“The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal


A fantastic research and science-based book on willpower (i.e. not your usual factless self-help diatribe), with good practical tips and a sober analysis of our pathetic capability. Key takeaways:

  • Our capacity for willpower is very limited, so choose carefully and focus its use where it counts;
  • It is also trainable like a muscle, so you can progressively set it harder challenges;
  • Try to actively notice when it fails, analyse why and what triggers it, then be conscious that you have a choice of what to do the next time the trigger happens;
  • Avoid getting to the trigger if you can – put it out of sight, and try not to have to use your willpower in the first place .
Here are my key highlights and notes. Things that resonated and made me think about changes I should do:


  • Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. (Tweet This)


  • Many temporary states – like being drunk, sleep-deprived or even distracted – biologically inhibit willpower (Tweet This)
  • When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices. (Tweet This)
  • Stress encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes. Better stress management is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower. (Tweet This)
  • Self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind. Learning to manage times when you go short term (e.g. stress) is key to improving willpower. (Tweet This)
  • Notice when stress strikes. Do you lose your self-control? Experience cravings? Lose your temper? Procrastinate? Manage stress and improve self-control (Tweet This)
  • Anything gamified with unpredictability of scoring (e.g. Likes on Facebook) keeps your dopamine neurons firing => addiction. (Tweet This)
  • The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It’s also what makes a game hard to quit. Realise it to control it. (Tweet This)
  • Compulsive clicking or refreshing is intentionally triggered by YouTube / Facebook. They make money the more addicted you are. (Tweet This)
  • Anything that makes you feel like you’re getting a bargain is going to open the dopamine floodgates, from “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!” deals to signs that shout “60 Per Cent Off!” (Tweet This)

Hacks & Immediate Tactics

  • The five-minute green willpower boost. Get active outdoors (even a walk round the block) to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost motivation. (Tweet This)
  • Breathe your way to self-control. Slow down your breathing to four to six breaths per minute to shift into the physiological state of self-control. (Tweet This)
  • Sleep deprivation weakens self-control. Undo its effects with a nap or one good night’s sleep. (Tweet This)
  • Relax to restore your willpower reserve. Lie down, breathe deeply, and let the physiological relaxation response help you recover from the demands of self-control and daily stress. (Tweet This)
  • Self control hack. Imagine someone offering you £100 to say no to a box of home-made biscuits. Not so irresistible now, is it? (Tweet This)
  • Try stickk.com – aims to help people precommit their future selves to change. (Tweet This)
  • Adults who play memory games for twenty-five minutes a day develop greater connectivity between brain regions important for attention and memory. (Tweet This)


  • To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. Use it wisely – you don’t have endless reserves. (Tweet This)
  • Your willpower is limited. Put it where your goals are. (Tweet This)
  • if you can imagine a time when saying no will be second nature, you’ll be more willing to put up with the temporary misery. (Tweet This)
  • It’s not just a matter of caring; change requires doing. (Tweet This)
  • Progress is most effective at creating future self-control if you view your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal. Pure celebration of what you’ve done can weaken it. (Tweet This)
  • 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 (Tweet This)
  • Celebrate willpower wins effectively – “I did that because I wanted to,” not “I did that, great, now I can do what I really want!” (Tweet This)
  • Motivation that works focuses on commitment instead of progress. (Tweet This)


  • Self-knowledge, especially of how we find ourselves in willpower trouble, is the foundation of self-control. (Tweet This)
  • Track your choices. At the end of the day, analyze when decisions were made that either supported or undermined your goals. What can you learn? (Tweet This)
  • Watch how you give in to your impulses. Can you catch yourself earlier in the process? What thoughts, feelings, and situations prompt the impulse? Can you control these? (Tweet This)
  • The Quantified Self movement (www.quantifiedself.com) has turned self-tracking into an art and science. (Tweet This)
  • Science points to one secret for greater self-control: the power of paying attention. Training the mind to recognise when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. (Tweet This)
  • When you know your own triggers, putting them out of sight can keep them from tempting your mind. (Tweet This)

Choice of Focus

  • Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. (Tweet This)
  • Study after study shows that being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure – is associated with more motivation and better self-control. (Tweet This)
  • Surprisingly, forgiveness, not guilt, increases accountability. And accountability empowers your self-control. (Tweet This)
  • Taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes you more likely to own it than taking a self-critical one. (Tweet This)
  • We estimate how likely or true something is by the ease with which we can bring it to mind. (Tweet This)
  • Notice when you crave (e.g.) chocolate, accept whatever goes through your mind, and remember you don’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings. (Tweet This)
  • Not trying to control your thoughts, realise you CAN control your behaviour. (Tweet This)

Different Ways of Thinking

  • Remember when you turned down a temptation, and moral licensing will increase your chances of failing next time. (Tweet This)
  • Remember WHY you last turned down a temptation, and you’re more likely to resist the next time you face it. (Tweet This)
  • “The effort of actually making a change cannot compare, from a happiness point of view, to the rush of imagining that you will change.” (Tweet This)
  • We need to tread a fine line between the motivation / belief that we need to make a change, and the unrealistic optimism that can sabotage our goals. (Tweet This)
  • Try this Willpower experiment: Imagine you best future self and go meet her/him. (Tweet This)
  • Willpower Experiment: Turn Your “I Won’t” Into “I Will” (Tweet This)
  • Believe change is possible; hopelessness leads to resignation. But beware of using the promise of change to fix your feelings rather than your behaviours. (Tweet This)


    • Breath focus is a simple but powerful meditation technique for training your brain and increasing willpower. (Tweet This)
    • Breathing meditation reduces stress and teaches the mind how to handle inner distractions (cravings, worries, desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights and smells). (Tweet This)
    • A daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tweet This)
    • New research shows that regular meditation practice helps people stop smoking, lose weight, kick a drug habit and stay sober. (Tweet This)
    • See how to do breathing meditation. The practice of coming back to the breath, again and again, biologically quiets stress and craving centres of your brain. (Tweet This)


      • Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. (Tweet This)
      • If you’re putting off exercise, think if it as something that restores, not drains, your energy and willpower. (Tweet This)
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