Book Review – The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, a work by Kelly McGonigal, does exactly what it says on the tin. Laid out in ten chapters structured after the ten-week course, “The Science of Willpower”, that she led at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, the text is informed by research and refined by real world tests of the material by people in actual rather than lab conditions – always a bonus for research on people, who’ll happily act one way when a research subject, and totally differently at home.

Each chapter takes up a particular facet of willpower, from the broad overview in chapter one, to chapter three’s explanation of the muscle model of willpower, to chapter five’s tearing down of the ‘pleasure’ center of the brain (Spoiler: It’s not really pleasure, it’s promise-of-pleasure. Biology is weird.) willpower is seen from many different angles, giving an excellent view of the big picture in digestible chunks.

Some of the information from studies I had been previously aware of, but it’s good to have it all compiled in one place, and much of it had clearer / more extensive explanations than my prior understanding. Some of it, like chapter 4’s explanation of willpower hypocrisy, was entirely novel to me. It makes intuitive sense that feeling like we’ve done a good and difficult thing enables us to convince ourselves that we deserve a treat or break from our discipline, but it’s also frustrating that biology should work that way. Still, the awareness I’ve gained of the phenomena from Professor McGonigal’s book seems likely to better enable me to stay on track.

That the brain has numerous tricks built in, to keep us from resisting temptations that were harmful to resist in the ancestral environment is not news, but the number and insidiousness of them was surprising to me. That contemplating being virtuous tomorrow will enable the aforementioned license to sin, for example, was both novel, and depressing. We really are built for an environment of scarcity, where resisting the urge to grab it with both hands was the wrong move, and this is doing us no favor in the modern world.

Lest I convince you all is doom and gloom, worry not, dear reader. Each chapter describes a facet of willpower, and how to use it to your advantage. Delaying your gratification, thinking about why you’re engaging in this feat of mind over mind, reorienting your “I won’t” efforts (spend the next thirty seconds not thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear) to be “I will” efforts, even forgiving yourself rather than treating yourself to a heaping plate full of guilt, can all lead you to be the sort of person whose iron will is the envy of her friends.

Well-written, thoroughly researched, and humorous and serious in just the right measures, The Willpower Instinct is a book you’ll want to exercise your will to start, and might find yourself having to do the same to put it down. I expect I’ll be rereading it soon, because I charged through it in days, and I want to take a more leisurely trek through, trying each technique and giving them some time to show their stuff. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who ever wants to perform actions by choice, rather than on autopilot. Unless you’re already a scientist in this field, you’re sure to learn something, and I suspect you’ll find what you learn quite useful as you walk your path in this temptation-dripping world we’ve built from the ancestral environment brought up in chapter one.