Book Summary: “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal

“The Willpower Instinct” — Kelly McGonigal

This is a great little book about willpower, how it works and how to develop it. There’s tons of practical advice, as well as ingenious explanations of biological and psychological mechanisms involved.

Another important part of the book is exercises, mostly for developing self-awareness — a crucial tool for someone willing to work on one’s willpower and motivation.

In this post I’ll omit these exercises entirely, and concentrate only on the ideas that I took away after putting this little book down. The list isn’t complete, but those are the most important ones for me, ones that resonated and stuck. Your milage may vary. :)


First, a super-short list of practical tips for those of you impatient. If you only have a minute, read them, incorporate them into your life and you’ll be good.

  1. Stress & sleep deprivation kill your willpower. Reorganise your environment to reduce stress.
  2. Feeling guilty is an anti-pattern — drop guilt and become stronger. Feeling bad after giving in is just another stress, this time self-generated.
  3. Treat your future self the same way you treat yourself. He is the same as you, definitely not a super hero with super powers. So be kind to him, don’t leave him with piles of sh*t to deal with just because the present you has preferred some short-term “solutions”. He won’t handle it then, just like you can’t handle it now.

And the most important take-away, perhaps:

You never will be in control of your thoughts. But you can always choose whether and how to act upon them.

So, there’s little point in trying to suppress your thoughts and desires or feeling guilty about them — they are an inevitable part of being a human. But don’t let them control your behaviour! You and only you are in charge of it.


Now, for those of you who can delay their gratification, a more complete and detailed list of useful take-aways:

  1. Reptile brain: there’s an older part of the brain, a legacy of our evolutionary history, which is responsible for short-term thinking, satisfying urges, reacting to immediate impulses, and so on. A memorable (albeit non-flattering) analogy is that inside each of us lives an “Instant Gratification Monkey”. And in the modern world these outdated mechanisms often cause more harm than they do good.
  2. Apart from this older part, there’s a newer part in our brains, that’s responsible for willpower. Our brains have developed certain mechanisms for long-term planning and resisting instant temptations — to protect ourselves from ourselves. Willpower instinct is biologically ingrained in human brain, just like the “monkey” short-term behaviour.
  3. These two parts (willpower and the Monkey part) co-exist and often conflict with each other, often driving people in the opposite directions in their daily lives
  4. Willpower muscle analogy is a legit one. Good news is, one can exercise it and get better at it. It can also get tired and then needs time to recover. Like a muscle, willpower drains your energy, but not that much.
  5. When “Monkey brain” takes over: when there’s a direct exposure to a stimulus, both in space AND time. In other words, when we can see it, touch it, smell it or lick it now or soon, it has the strongest effects on our older brains — the Monkey brain goes crazy. However, if there’s event a 10 minute delay before gratification, the effect drops sharply. Which brings us to….
  6. Tricking “Monkey brain” into serving your long-term goals. Here’s the trick: to help you stay on track towards your goals, make them more attractive to that Monkey brain. How? By making it appear closer than it it, visualising it, imagining yourself already having achieved that goal. That boosts the priority of the goal in your inner value system, helps you to focus on the distant goal and to resist immediate gratification from various distractions (e.g. eating healthy food vs. eating that bright pack of tasty cookies now! — whichever of the two appeals more to your inner monkey?). That’s how visualisation and affirmation techniques work you could even make it your daily 5-minute habit to assist in staying on track.
  7. Living with the inner Monkey: by doing the opposite — changing our environment by putting tempting objects away from our sight, or by delaying gratification we can fight back and gain control over our inner monkeys. A good example would be: when you feel an urge to smoke a cigarette, say to yourself: “I WILL smoke, but in 5 minutes, NOT NOW”. And that little trick alone helps people to cut down on number of cigarettes they smoke daily.
  8. There are physiological tricks to boost one’s capacity for willpower, e.g. by slowing down one’s breath. It works, because there’s a 2-way connection between ability to exercise willpower and various physiological indicators: heart rate variability, depth of breathing, etc. So you can learn to put your body into the states that enhance capacity for willpower. At least in theory.
  9. Importance of connection with your future self. The closer your are with “future you”, the more you’ll act in his interests — your own long-term interests that is. Things that help to improve that connection: try to talk with him, write him a letter (no need to actually send it), stop idealising him (no, he won’t suddenly have more time to do things than you do, or have a better health) and deeply experience that you and him are the SAME PERSON with COMMON interests.

This is it! I hope you found this summary useful. I wish you good luck with taming your inner monkey!

Just one more thing. If you liked this summary, please, like and share it —spread the knowledge and make the world a better place for all of us! Thank you.