Episode 157 – The Willpower Instinct: A Must Read Episode

Written by Jonathan

Today is a must-read episode and we’re covering ‘The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal PhD.’ This is one of my top 5 favorite books of all time because it lays willpower out in an easy to understand way. If you only listen to 1 episode of Fitness For Freedom Tips this may just be the most informative one, so let’s get to it.

Formally this book is called The Willpower Instinct: How self control works, why it matters and what you can do to get more of it by Kelly McGonigal PhD. This book is quite honestly more about strategies you can use to improve your willpower and the science behind why you make the decisions you do, then it is about willpower itself. Every chapter focuses on a different aspect of how your willpower can be affected and then at the end of every chapter you get some exercises that you can do to help you build your own willpower muscle right away and none of the exercises are complicated, infact the exercises are probably the best part of this book because it gives you something practical and tactical that you can actually do. The other thing that sets this book apart from other books of its kind, is that the neuroscience and brain chemistry parts are explained in a really interesting, witty and funny way, with lots of research to back it up. It can keep even the most disinterested person interested in this topic, which is important because I think everyone wants a little more willpower.

McGonigal starts the book talking about how often when we think of willpower we think of our inability to do things, like our inability to have self-control when we pass the local doughnut shop or our inability to make ourselves go to the gym.  Basically it’s our inability to follow through with something when we’re trying to make better decisions and live a better life in our own eyes. But, what we don’t realize is that willpower has 3 parts.   

  • I want, which is a positive outcome you want
  • I will, which is the positive action you need to take to get what you want
  • I won’t, which is the negative behaviour that is preventing you from getting what you want

One of the first and most important points the book makes, is that when most people try to make a change they only focus on one aspect. But if you focus or have strategies in place for each of your ‘ I want, I will, I won’t’ changes you’re much more likely to be able to follow through.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to break the habit of snoozing in the morning so you can wake up and be productive first thing, that’s your ‘I want,’ so you plan to not hit the snooze button in the morning, that’s your ‘I won’t’ to do this, you decide to set your alarm across the room forcing you to get out of bed in the morning, that’s your ‘I will’ and hopefully that will be enough to give you the willpower to get on with your productive day. Having this series of actions in place and decided in advance will give you a much greater chance of success.

When you’re trying to create more willpower for yourself it’s also good to understand a little bit about how your brain works and sometimes how you get nudged to make some of the decisions you do. Which brings us to moral licensing. How the intent or thinking about doing good things gives us a good feeling about ourselves which leads to rewarding ourselves with little indulgences that go directly against that we perceive our values to be. In an exercise context this means if you workout during the day you’re more likely to give yourself permission to eat desserts at night, because you tell yourself you’re good and you earned that dessert.  The book goes into great detail about what’s happening in your brain and what you can do to help prevent yourself from doing eating that night time cookie. But the easiest tip I picked up to get you started right now, is the next time you hear yourself say, I earned this or I deserve it, take 5 deep breaths then reevaluate what it is you really want. Does it work all the time? No, but deep breaths can give you enough pause to remember what you really want, which in this example is probably to build muscle and/or lose fat, I mean what else would you be doing at the gym?

Which segues nicely into the last point we’re covering here, using the forgiveness strategy to help you build more willpower for next time. As a person you’re not as rational as you think you are, none of us are. An interesting thing happens in your brain when you exhibit a negative behaviour you’re trying to change.

I think we can all remember back to our high school, college or university days when we had a major project due in the middle of the semester and you know that you can easily get it done if you spend a few hours a week doing it, but one week goes by and things got busy, you know watching movies, so you put it off. Then you became critical of yourself because you knew the mark in that class was really important and you vowed next week was going to be different, because you’re not a lazy slouch. Then next week would come, but you felt watching a few more episodes of Friends, wouldn’t hurt, then several hours would go by and your project still wouldn’t be started and again you tell yourself next time will be different and you double down on your self-criticism, but for some reason this cycle continues until the week before the project is due.  

What’s happening in our brain is very interesting, illogically we procrastinate, but the more we procrastinate from what’s important the more likely we are to do that thing that we use to procrastinate. In this example it’s T.V, we watch T.V to take our minds of the task that really needs to get done, but of course the more T.V we watch the less the project gets done, the more overwhelmed we feel and the more T.V we watch to take our minds off the project, it’s a vicious downward cycle that is made exponentially worse the more critical we are of ourselves.  The fix to this, forgive yourself. That’s it don’t be critical, don’t set overly lofty goals, forgive yourself and instead of trying to get the project done in one shot just give yourself the goal of writing one paragraph, that’s it because once you get started you will probably be able to get a lot more done than you originally anticipated.

The Willpower Instinct: How self control works, why it matters and what you can do to get more of it by Kelly McGonigal is a great book and one I highly recommend for anyone that is trying to improve their willpower because it clearly shows you what’s going on in your brain in a very witty and entertaining way few other books do and the practical, easy to do exercises can really get you started right away.    

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