The Willpower Instinct

Imagine if you had the ability to ALWAYS do what you want to do, and to NEVER do what you don’t want to do? You’d get all the goals accomplished that are possible for you; it would be like a superpower! “I will go to the gym today;” “I will not eat junkfood.”

You’d be unstoppable.

According to author Kelly McGonigal, who teaches The Science of Willpower course at Standford University, and who wrote the book The Willpower Instinct, these two abilities (“I will” and “I won’t”) are two of the three ingredients needed for willpower.

So, what’s the third?

It’s the ability to always remember what you want–what the actual goal is. McGonigal calls this the “I want” power. Self-control consists of doing what you want in the moment of decision, and refraining from doing the things you don’t want when you are tempted. Writes McGonical, “To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. This is ‘I want’ power.” It’s a matter of keeping in mind your higher goal, and sacrificing immediate pleasure for the future payoff.

Sounds easy, right?

Well, of course our experience says otherwise. Accomplishing goals, creating good habits, fighting temptations… These things give us endless headaches, can destroy lives, and keep us from being our best selves and living up to our fullest potential.

So, is there any hope?

The answer is an astounding YES! The latest science and research confirms that willpower can be strengthened, and that there are many tricks and strategies that you can use in order to maximize your success. I’ve already discussed several of these methods in my blogs The Power of Habit and The Guru of Goal Setting.

In this post, I will be delving into The Willpower Instinct, and looking at some of the proven strategies to maximize your success rate.


In his book The Marshmellow Test, Dr. Walter Mischel recounts his landmark study, of the same name, which first opened up a window into the science of willpower. What Mischel found is that the ability to resist tempations in the here and now in order to gain some major payoff in the future is one the best determinants we have for predicting how well we will do in life.

In the words of McGonigal, “People who have better control of their attention, emotions and actions are better off almost any way you look at it.” Health, wealth, success, happiness and social skills are all linked heavily to willpower. Obviously, its important to understand what it is, and how to harness it, right?


The area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is, for some researchers, precisely what makes us human, because it seems to be where we determine higher order functions such as right and wrong, forcasting likely future outcomes, and, most importantly for the topic of willpower, it plays the most crucial functions in goal setting.

For this reason, the prefrontal cortex is often called the “Executive” of the brain, since it seems to be responsible for making executive decisions. As Charles Duhigg discuss in The Power of Habit, at some point all habits started out as conscious decisions in the prefrontal cortex. That is, before becoming automatic behaviours, which are stored in the basal ganglia, they were acts of willpower in the prefrontal cortex.

According to McGonigal, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for helping us to stick to boring, difficult, and stressful tasks–key for harnessing your focus and the “I will” aspect of willpower. But it also keeps our impulses in check–our “I won’t” power. Finally, the prefrontal cortex also helps us to keep track of our goals and desires–the “I want” power.

The connection between willpower and the prefrontal cortex is easy to see when experiencing certain states of being which reduce its functioning–states such as drunkeness, tiredness and stress.

Another phenomenon that quickly depletes our willpower is constant distraction, because losing our focus seems to lift the floodgates on our impulse suppression. According to McGonigal, “when your mind is preoccupied, your impulses–not your long-term goals–will guide your choices.”

As I’ll discuss in a near-future blog, this is one reason that digital technology actually hurts us in the goal-setting department; the near constant distraction makes it difficult to focus on any one thing, and therefore can keep us near-paralyzed when it comes to acheiving goals.

Marketers, too, know that constant distraction can lead to impulse buys, because your willpower is down and your focus is spread too thin. This explains the loud music, distracting displays, and hustle and bustle of a large department store, for instance.


The Willpower Instinct goes into a lot more of the science involved in willpower, and it’s a fascinating story. But the main bulk of McGonigal’s book consists of actual tactics and habits you can implement in order to boost your willpower, and that’s what I want to focus on.

The good news for chronic procrastinators like me is that “there is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control.” Willpower is like a muscle in two ways: first, if you exercise it, over time it will improve; and two, because it only has a finite amount of strength at any given moment, and once it’s depleted, your preformance will most likely suffer.

There are three lifestyle changes that McGonigal recommends in order to get more efficient at self-control.

The first is to meditate. Meditators  get “better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awarness.” In fact, there is growing evidence that meditation is one of the best things you can do for yourself all around, and for that reason is one of the most important habits to begin impletementing for any serious self-improvement regimen.

The second is to exercise. Physical exercise increases the physical gray matter in the brain that controls willpower, and it is has been scientifically shown to immediately increase willpower directly after a trip to the gym.

As Charles Duhigg notes in The Power of Habit, exercise is a keystone habit; it corrolates to many rippling effects in your life that are key for self-improvement, including concientious eating and better health practices overall.

The third major lifestyle change that effects your willpower is the implementation of a plant-based diet. Since not everyone is about to go vegan anytime soon, McGonigal does recommend cutting out processed foods and increasing the amount of plant foods that you consume. Predictably, junk food is known to negatively effect willpower and self-control, so just cutting that out is a great first step.

McGonigal recommends implementing these habits in the morning, if possible, because willpower is depleted throughout the day and is therefore at its strongest in the morning.


Although meditation, exercise, and eating a better diet are probably the best ways, long term, to build up your willpower reserves, The Willpower Instinct is absolutely filled with strategies you can use in order to resist temptation, muster your will, and achieve your long term goals in mind.

Here are two of my favorites, but there are several more in the book:

McGonigal suggests that giving a name to the part of ourselves that is impulsive, lazy, and constantly complaining about difficult tasks–names such as “The Procrastinator” or “The Goblin”–and giving a name to our wiser, more responsible self–like “The King/Queen” or “The Executive”–helps us to conceptualize these two selves and to recognize which part is taking over; this helps us to call in our wiser self, should we need to.

Another important trick with scientific backing–which is actually used in some corporations–is to imagine your future self as identical to you. Most of us see our future self as ‘other’; that is, “when reflecting on the future self, the brain’s activation is identical to when it is considering the traits of another person.” This decreases the likelihood that we will make decisions in the here and now that take that future self into consideration, like, for example, racking up credit card debt, or wrecking our health.


The Willpower Instinct is probably the BEST book out there when it comes to practical ways to increase willpower, as well as a detailed and scientific explanation as to what willpower actually consists of. I cannot recommend it enough!

If you found this blog to be of value, please share, like, comment, and leave me some feedback as to how to better improve my content. My goal is to share the science and philosophy of self-improvement.

Thanks for reading! May you continually strive to transcend yourself.






1 Comment

My Top Ten Favorite Books Read In 2018 – Apotheosis

November 1, 2018 at 3:02 pm Reply

[…] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal. I wrote a blog about this book, and you should read it. I give a lot of tips and information from the book, and […]

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