December 29, 2014

The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal

The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal
How self-control works, why it matters and what you can do to get more of it.

[Author created a course for Stanford University on this topic and this book is the course book].

Our ability to control our attention, emotions, appetites and behavior, not only greatly influences our health, financial security, relationship and professional success. To succeed at self-control you need to know how you fail.

Willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won’t and I want to help you to achieve your goals. Just a few generations ago, your responsibilities in life would have been so simple. 1. Find dinner, 2. Reproduce, 3. Avoid unexpected encounters. Back to modern-day life, willpower has gone from being the thing that distinguishes us humans from other animals to the thing that distinguishes us from each other. Our modern powers of self-control are the product of long-ago pressures to be better neighbors, parents and mates.

Every willpower challenge requires doing something difficult, whether it is walking away from temptation or not running away from a stressful situation. Every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself - the impulsive version and wiser version. To have more self-control, you first need to develop more self-awareness.

Neuroscientists have discovered that like an eager student, the brain is remarkably responsive to experience. Ask your brain to do math every day, and it gets better at math. Ask your brain to worry and it gets better at worrying. Ask your brain to concentrate, and it gets better at concentrating. Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to mediate, it gets better, not just at mediating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. Over time, with regular medication, brains become finely tuned will power machines. Breath focus is a simple but a powerful meditation technique for training your brain and increasing willpower.

When people are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system (impulsive version)  takes over, which is part of basic biology that helps you fight or flee. In contrast, when people successfully exert self-control, the nervous system steps in calm stress and control impulsive action. Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to wonder drug that self control scientists have discovered.

Willpower instinct is a wonderful thing, but all of the mental tasks - focusing your attention, weighing competing goals, and quieting stress and carving - require physical energy from your body, in the same way your muscles require energy to fight or flee in an emergency. Some scientists speculate that chronic self-control - like chronic stress - can increase your chance of getting sick by diverting resources from the immune system. One of the best ways to recover from stress is relaxation which will help your body to recover from the physiological effects of chronic stress or heroic control.

Willpower can be disrupted by sleep deprivation, poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and a host of other factors that sap your energy or keep your brain and body stuck in a chronic stress response. Stress is enemy of will power. Tired, stressed-out people start from a tremendous disadvantage and our bad habits - from overeating to under-sleeping, not only reflect lack of self-control, but also draining our energy and creating more stress.

Researchers have found that self-control is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day. In study after study no matter what, people’s self-control deteriorated over time. A concentration task didn’t just lead to worse attention over time; it depleted physical strength. Controlling emotions didn’t just lead to emotional outbursts; it made people more willing to spend money on something they didn’t need. It was as if every act of willpower was drawing from the same source of strength, leaving people weaker with each successful act of self-control.

Roy Baumeister (a psychologist at Florida State University) led us to the following hypothesis: that self-control is like a muscle. When used, it gets tired. If you don’t rest the muscle, you can run out of strength entirely, like an athlete who pushes himself to exhaustion. A brain that could bias your decision toward immediate gratification when resources are scarce. If you never seem to have the time and energy for your “I will” challenge, schedule it for when you have the most strength. In fact, type 2 diabetes is for all practical purposes the same as chronic low blood sugar person, because, the brain and body cannot efficiently use the energy that is available. This is likely one reason people with uncontrolled diabetes show impaired self-control and deficits in prefrontal cortex function. This is one of the reasons, recommendation to have a good breakfast on work week where brain needs more energy.

When you are trying to make a big change or transform an old habit, look for a small way to practice self-control that strengthen your willpower, but doesn’t overwhelm it completely. The next time you find yourself ‘too tired’ to exert self-control, challenge yourself to go beyond that first feeling of fatigue. When you find your biggest want power - the motivation that gives you strength when you feel weak - bring it to mind whenever you find yourself most tempted to give in or give up.

When a halo effect is getting in the way of your willpower challenge, look for the most concrete measure (e.g. Calories, cost, time spent or wasted) of whether a choice is consistent with your goals. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.
When we add the instant gratification of modern technology to this primitive motivational system, we end up with dopamine-delivery devices that are damn near impossible to put down. Cell phones, the internet, and other social media may have accidentally exploited our reward system, but computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification, while making you less concerned about long-term consequences.

Marketing researchers at Stanford University have shown that food and drink samples make shoppers hungrier and thirstier, and put shoppers in a reward-seeking state of mind. Because samples combine two of the biggest promises of reward: Free and Food. Business also use smells to manufacture desire where none existed. An appetizing odor is one of the fastest ways to trigger the promise of reward and as soon as the scented molecules land on your olfactory receptors, the brain will bring searching for the source. The next time you walk by a fast food restaurant and are tempted by the smell of french fries and burgers, it is safe bet you don't smell the food inside, but a carefully manufactured scent being piped onto the sidewalk through special vents.  The website of Scent Air ( runs gamut from Fresh Linen to Birthday Cake and they brags about how it lured visitors into an ice cream parlor on the lower level of a hotel.

We want to feel our desires and we delight in a world that puts them on constant display for us to dream about. That’s why people like window shopping, flipping through luxury magazines, and touring open houses. When you really understand how a so-called reward makes you feel, you will be better-able to make smart decisions about whether and how to reward yourself.

According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising, or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, mediating yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby.

Promising and encouraging student to keep going, if the goal is important and any effort made now would take the student closer to the goal (the reward in the future will drive students to reach their goal - motivate your future self). Our inability to clearly see the future clearly leads us into temptation and procrastination. A recommendation is to create a future memory, write a letter to your future self or just imagine yourself in the future.

There are three ways our social brains can catch willpower failures. The first is unintentional mimicry. The mirror neurons that detect another person’s movement prime that very same movement in your own body (drinking habit). The second way is the contagion of emotion - e.g. coworkers bad mood can become our bad-mood. Thirdly, our brain can even catch temptation when we see others give in - e.g. we eat more with others than when we are alone. Self control is influenced by social-proof, making both will power and temptation contagious.

Each time, the mere act of trying not to think about something triggered a paradoxical effect: people thought about it more than when they weren’t trying to control their thoughts, and even more than when they were intentionally trying to think about it. This effect was strongest when people were already stressed out, tired or distracted. If we want to save ourselves from mental suffering, we need to make peace with those thoughts, not push them away.  When an urge takes hold, stay with the physical sensation and ride them like a wave, neither pushing them away nor acting on them.

If there is a secret of greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you are making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s noticing how you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or how you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence. It is realizing that the promise of reward doesn’t always deliver, and that your future self is not a superhero or a stranger. It is seeing what you in your world - from sales gimmicks to social proof - is shaping your behavior. It’s remembering what you really want and knowing what really makes you feel better. Self Awareness is the one self you can always count on to help you do what is difficult and what matters most. And that is the best definition of willpower I can think of.

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