nice; data is better.

  • An “I will” power challenge: What is something you would like to do more of or stop putting off because you know doing it will improve the quality of your life?
  • An “I won’t” power challenge: What is the stickiest habit in your life? What would you like to give up or do less of becaus...

  • I will and I won’t power alone do not constitute willpower. 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 matt...

When your brain meditates it gets better at attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.

How to meditate:

  1. Sit still and stay put.
  2. Sit in a chair with feet flat on the ground or cross-legged on a mat.
  3. Sit up straight and put your hands ...

  • The pause and plan response is the opposite of the fight or flight response.
  • This starts with the perception of internal conflict, not an external threat.
  • The pause and plan response is also physical.
  • Keeps you from immediately following your impulse...

Willpower experiments: Increase self-control.

  • Slowing your breathing immediately increases self-control.
  • Try to reduce to 4-12 breaths per minute.

Willpower experiment: the 5-minute green willpower fill-up.

  • Green exercise. Any physical activity that gets ...

  • Physical exercise, like meditation, makes your brain bigger and faster.
  • Studies showed that the biggest benefits can come from just 5 minutes of exercise.

Insane levels of self-control have pitfalls too, like:

  • Dangers of chronic stress.
  • High energy expenditure.

Too much willpower (chronic self-control) could be dangerous. Trying to control every aspect of your thoughts and behaviour is too big of a burden.

The self-control muscle can be exercised and made stronger.

It can be challenged by controlling one small thing you aren’t used to controlling. Or it can be committing to any small consistent act of self-control.

For example, creating and meeting self-imposed deadlines, or somethi...

Change requires doing. For your biggest willpower challenge consider the following motivations:

  1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge?
  2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? How does your behaviour influence your friends, family, coworkers, and...

  • The reward system of the brain is not what we think it is. We mistake wanting for happiness.
  • When it comes to happiness, we cannot trust our brains to lead us in the right direction.
  • Dopamine plays a role in anticipating rewards not in experienci...

  • We live in a world engineered to make us want. Pay attention to what captures your attention.
  • Daydreaming about unattainable rewards can get you into trouble.
  • The rewards system of the brain also responds to novelty and variety.
  • Our brain responds to smells, advertise...

Dopamize your “I will challenge.”, being mindful of your dopamine triggers. 

What gets your dopamine neurons firing?

  • Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward.
  • Notice when wanting triggers stress and anxiety.


The most effective stress-relieving strategies are; exercise, playing sports, praying, attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating, doing yoga, spending time with a c...

Introduce yourself to you and you 2.0 (the future you!).

Future you is the person you imagine when you wonder if you should clean your closet now or later.

Meet your future self:

  1. Create a future memory. Imagining the future helps people delay gratification....

  • Both bad habits and positive change can spread from person to person like germs.
  • Thinking about someone with good self-control can increase your own willpower.
  • Go public with your willpower challenge.
  • Strengthen your willpower immune system. Spend a few minutes at the...

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.

Four steps to handle cravings:

  1. Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving.
  2. Accept the thought or feel...

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