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Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

The world opens up when one realizes our minds can play tricks on our decision making. But there are ways to prevent from falling for those tricks.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal's book The Willpower Instinct discusses mental tendencies that block us from making the best choices. Importantly, she shares strategies based on her and others' research that can be used to work around these blockers.

Below are several of the mind trick or tendencies deeply ingrained in us, with what Kelly and colleagues' research suggests to do control them:

1. From the beginning of human time our "lizard brains" have evolved to respond to real and perceived threats ("fight or flight"). The responses are deeply ingrained through effect of neurochemicals like dopamine. These tendencies are powerful and can bowl over self-awareness and self-control.

How to address it: In the moment, apply the "pause and plan" strategy to slow down impulsive responses (System 2 vs System 1 thinking). For the longer-term strengthen self-awareness and self-control ("brain training") to overcome impulses. How to strengthen self-awareness and self-control? Breath control, sleep, and exercise all contribute to building the muscle. Interestingly heart rate variability is a predictor of focus and calm to overcome impulses. Heart rate variability when the time between time between heart beats varies slightly (see Cleveland Clinic description).

2. The paradox of self-control is that it is not an unlimited reserve. It can fail us when we need it most. Self-control needs to be restored and repaired just as an athlete restores and repairs muscles after grueling training sessions.

How does one conserve and carefully deploy self-control? Do the most important things first. Be well nourished with foods that give lasting energy (foods that look like their natural state, not high-fat, high-sugar comfort food), as low blood sugar depletes self-control. Monitor self-control capacity either mentally or by daily observation (i.e., journaling)

3. Exhausting self-control reserves can lead to giving up too early. Giving up leads to the "what the hell" response. One might have said: "Well I've had 3 chocolate bars, why not just finish the whole box."

How to thwart this: Tap into core stability foundations like personal values, relationships, deeply held commitments, and even rewards. Support the exhausted version of yourself by reflecting on these foundations to save the day.

4. When you feel good about yourself, you may mistakenly give yourself the license to trust impulses and so something bad or illogical. You may let yourself off the hook due to moral licensing. For example: Exercising licenses unhealthy eating. Being a saint licenses doing something immoral. Making progress on a goal motivates goal-sabotaging behavior. Saving a few bucks leads to spending more.

How to prevent this? Avoid judging actions in terms of good or bad (ie, moralizing) and judge them in terms of how facing challenges will help us get what we want. Remember the why (see #3 above).

5. Anticipation of a reward is ironically stronger than the reward itself. Dopamine has a powerful affect on our cravings and desires and at worse leads to anxiety, obsession and compulsion. For example: Frequently checking email, social media accounts. Playing video games. Novelty and variety, certain scents and aromas spark dopamine rushes and desires.

How to prevent this? Become a dopamine detective to discover traps. Use the promise of rewards to your advantage (i.e., savings, exercise). Beware that at the extreme the dopamine devils don't lead to happiness, and can lead to despondence, lack of motivation and depression.

6. The brain not only wants to protect your life it also wants to protect your mood. When you are under stress, feeling overwhelmed or far behind a goal it will point you to things that it thinks will make you temporarily happy. Hence, when the going gets tough, the brain goes in auto-pilot to eating, smoking, drinking, shopping, trumping your self-control and better senses.

How to prevent this? When things get tough, intervene with self-forgiveness and taking it easy on yourself, self-soothing. Don't be too hard and remember that everyone experiences the same. Self-forgiveness encourages taking accountability for a mistake. Also beware of giving yourself false hope without resolving to adopt a strategy to change.

7. We place a high discount rate on the future which results in making irrational decisions. This can cause errors of omission or commission like throwing in the towel too early. In psychology parlance this is called bounded rationality, bounded willpower.

How to prevent this? Pause and think if your discount rate is too high. Make a precommitment so you are not tempted to make an irrational choice. Imagine future yourself as vividly as possible then take a decision. It also sometimes helps to put a reward out of sight (i.e., the tempting marshmallow) to delay gratification -- but don't take this to an extreme as experiencing the present is also valuable.

8. Humans are hardwired to connect with others. Therefore can be swayed by peers, group thing, social proof, friends and family.

How to prevent this? Think independently and draw your own conclusions. Leverage association with people of good character, feelings of pride and belonging to your advantage.

9. Ironically we can become obsessed with an idea especially if it is forbidden. When asked to suppress a thought, sometimes we can't stop thinking about it. This also applies to believing a lie, avoiding feeling sad or anxious in a situation (i.e., public speaking).

How to prevent this? Don't avoid the thought, pay attention to it and make peace with it. Remember you don't have to act on an idea or feeling. Surf the urge; stay on top of it and ride it gracefully.

In summary: Kelly and her colleagues' research suggests we should give up attempts to rigidly control inner experiences and feelings and be open to observing ourselves with curiosity, not judgment. In periods of struggle, remember what you really "want" to help find the strength to do what is needed or right but difficult. Self-awareness, self-care and remembering what matters most are the foundation of self-control.

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