“The Willpower Instinct”

Kelly McGonigal

The organization of this book felt a bit weird, but I think that was more of an ebook implementation detail than anything to do with the actual content. And, overall, I thought it was interesting—I even jotted down notes in a couple places, interesting ideas that could be useful to apply.

Sitting here writing this, though, I take issue with the title. It doesn’t feel like it fits with the content; there’s no instinct to willpower discussed, really, just things about the evolutionary psychology of the concept of willpower. Can you call something an instinct if you’re specifically writing a book about how to train yourself to have it? Is my ability to type on this keyboard instinctual after the years of practice, or is it robust muscle memory? I’m firmly on the side of the latter.

That aside, some interesting tips from the book:

  • While meditating, focus on the sensation of breathing. And, importantly: The point of meditation is being bad at it. The goal isn’t to think about nothing but your breath; the goal is to practice drawing your focus back to your breath after it shifts elsewhere, and notice those shifts happening.
  • Slowing your breathing to the range of 4-6 breaths per minute, without holding your breath, can help increase your heart rate variability. Heart rate variability may or may not correlate directly with your available willpower.
  • When considering short- versus long-term benefits, loss aversion tends to bite us—setting aside the short-term gain in favor of the long-term one feels like a loss of the short-term gain, even though neither one actually exists yet. You can make this work in your favor, though: examine the long-term gain first, and focus on the short-term option as “why would I give up the long-term thing for this?”
  • It is impossible to Not Think About something. (“Don’t think about white bears” was the experiment the book cited.) The general concept is called “ironic rebound”—you try not to think about it, and think about it even more. Instead, notice the thought, give yourself permission to think it… and then move on.

There were, of course, a few other useful little concepts like that, but those were the ones that most caught my interest. Beyond that, the book did the usual pop psychology book thing, repeating the same point over and over with a variety of stories and angles. While I grasp that it’s a good teaching technique, I do sometimes wish I could get the 4-page pamphlet version instead of the couple-hundred-pages edition. But then, that requires picking out the right example each time, and the trick is in knowing which one that is for each individual reader.

Overall, I liked the book; it was interesting to read some of the psychology of focus and willpower. If you’re interested in that kind of thing—or just want some tips for kicking a bad habit—check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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