The Willpower Instinct – audiobook review and notes

I recently finished listening to the audiobook, “The Willpower Instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it,” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal. While willpower has gotten quite a bit of attention from the self-help community, I was curious what the scientific community would find after shining the scientific method spotlight on it. Having more willpower seems to be a pretty useful goal.

Quick summary:
The subtitle pretty much captures the essence of this book. Dr. McGonigal teaches a popular course on Willpower at Stanford. This book, The Willpower Instinct, is based on this course.

If you are curious about what willpower is and what science has so far been able to say about it, then this book is worth a read. It gives a nice summary of the field and changed how I thought about willpower and myself. For example, tests of willpower show a correlation with changes in blood sugar levels. Increasing blood sugar levels yield better performance on willpower related tasks. This type of thinking makes me approach my willpower challenges differently. When I’m struggling, I now think, am I tired? Am I hungry? I then try to make sure I have these handled first.

I made some notes/comments when I heard something that really resonated. If you find these snippets interesting, it’s worth having a listen to get the full context. So here are some brief notes and thoughts (along with their corresponding times) for certain parts that struck me as particularly interesting.

My comments in italics

Simple meditation exercise
Interesting how this and many other popular neuroscience books recommend meditation now. I keep coming across this.

“self-control” definition: a process of noticing when off goal and getting myself back on track

The goal of meditation is not to get rid of all my thoughts, it’s to not get lost in them.
This is nice to hear, since I can get frustrated with how many thoughts enter my mind

To immediately boost willpower, slow my breath. 4-6 breaths per minute. 10-15 seconds per breath

Exercise. Best thing to do.
If exercise was a drug, I would probably pay quite a bit of money for it.

Exercise. Powerful antidepressant as Prozac.

Exercise. Studies shown largest benefits from short bursts. But optimal amount is not yet known.

Will power is a resource. Use your will power and you run out of it

Self control is highest in the morning and deteriorates throughout the day

Amazingly, low blood sugar is linked with low willpower… increasing blood sugar increases willpower

The direction, not absolute value, of blood sugar predicts willpower

The quantified self… check out website

Look for small ways to practice self control… e.g. candy dish that I don’t eat from

Fatigue is an emotion, not the body’s true limits. More of a governor the mind puts on the body to slow it down

Fatigue is a feeling like anxiety and disgust. We can choose to continue, but is a warning sign.

The findings that willpower is limited may be due to the belief…?

Possibility that we can push past the feeling of willpower fatigue just like athlete pushes past physical fatigue

Beware the virtuous, as they feel like they are already doing good

Considering that I am good… or have done something good, gives me the feeling I can do something a little bit bad…
aka start to slack

Don’t congratulate myself on my progress or focus on all the improvements I make. This leads to feeling good about it and more likely to slip

Reflecting on success can lead to my higher self quieting down

Instead ask myself how committed do I feel to my goal

Section 6 / 3:11:35
Remember the “why”. If reflect on my progress… ask myself why did I do that

Section 6 / 3:12:46
We credit ourselves for planned future behavior… e.g., our intentions

Section 6 / 3:14:12
When McDonald’s added healthy items to the menu… sales of big macs skyrocketed..

Section 6 / 3:14:55
Adding healthy foods as options… people more likely to choose least healthy option. Unintended consequences

Section 6 / 3:15:13
My mind mistakes the opportunity of the goal for the actual goal…

Section 6 / 3:16:20
Thinking I have the best self control correlates with choosing the worst options

Section 6 / 3:16:53
We wrongly think we will make different choices tomorrow than we did today.

Section 6 / 3:18:02
The illusion of making different future decisions

Section 6 / 3:18:28
Am I borrowing credit from tomorrow?

Section 6 / 3:20:24
By default we do not distinguish well between an estimate of the ideal world and an estimate of the true world. Experiments that ask people to estimate how many times they would exercise in an ideal world vs how many times they expected to exercise in the real word, yields no difference.
Estimate the true world.

Section 6 / 3:29:00
We see virtuous choices as negating indulgences

Section 6 / 3:30:44
When we think of food or products as good or bad we let the feeling rather than the logic dictate our decisions

Section 6 / 3:32:34
The more we care about a particular virtue the more vulnerable we are to letting a virtuous indulgence take hold… i.e. if we think of something as virtuous, we label it good or bad and then let our feelings dictate

Section 6 / 3:33:06
Where do I give out a halo to some action that undermines my goals?
e.g. I just voted and feel good about myself. Will I now give myself a halo to be slack today?

Section 7 / 4:16:40
Fishbowl lottery had 80% stay in treatment vs 20% control

Section 7 / 4:17:23
The power of unpredictable rewards…
very odd

Section 7 / 4:26:03
distinguishing between the promise of reward and actual happiness… not the same thing and very hard to differentiate

Section 9 / 5:33:16
Not clear to me the conclusion of this study. What if 4 m&ms just aren’t worth waiting 2 min. There is a cost in time for waiting.

Section 9 / 5:36:55
Visual cues make it easier to give in

Section 9 / 5:39:03
Commit to doing only 10 min of a painful task and give myself permission to stop

Section 9 / 5:55:52
Think about if this short term benefit (e.g., checking FB rather than studying) is worth giving up my dreams…

Section 9 / 6:02:19
Is there really a future me 2.0?

Section 10 / 6:29:15
A cadets fitness level is better predicted by the least fit cadet in the squadron rather than their pre-academy fitness level

Section 10 / 6:32:15
Habits are contagious… in a very real way. Avoid people with bad habits

Section 10 / 6:42:30
Are autobiographies of people I respect useful to catch their goals? Can I catch the ideal goals of others?

Section 10 / 6:59:56
The rational might not be the best way to get myself to do something.

Section 10 / 6:59:58
Religion is useful to discourage (unhealthy) behavior. Having people believe some behavior is part of a group they do not want to be apart of is a good way to discourage that behavior.

Section 11 / 7:58:37
Making something forbidden or instructed to not think about it, increases desire and lowers will power.

Section 11 / 8:01:37
Focus on what I want to replace my activity with… not suppressing the activity. Think about what do I want to do instead and focus on this.

Section 11 / 8:02:19
Make things a competition

Section 11 / 8:02:23
Focus on what I want to do instead of don’t want to do to avoid the ironic rebound

Section 11 / 8:08:47
Mindfulness is in a lot of things I’m reading/listening to. Even when I’m not looking for it.