Book Review: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

When I looked up a bio on the author of The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, this is what I found on the Stanford website, “Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success.”

This is the first time I’ve heard the term “science-help”, but I think it is perfect to describe this book. McGonigal references a lot of research in this book and much of her research centers around the brain and how it functions, but she writes about it in a way that is easily understandable. I am going to tell you right away that I really liked this book, and it is now on my list of books to recommend to people.

This book came out of a 10-week continuing studies class that McGonigal taught at Stanford called “The Science of Willpower”.  The book has 10 chapters and each chapter corresponds with a week of the course.  She asks that you treat this book as your own personal research experiment, reading one chapter of the book each week for 10 weeks. In each chapter you will find willpower challenges and experiments and you are supposed to take time to try them and collect data on your personal willpower journey, finding what works for you as you work through your personal willpower struggles.  

She begins the book by describing willpower as a person’s “ability to control their attention, emotions and desires” and that willpower “influences a person’s physical health, financial security, relationships and personal success.” She breaks willpower into 3 categories.  First is “I will” power. This is something you would like to do more of because it will improve the quality of your life. This is followed by “I won’t” power.  These are things that you want to do less of or give up entirely because they are undermining your health, happiness, or success. Finally, there is “I want” power. This is your long-term goal and what you need to keep your focus on. Willpower is being able to use these three powers together to achieve your goals.  

Each chapter of the book focuses on something that might derail you from your goal or reasons why our willpower fails us.  These include things like instant gratification, cravings, stress, fatigue, blood sugar levels, the halo effect (I was good so now I can be bad), dopamine triggers, and social factors. I must admit it is a little depressing when you start to realize how many things can keep you from achieving your goals by sapping your willpower. But each chapter also gives you exercises to do and suggestions on ways to combat those things that deplete your willpower. 

Many of the ideas in this book on how to harness your willpower are things most of us have heard before.  Using meditation to help train our brains. Exercise and getting outside are good ways to help us alleviate stress. Getting enough sleep because fatigue is a sure way to lose your willpower.  Eating healthy foods also helps you make better decisions. Surrounding yourself with people who have like-minded goals will increase your chances of achieving your goals.  Even though I have heard these all before, seeing them again in the context of willpower just helps show how all these ideas work together to help improve a person’s overall health and wellness. 

There are three main skills that the author focuses on to help a person maintain their willpower. The first is self-awareness. A person needs to recognize what they are doing or experiencing and understand why. The second skill is self-care and the importance of taking the time to take care of ourselves. The third skill is to remember your goal.  Keeping your focus on what it is you want to accomplish can go a long way towards helping you maintain your willpower.

So personal confession time.  I was doing really well with some personal habits that I started at the beginning of the year.  But life has gotten a little hectic the past couple of months and I have gotten away from some of those things that I was doing that were helping me. So, reading this book right now has been good for me.  Sure, I already knew a lot of these things, but it never hurts to hear them again.  I am a horrible procrastinator; I have a big sweet tooth and I have been known to talk myself out of exercising even though I know it will make me feel better. I didn’t take 10 weeks to read this book (I read it the weekend before I needed to write this review – I did mention that I was a horrible procrastinator, right). I looked at the calendar and realized that it is 10 weeks until the end of the year. I am now going to go back and reread the book one chapter a week and really try each of the Willpower Challenges and Experiments in each chapter.  I am excited about this as I think this is going to be a great way to help me finish out the year just as strong as I started it.  I’m sure some of the ideas will work better than others but I can tell you that as I was standing in line at some fast-food place in the airport yesterday thinking about how yummy the fried chicken and mac and cheese looked, I remembered my goal and ordered a salad with grilled chicken instead so something in this book worked.  

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