The WillPower Instinct - Book Review

- POSTED ON: Jul 07, 2015

The Willpower Instinct (2011) was written by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., who is a health psychologist at Stanford School of Medicine where she teaches a course called “The Science of Willpower”.

This book combines insights from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine to explain exactly what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters. The book has 10 chapters which reflect the author’s 10-week course, and is written in an interesting and easy style, without academic pompousness:

1. Effective willpower - just noticing what's happening is key.

2. The willpower instinct - anything that puts a stress on your mind or body can sabotage self-control but too much willpower is stressful.

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

4. Why being good encourages bad behavior - we use past good behavior to justify indulgences.

5. Why we mistake wanting for happiness - even false promises of reward make us feel alert and captivated, so we chase satisfaction from things that don't deliver.

6. How feeling bad leads to giving in - self-compassion is a far better strategy than beating ourselves up.

7. We discount both future rewards and future costs - we consistently act against our own long-term interests and we illogically believe our future selves will (magically) have more willpower.

8. Why willpower is contagious - humans are hardwired to connect and we mimic and mirror both willpower failures and willpower successes of our social network.

9. Inner acceptance improves outer control - attempts to fight instincts and desires ironically make them worse.

10. Final thoughts - the aha moment.

If one wants to change a Habit or understand why one has failed at doing this in the past, "The Willpower Instinct" is worth reading. Kelly McGonigal presents neuroscience and psychology in a way that a reader can understand, and provides concepts that one can use to improve the quality of daily life. She encourages experimentation and self-inquiry, while presenting practical, tried and true methods to help to kick bad habits and to create new ones.

This book could be a valuable resource for those who are struggling with a Diet, or dealing with an “Eating Disorder”, as it can help to provide insight and understanding. At the end of the day, creating or sustaining a habit or an addiction involves making choices.

Turning to a substance in a time of stress, or whenever, is a choice one makes, and through repeatedly performing this action, one’s brain creates "shortcuts" that enable one to do it more often/efficiently and make refusing very difficult and anxiety-inducing. The author explains this in a very clear, well-researched manner, including the ways our primitive brains trick us into saying "yes", and she then provides strategies for improving one's ability to say no.

Originally posted on November 4, 2012, updated for new viewers.

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Existing Comments:

On Nov 04, 2012 wrote:
This book wil most likely be a must read for me. I lose the weight just fine; only to fail at maintaining the loss. Thanks Phyllis.

On Nov 04, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Hi John, after reading it let me know what you think. Maintaining the loss is even HARDER than losing the weight. You aren't alone in maintenance difficulty .. rememember, it is said that about 95% of the people who successfully lose weight, regain it plus more. Until this time, that was also true for me.

On Nov 04, 2012 jethro wrote:
Dr. Collins,correct me if I'm wrong but isn't willpower what NOS is trying to "tame" via "focusing on building habits: semi-automatic behaviors that require little willpower to maintain once they've been established" as per RE?

On Nov 04, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Jethro, Reinhard,(author of the No S Diet) has talked quite a bit about how the No S Habit concept requires willpower to make a behavior into a Habit, but that once an established Habit is in place, maintaining it takes very little willpower. This book goes right along with the No S Habit concepts. I also remember a post by Reinhard this past year saying that was interested in, and intended to read this particular book.

On Nov 06, 2012 rroush wrote:
Wow. This sounds like a very intriguing book. Chapters 4, 6 and 8 look particularly interesting to me. I'd love to see what she has to say in chapter 10.

On Nov 06, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             HI Rebecca, Funny thing, Although I read the book and liked it a lot, I don't remember anything particularly new or interesting in that chapter. I think I'll look at it again and see. =D

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