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The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.

Personal Thoughts

A great book to build self-control. This is an optimistic read that teaches you how to best use your willpower. According to the author, willpower is about harnessing all three of these powers – I will, I won't, I want – to reach your goals and avoid trouble. She offers various practices to help us realize the role of willpower in our lives, how we feel physically as a result of challenges to our willpower, and how we can shape that experience into something desirable. She provides a variety of helpful strategies to improve willpower. Overall, this is a very comprehensive and life-changing book.

Summary Notes

  • According to the American Psychological Association, Americans name lack of willpower as the number-one reason they struggle to meet their goals.
  • Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted.
  • Every willpower challenge is a conflict between the two parts of oneself. For your own willpower challenge, describe these competing minds. What does the impulsive version of you want? What does the wiser version of you want? Some people find it useful to give a name to the impulsive mind, like “the cookie monster” to the part of you that always wants instant gratification, “the critic” to the part of you that likes to complain about everyone and everything, or “the procrastinator” to the person who never wants to get started. Giving a name to this version of yourself can help you recognize when it is taking over, and also help you call in your wiser self for some willpower support.
  • Without desires we’d become depressed, and without fear we’d fail to protect ourselves from future danger.
  • You need to recognize when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest.
  • People who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptations.
  • When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long-term goals—will guide your choices.
  • This week, commit to watching how the process of giving in to your impulses happens. You don’t even need to set a goal to improve your self-control yet. See if you can catch yourself earlier and earlier in the process, noticing what thoughts, feelings, and situations are most likely to prompt the impulse. What do you think or say to yourself that makes it more likely that you will give in?
  • It actually remodels itself based on what you ask it to do.
  • For example, adults who learn how to juggle develop more gray matter in regions of the brain that track moving objects.
  • Adults who play memory games for twenty-five minutes a day develop greater connectivity between brain regions important for attention and memory.
  • Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.
  • New research shows that regular meditation practice helps people quit smoking, lose weight, kick a drug habit, and stay sober.
  • Meditation is not about getting rid of all your thoughts; it’s learning not to get so lost in them that you forget what your goal is. Don’t worry if your focus isn’t perfect when meditating. Just practice coming back to the breath, again and again.
  • The Idea: Willpower is actually three powers—I will, I won’t, and I want—that help us to be a better version of ourselves.
  • The need for self-control sets into motion a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. Segerstrom calls those changes the pause-and-plan response, which couldn’t look more different from the fight-or-flight response.
  • Heart rate variability is such a good index of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in. For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response—their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink—have a greater risk of relapse. Studies also show that people with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations.
  • You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.
  • One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet.
  • Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered.
  • Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes.
  • If you want a quick willpower fill-up, your best bet may be to head outdoors. Just five minutes of what scientists call “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood, enhances focus, and boosts self-control. Green exercise is any physical activity that gets you outdoors and in the presence of Mama Nature.
  • Lower-intensity exercise, like walking, has stronger immediate effects than high-intensity exercise. Here are some ideas for your own five-minute green exercise willpower fill-up:
  • If you tell yourself that you are too tired or don’t have the time to exercise, start thinking of exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy and willpower.
  • Why does poor sleep sap willpower? For starters, sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, your cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream.
  • Researchers have also found that too little sleep creates impulse control and attention problems that mimic attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • When our willpower challenges overwhelm us, it’s tempting to assign the blame to who we are: weak, lazy, willpowerless wimps. But more often than not, our brains and bodies are simply in the wrong state for self-control.
  • Challenge the self-control muscle by asking people to control one small thing that they aren’t used to controlling. For example, one willpower-training program asked participants to create and meet self-imposed deadlines. You could do this for any task you’ve been putting off, such as cleaning your closet. The deadlines might be: Week 1, open the door and stare at the mess. Week 2, tackle anything that’s on a hanger. Week 3, throw out anything that predates the Reagan administration. Week 4, find out if Goodwill accepts skeletons. Week 5—well, you get the picture. When the willpower trainees set this kind of schedule for themselves for two months, not only did closets get cleaned and projects completed, but they also improved their diets, exercised more, and cut back on cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine. It was as if they had strengthened their self-control muscle.
  • Other studies have found that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control—improving your posture, squeezing a handgrip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending—can increase overall willpower.
  • Strengthen “I Won’t” Power: Commit to not swearing (or refraining from any habit of speech), not crossing your legs when you sit, or using your nondominant hand for a daily task like eating or opening doors.
  • Strengthen “I Will” Power: Commit to doing something every day (not something you already do) just for the practice of building a habit and not making excuses. It could be calling your mother, meditating for five minutes, or finding one thing in your house that needs to be thrown out or recycled.
  • Strengthen Self-Monitoring: Formally keep track of something you don’t usually pay close attention to. This could be your spending, what you eat, or how much time you spend online or watching TV. You don’t need fancy technology—pencil and paper will do. But if you need some inspiration, the Quantified Self movement ( has turned self-tracking into an art and science.
  • When you’re trying to make a big change or transform an old habit, look for a small way to practice self-control that strengthens your willpower, but doesn’t overwhelm it completely.
  • “Fatigue should no longer be considered a physical event but rather a sensation or emotion.”
  • These athletes recognize that the first wave of fatigue is never a real limit, and with sufficient motivation, they can transcend it.
  • Our beliefs about what we are capable of may determine whether we give up or soldier on.
  • The next time you find yourself “too tired” to exert self-control, challenge yourself to go beyond that first feeling of fatigue.
  • When Kara, the first-time triathlete, felt too exhausted to continue, she remembered how much she wanted to finish and imagined the crowd cheering her across the finish line. It turns out that the metaphorical “muscle” of willpower can also be coaxed into persevering longer with the right inspiration.
  • When your willpower is running low, find renewed strength by tapping into your want power.
  • For your biggest willpower challenge, consider the following motivations:

1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge? What is the payoff for you personally? Greater health, happiness, freedom, financial security, or success? 

2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge? Surely there are others who depend on you and are affected by your choices. How does your behavior influence your family, friends, coworkers, employees or employer, and community? How would your success help them? 

3. Imagine that this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now. Can you imagine what your life will be like, and how you will feel about yourself, as you make progress on this challenge? Is some discomfort now worth it if you know it is only a temporary part of your progress?

  • Sometimes our strongest motivation is not what we think it is, or think it should be. If you’re trying to change a behavior to please someone else or be the right kind of person, see if there is another “want” that holds more power for you.
  • Keep track of your self-control strength this week, with special interest in when you have the most willpower, and when you are most likely to give in or give up. Is your exhaustion real? The next time you find yourself “too tired” to exert self-control.
  • Don’t mistake a goal-supportive action for the goal itself. You aren’t off the hook just because you did one thing consistent with your goal. Notice if giving yourself credit for positive action makes you forget what your actual goal is.
  • Making progress on a goal motivates people to engage in goal-sabotaging behavior. In one study, they reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. Eighty-five percent of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared with only 58 percent of dieters who were not reminded of their progress. A second study found the same effect for academic goals: Students made to feel good about the amount of time they had spent studying for an exam were more likely to spend the evening playing beer pong with friends.
  • When you make progress toward your long-term goal, your brain—with its mental checklist of many goals—turns off the mental processes that were driving you to pursue your long-term goal. It will then turn its attention to the goal that has not yet been satisfied—the voice of self-indulgence. Psychologists call this goal liberation. The goal you’ve been suppressing with your self-control is going to become stronger, and any temptation will become more tempting.
  • When people who have taken a positive step toward meeting a goal—for example, exercising, studying, or saving money—are asked, “How much progress do you feel you have made on your goal?” they are more likely to then do something that conflicts with that goal, like skip the gym the next day, hang out with friends instead of studying, or buy something expensive. In contrast, people who are asked, “How committed do you feel to your goal?” are not tempted by the conflicting behavior. A simple shift in focus leads to a very different interpretation of their own actions—“I did that because I wanted to,” not “I did that, great, now I can do what I really want!”
  • Sometimes the mind gets so excited about the opportunity to act on a goal, it mistakes that opportunity with the satisfaction of having actually accomplished the goal. And with the goal to make a healthy choice out of the way, the unmet goal—immediate pleasure—takes priority. You feel less pressure to actually order the healthy item, and you feel a stronger desire for the indulgent items.
  • As you go about making decisions related to your willpower challenge, notice if the promise of future good behavior comes up in your thinking. Do you tell yourself you will make up for today’s behavior tomorrow? What effect does this have on your self-control today? For extra credit, keep paying attention—all the way to tomorrow. Do you actually do what you said you would, or does the cycle of “indulge today, change tomorrow” begin again?
  • Aim to reduce the variability of your behavior day to day. View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” Or if you’ve been putting something off that you know you should do, instead of asking “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” ask yourself, “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?”
  • Is there a rule you can live with that will help you end the kind of inner debate that talks you right out of your goals?
  • When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, being good gives us permission to be bad. For better self-control, forget virtue, and focus on goals and values.
  • The next time you find yourself using past good behavior to justify indulging, pause and think about why you were “good,” not whether you deserve a reward.
  • When dopamine hijacks your attention, the mind becomes fixated on obtaining or repeating whatever triggered it. This is nature’s trick to make sure you don’t starve because you can’t be bothered to pick a berry, and that you don’t hasten human extinction because seducing a potential mate seems like too much of a hassle.
  • Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself, but will use the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. And so the promise of happiness—not the direct experience of happiness—is the brain’s strategy to keep you hunting, gathering, working, and wooing.
  • The website of Scent Air, a leader in the field of scent marketing, brags about how it lured visitors into an ice cream parlor on the lower level of a hotel. With a strategically placed aroma-delivery system, they released the scent of sugar cookies to the top of the stairs and waffle cones to the bottom. The average passerby will think she is inhaling the authentic smell of the sweet treats. Instead, she is breathing in enhanced chemicals designed to maximize the firing of her dopamine neurons.
  • The promise of reward has even been used to help people overcome addiction. One of the most effective intervention strategies in alcohol and drug recovery is something called the fish bowl. Patients who pass their drug tests win the opportunity to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl. About half of these slips have a prize listed on them, ranging in value from $1 to $20. Only one slip has a big prize, worth $100. Half of the slips have no prize value at all—instead, they say, “Keep up the good work.” This means that when you reach your hand into the fish bowl, the odds are you’re going to end up with a prize worth $1 or a few kind words. This shouldn’t be motivating—but it is. In one study, 83 percent of patients who had access to fish bowl rewards stayed in treatment for the whole twelve weeks, compared with only 20 percent of patients receiving standard treatment without the promise of reward. Eighty percent of the fish bowl patients passed all their drug tests, compared with only 40 percent of the standard treatment group. When the intervention was over, the fish bowl group was also far less likely to relapse than patients who received standard treatment—even without the continued promise of reward.
  • Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward, and it will motivate us to do whatever provides the chance to win. This is why people would rather play the lottery than earn a guaranteed 2 percent interest in a savings account, and why even the lowest employee in a company should be made to believe he could someday be the CEO.
  • Dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy.
  • We attribute the pleasure to whatever triggered the response, and the stress to not yet having it. We fail to recognize that the object of our desire is causing both the anticipated pleasure and stress.
    Test the promise of reward with a temptation that you regularly indulge in because your brain tells you it will make you happy. The most common choices in my class are snack foods, shopping, television, and online time-wasters from e-mail to poker. Mindfully indulge, but don’t rush through the experience. Notice what the promise of reward feels like: the anticipation, the hope, the excitement, the anxiety, the salivation—whatever is going on in your brain and body. Then give yourself permission to give in. How does the experience compare with the expectation? Does the feeling of the promise of reward ever go away—or does it continue to drive you to eat more, spend more, or stay longer? When, if ever, do you become satisfied? Or do you simply reach the point of being unable to continue, because you’re stuffed, exhausted, frustrated, out of time, or out of the “reward”? People who try this exercise commonly have one of two results. Some people find that when they really pay attention to the experience of indulging, they need far less than they thought they would to feel satisfied. Others find that the experience is completely unsatisfying, revealing a huge gap between the promise of reward and the reality of their experience. Both observations can give you greater control over what has felt like an out-of-control behavior.
  • There are many other cases of people who lose desire and the ability to expect happiness. Psychologists call it anhedonia—literally, “without pleasure.” People with anhedonia describe life as a series of habits with no expectation of satisfaction. They may eat, shop, socialize, and have sex, but they don’t anticipate pleasure from these activities. Without the possibility of pleasure, they lose motivation. It’s hard to get out of bed when you can’t imagine that anything you do will make you feel good. This complete disconnect from desire drains hope and, for many, the will to live.
  • Neuroscientists now suspect that an underactive reward system contributes to the biological basis of depression. When scientists have watched the activity of depressed people’s brains, they’ve seen that the reward system can’t sustain activation, even in the face of immediate reward. There’s a little burst of activity, but not enough to create the full feeling of “I want” and “I’m willing to work for it.” This produces the loss of desire and motivation that many people who are depressed experience.
  • Listen to the promise of reward, and we give in to temptation. Without the promise of reward, we have no motivation.
  • We need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.
  • Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.
  • The most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.
  • Stress—including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety—shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of reward, and you become convinced that the “reward” is the only way to feel better. For example, when a cocaine addict remembers a fight with a family member or being criticized at work, his brain’s reward system becomes activated, and he experiences intense cravings for cocaine. The stress hormones released during a fight-or-flight response also increase the excitability of your dopamine neurons. That means that when you’re under stress, any temptations you run into will be even more tempting.
  • Procrastinators who are stressed out about how behind they are on a project will put it off even longer to avoid having to think about it.
  • What do you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or down? Are you more susceptible to temptation when you are upset? Are you more easily distracted, or more likely to procrastinate? How does feeling bad affect your willpower challenge?
  • 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, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)
  • Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward, the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also help shut down the brain’s stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response. Because they aren’t exciting like the dopamine releasers, we tend to underestimate how good they will make us feel.
  • Is there a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better? What encouragement can you create for yourself before you are stressed?
  • Sometimes terror management leads us not into temptation, but procrastination. Many of the most put-off tasks have a whiff of mortality salience about them: making a doctor’s appointment, filling a prescription and taking it when we’re supposed to, taking care of legal documents such as wills,
  • Take a twenty-four-hour break from TV news, talk radio, magazines, or websites that profit from your fear. If the world doesn’t end without you watching every private and global crisis unfold (prediction: It won’t), consider cutting out mindless consumption of these media.
  • First coined by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the what-the-hell effect describes a cycle of indulgence, regret, and greater indulgence. These researchers noticed that many dieters would feel so bad about any lapse—a piece of pizza, a bite of cake 21—that they felt as if their whole diet was blown. Instead of minimizing the harm by not taking another bite, they would say, “What the hell, I already blew my diet. I might as well eat the whole thing.”
  • Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control.
  • Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.
  • We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, wants the best for you, and will encourage you when you feel discouraged.
  • As we face our first setbacks, the initial feel-good rush of deciding to change is replaced with disappointment and frustration. Failing to meet our expectations triggers the same old guilt, depression, and self-doubt, and the emotional payoff of vowing to change is gone. At this point, most people will abandon their efforts altogether. It’s only when we are feeling out of control and in need of another hit of hope that we’ll once again vow to change—and start the cycle all over. Polivy and Herman call this cycle the “false hope syndrome.”
  • For your own willpower challenge, ask yourself: When am I most likely to be tempted to give in? How am I most likely to let myself get distracted from my goal? What will I say to myself to give myself permission to procrastinate? When you have such a scenario in mind, imagine yourself in that situation, what it will feel like, and what you might be thinking. Let yourself see how a typical willpower failure unfolds. Then turn this imaginary failure into a willpower success. Consider what specific actions you could take to stick to your resolution. Do you need to remember your motivation? Get yourself away from the temptation? Call a friend for support? Use one of the other willpower strategies you’ve learned? When you have a specific strategy in mind, imagine yourself doing it. Visualize what it will feel like. See yourself succeed. Let this vision of yourself give you the confidence that you will do what it takes to reach your goal.
  • Economists call this delay discounting—the longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you. Even small delays can dramatically lower the perceived value
  • When “never again” seems too overwhelming a willpower challenge to tackle, use the ten-minute delay rule to start strengthening your self-control.
  • When you are tempted to act against your long-term interests, frame the choice as giving up the best possible long-term reward for whatever the immediate gratification is. 2. Imagine that long-term reward as already yours. Imagine your future self enjoying the fruits of your self-control. 3. Then ask yourself: Are you willing to give that up in exchange for whatever fleeting pleasure is tempting you now?
  • In 1519, Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador searching for gold and silver, led an expedition from Cuba to the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. He brought with him five hundred soldiers and three hundred civilians on eleven ships. Cortés’s goal was to head inland, conquer the natives, claim the land, and steal whatever gold and silver they could get their hands on. The natives, however, were not going to surrender meekly. Central Mexico was the homeland of the Aztecs, led by the powerful god-king Moctezuma and known for their bloody human sacrifices. Cortés’s crew had only a few horses and pieces of artillery. They were hardly a powerful military, and when the men landed on the coast of Mexico, they hesitated about marching inland. They were reluctant to leave the safety of the coast, where they could escape by ship. Cortés knew that when they faced their first battle, the crew would be tempted to retreat if they knew they had the option to sail away. So according to legend, he ordered his officers to set the ships on fire. The ships—Spanish galleons and caravels—were made entirely of wood and waterproofed with an extremely flammable pitch. Cortés lit the first torch, and as his men destroyed the ships, they burned to the water line and sank. This is one of history’s most notorious examples of committing one’s future self to a desired course of action. In sinking his ships, Cortés demonstrated an important insight into human nature. While we may feel brave and tireless when we embark on an adventure, our future selves may be derailed by fear and exhaustion. Cortés burned those ships to guarantee that his men didn’t act on their fear. He left the crew—and all their future selves—with no choice but to go forward.
  • Your rational self sets a course of action for you to follow, but often the tempted self decides to change course at the last minute. If the tempted self, with its reversed preferences, is allowed to do what it wants, the result will ultimately be self-sabotage.
    Ready to put the squeeze on your future tempted self? This week, commit yourself from a clear distance. Pick one of the following strategies and apply it to your willpower challenge. 1. Create a new default. Make choices in advance and from a clear distance, before your future self is blinded by temptation. For example, you can pack a healthy lunch before you’re hungry and salivating over take-out menus. You can schedule and prepay for anything from personal training sessions to dental visits. For your willpower challenge, what can you do to make it easier for your future self to act on your rational preferences? 2. Make it more difficult to reverse your preferences. Like Cortés sinking his ships, find a way to eliminate the easiest route to giving in. Get rid of temptation in your home or office. Don’t carry your credit cards when you go shopping, and only bring as much cash as you want to spend. Put your alarm clock across the room so you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off. None of these things make it impossible to change your mind—but they will at least make it damn inconvenient. What can you do that would put a delay or roadblock between your feelings of temptation and your ability to act on them? 3. Motivate your future self. There is no shame in using a carrot or a stick to nudge yourself toward long-term health and happiness. So argues Yale economist Ian Ayres, who created the innovative website stickk .com to help people precommit their future selves to change. His site emphasizes the stick—finding a way to make immediate gratification more painful if you give in. Whether it’s taking bets on whether you’ll gain weight (something Ayres did, to great success) or donating money to a charity if you don’t meet your predetermined goals, you can add a “tax” to the immediate reward. (Ayres even recommends choosing an “anti-charity”—an organization you don’t support—so the cost of failure is more painful.) The reward’s value may stay the same, but the cost of giving in makes immediate gratification far less tempting.
    You can help yourself make wiser choices by sending yourself to the future (DeLorean not required). Below are three ideas for making the future feel real, and for getting to know your future self. Pick one that appeals to you and try it out this week. 1. Create a Future Memory. Neuroscientists at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany have shown that imagining the future helps people delay gratification. You don’t even need to think about the future rewards of delaying gratification—just thinking about the future seems to work. For example, if you’re trying to decide between starting a project now or putting it off, imagine yourself grocery shopping next week, or at a meeting you have scheduled. When you picture the future, the brain begins to think more concretely and immediately about the consequences of your present choices. The more real and vivid the future feels, the more likely you are to make a decision that your future self won’t regret. 2. Send a Message to Your Future Self. The founders of have created a way for people to e-mail their future selves. Since 2003, they’ve been holding on to e-mails people write to themselves, and delivering them on a future date chosen by the writer. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to think about what your future self will be doing, and how he or she will feel about the choices you’re making now? Describe to your future self what you are going to do now to help yourself meet your long-term goals. What are your hopes for your future self? What do you think you will be like? You can also imagine your future self looking back on your present self. What would your future self thank you for, if you were able to commit to it today? Psychologist Hal Ersner-Hershfield says that even if you just briefly contemplate what you’d write in such a letter, you will feel more connected to your future self. 3. Imagine Your Future Self. Studies show that imagining your future self can increase your present self ’s willpower. One experiment asked couch potatoes to imagine either a hoped-for future self who exercised regularly and enjoyed excellent health and energy, or a feared future self who was inactive and suffering the health consequences. Both visualizations got them off the couch, and they were exercising more frequently two months later than a control group that did not imagine a future self. For your willpower challenge, can you imagine a hoped-for future self who is committed to the change, and reaping the benefits? Or a future self suffering the consequences of not changing? Let yourself daydream in vivid detail, imagining how you will feel, how you will look, and what pride, gratitude, or regret you will have for your past self ’s choices.
  • The best way to strengthen your immune response to other people’s goals is to spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your own goals, and how you could be tempted to ignore them. Like a vaccine that protects you from other people’s germs, reflecting on your own goals will reinforce your intentions and help you avoid goal contagion.
  • We hear the statistics all the time: 40 percent of Americans never exercise, and only 11 percent engage in vigorous exercise five times a week (the standard recommendation for health and weight loss). Only 14 percent of adults eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Instead, the average adult consumes almost 100 pounds of sugar a year.
  • When contemplating a choice, we often imagine ourselves the object of other people’s evaluations. Studies show that this can provide a powerful boost to self-control.
  • Anticipatory shame might be able to keep you from walking into the Cheesecake Factory, but when the temptation is in front of you, it has no power over the promise of reward. Once your dopamine neurons are firing, feeling bad intensifies your desire and makes you more likely to give in.
  • Put the basic human need for approval to good use by imagining how proud you will feel when you succeed at your willpower challenge. Bring to mind someone in your tribe—a family member, friend, coworker, teacher—whose opinion matters to you, or who would be happy for your success. When you make a choice you’re proud of, share it with your tribe by updating your Facebook status, Tweeting about it, or—for the Luddites among us—sharing the story in person.
  • Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.
  • An antidote to ironic rebound that is, itself, ironic: Give up. When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking about it.
  • Can trying not to think sad thoughts make people depressed? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed. The more depressed people try to block out distressing thoughts, the more depressed they get.
  • Another experiment found that when people try to push away self-critical thoughts (“I’m such a loser,” “People think I’m stupid”), their self-esteem and mood plummet faster than when people openly contemplate such thoughts. This is true even when people think they have succeeded at pushing the negative thoughts away. Ironic rebound strikes again!
  • WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL, BUT DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK When an upsetting thought comes to mind, try the technique that Goldin teaches his subjects. Instead of instantly trying to distract yourself from it, let yourself notice the thought. Oftentimes, our most disturbing thoughts are familiar—the same worry, the same self-criticism, the same memory. “What if something goes wrong?” “I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid.” “If only that hadn’t happened. What could I have done differently?” These thoughts pop up like a song that gets stuck in our heads, seemingly out of nowhere, but then is impossible to get rid of. Let yourself notice whether the upsetting thought is an old, familiar tune—that’s your first clue that it is not critically important information you need to believe. Then shift your attention to what you are feeling in your body. Notice if there is any tension present, or changes to your heart rate or breathing. Notice if you feel it in your gut, your chest, your throat, or anywhere else in your body. Once you’ve observed the thought and feelings, shift your attention to your breathing. Notice how it feels to breathe in and breathe out. Sometimes the upsetting thought and feelings naturally dissipate when you do this. Other times, they will keep interrupting your attention to your breath. If this happens, imagine the thought and feelings like clouds passing through your mind and body. Keep breathing, and imagine the clouds dissolving or floating by. Imagine your breath as a wind that dissolves and moves the clouds effortlessly. You don’t need to make the thought go away; just stay with the feeling of your breath.
  • Trying to avoid unwanted feelings often leads to self-destructive behavior, whether it’s a procrastinator trying to avoid anxiety, or a drinker trying to avoid feeling alone. For your willpower challenge, see if there is a feeling you are trying not to feel. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to feel it, using the breath and cloud imagery?
  • Can you redefine the “I won’t” challenge so that it becomes an “I will” challenge? Sometimes the very same behavior can be thought of in two different ways. For example, one of my students redefined “not being late” as “being the first person there” or “arriving five minutes early.” This may not sound like much of a difference, but he found himself far more motivated—and less likely to be late—when he turned being on time into a race he could win. If you focus on what you want to do, instead of what you don’t want to do, you sidestep the dangers of ironic rebound.
  • WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: SURF THE URGE Whatever your drug of choice, surfing the urge can help you ride out cravings without giving in. When the urge takes hold, pause for a moment to sense your body. What does the urge feel like? Is it hot or cold? Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut? Stay with the sensations for at least one minute. Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality. Not acting on an urge can sometimes increase its intensity—like an attention-seeking child throwing a temper tantrum. See if you can stay with these sensations without trying to push them away, and without acting on them. As you practice surfing the urge, the breath can be a wonderful source of support. You can surf the sensations of breathing—noticing how it feels to inhale and exhale—alongside the sensations of the urge. When you first practice this strategy, you may surf the urge and still give in. In Bowen’s smoking study, everybody smoked as soon as they left the torture chamber. Don’t use your first few attempts as a final verdict on the value of this approach. Surfing the urge is a skill that builds with time, like any new form of self-control. Want to practice the skill before a craving hits? You can get a good sense of the technique just by sitting still and waiting for the urge to scratch your nose, cross your legs, or shift your weight. Apply the same principles of surfing the urge to this impulse—feel it, but don’t automatically give in.
  • Surfing the urge is not just for addiction; it can help you handle any destructive impulse.
  • If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re 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’s realizing that the promise of reward doesn’t always deliver, and that your future self is not a superhero or a stranger. 

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.
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