“The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal Book Review

Title: The Willpower Instinct. How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Author: Kelly McGonigal

Category: Psychology / Self-help

Rating: 4/5

10-Word Summary: Willpower helps you break bad habits and develop good ones.

About The Willpower Instinct

As the title suggests, The Willpower Instinct is a book about willpower or self-control. In it, Kelly McGonigal talks about the factors that increase or decrease our ability to control our behaviour. She draws on research to explain how self-control works and offers advice on what we can do to increase it.

I think we all struggle with self-control – more likely, with the lack of it. Have you ever wanted to get in shape, find a better job or be a more understanding lover only to fail miserably at it? That was a lack of self-control and you can learn how to increase it.

Have you ever promised yourself you would quit smoking, give up junk food and stop wasting your time watching Netflix, playing video games or scrolling down on social media? And have you also given in to temptation and then convinced yourself there’s not point in trying anyway? This was also a lack of self-control combined with the “what the hell” effect. Once you understand what makes you give up and how you can prepare for that, you have a better chance at not giving in to bad habits.

In short, if you have been trying to make changes in your life and have always failed at it, do not despair. We all have limited willpower, but we can all learn how to increase it. There are things we can do to maximize our chances of reaching our goals and this book can help us learn how to do that. Or it can help us get started, since it’s up to us to make the right choices.

What I like about The Willpower Instinct

1. It is science-based

I love reading science-based non-fiction books because I can trust what I read. When the author did research, mentions the conclusions of research studies and references them, then I know that what I am reading is true. Surely, some authors may cherry pick only some studies and manipulate the data to prove their own point, but generally speaking, we can trust what we read in science-based books.

Many self-help books are just collections of stories or personal opinions presented as ultimate truth or rules for how to do something and I find that very disappointing.

And I really appreciate that, even though Kelly McGonigal has drawn on many studies to write The Willpower Instinct, the book is very easy to read. She also included many examples and stories to make the information easy to understand for anyone – not just the people interested in psychology.

2. It has practical advice

There are many well-written and well-researched books who have little or no effect on the people that read them. That’s because sometimes we need a little help to translate an insight we get into an action. And I think The Willpower Instinct is one of those books that help us bridge the gap between insight and action. There are sections in each chapter with questions to reflect on and experiments we can try to increase our willpower. I don’t always like this type of questions, but I do find them necessary and valuable.

3. It helps us better understand how our minds work

Our brains are incredibly complex. There are many mechanisms that work in strange ways without us having any idea. I learned about some surprising things our brains are capable of.

For example, when you give in to a bad habit and you feel shame and remorse, you may fall into the “what the hell” effect. Since you already failed, you’re more likely to give into temptation again. But then you feel even worse which will make it even more likely that you will fail to use self-control again. Luckily, you can break this vicious cycle if you forgive yourself.

Even though I had experience the “what the hell” effect in my life before, I did not realize what it was and I had no idea how to manage it. Now I do and, in situations like these, I do think that knowledge is power. Understanding how our brains work and how we can control our thoughts and behaviours gives us the ability to control ourselves.

4. It has a positive tone

I love reading positive and inspiring books – when they are based on truth and facts. The Willpower Instinct is one of those books that strikes the right balance between reality and inspiration.

Even though McGonigal shines the light on many mechanisms that seem to work against us, she also offers suggestions for how to regain our self-control. The way evolution has shaped us is often causing problems for us, modern humans, but we can learn how to better understand our “human nature” and how to use our willpower to achieve our long-term goals. I found this book encouraging in a realistic way and this made me glad I read it!

What I don’t like about The Willpower Instinct

1. It has too many stories for my taste

I said that this book can be easily read by anyone and that is mainly thanks to the stories and examples in it. They illustrate the conclusions or principles in the book in a simple and clear way. But honestly, I found them a bit too abundant or oversimplified at times. I know this is just my opinion and I think that other people will love this book precisely for those relatable stories.

Great ideas from The Willpower Instinct

1. Meditation, sleep, working out and relaxation help increase willpower.

2. If you do something good, you will then be more likely to do something bad. You will give yourself permission to give into temptation or a bad habit.

3. The “what the hell” effect happens when you give into temptation and you feel guilty. This guilt will further decrease your ability to control your behaviour in the future.

4. When you make a mistake or fail to use self-control, forgive yourself. Self-compassion increases self-control.

5. We often choose to do the things that make us feel good in the present, even though in doing so we sabotage our long-term goals.

6. The level of self-control of the people around you can influence your own. Poor self-control and high self-control are both contagious.

7. Social proof has a big influence on our behaviour. We are more likely to do what the people close to us are doing. These can be good or bad behaviours.

Quotes from The Willpower Instinct

“When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long-term goals—will guide your choices.” 

“A short practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow.” 

“We need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction may be the best we can do.” 

“Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma (sorry, Tony Robbins), and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut).”

“We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage.” 

The Willpower Instinctis a really good book, I would say. It’s science-based, easy to read and encouraging. And anybody who struggles to develop better habits or break bad ones could benefit from reading this book and applying the strategies in it.

I think it is human nature to do things we shouldn’t do and forget that, in doing so, we often sabotage our own goals. But it is also human nature to struggle to control ourselves, to aim to be better and to work on good and mighty goals!

Have you read The Willpower Instinct? If you have, I would love to hear your opinion on it!

2 thoughts on ““The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal Book Review”

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  2. Pingback: The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D. « Raul Barral Tamayo's Blog

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