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3 Things You Can Learn From The Willpower Instinct In 4 Minutes

Niklas Göke
Jan 8, 2016 · 4 min read

What would you do if you had twice the willpower you do now?

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stanford University, and works in “science help”, the industry in which scientists try to break down their research so the average Joe can understand it.

Note: Her twin sister Jane is just as popular — she helps people gamify their lives to improve their habits.

Here are my 3 lessons from The Willpower Instinct, her most prominent work.

  1. Willpower comes in 3 different shapes and sizes.
  2. Your willpower instinct (or the pause-and-plan-response).
  3. Don’t let past good behavior be an excuse for present bad behavior.

Set the timer to 4 minutes and start reading — you’re about to get willpowered!

Lesson 1: There are 3 kinds of willpower.

Most people think of willpower as the ability to resist temptations. However, that’s only one third of the deal.

McGonigal puts willpower into 3 distinct categories:

  1. “I won’t” power
  2. “I will” power
  3. “I want” power

“I won’t” power is the willpower you already know: It’s what you use when you resist that cookie on the conference table, the urge to watch the next episode of Breaking Bad, or to swing by McDonald’s on your way home.

Question to ask yourself: Which habit is hurting my health, happiness, and career the most? This will help you determine what you need to use your “I won’t” power the most for.

Second, there’s “I will” power, the force that helps you do what’s uncomfortable, but important to reach your goals. This is the kind of willpower that allows you to delay gratification now, so you can reap the rewards later.

Question to ask yourself: Which habit should I do every day to reach my goals?

Lastly, there’s “I want” power, the force that allows you to remember your long-term goals when you most need to, i.e. in situations where you need your “I will” power.

Question to ask yourself: What is my one goal that I want to spend a lot more of my time on?

Out of these 3, “I want” power is by far the most powerful. It is not so much about the goal itself, but more about having a strong reason and a clear why for delaying gratification now to succeed in the long term.

Lesson 2: The pause-and-plan response (aka the willpower instinct)

Have you ever felt followed by someone and wanted to just run home as quickly as possible?

That’s your fight-or-flight response, and it’s triggered by stress, for example in dangerous situations, or in our modern world, being afraid to miss a deadline.

Kelly McGonigal says there’s an alternate version of this though: the pause-and-plan response.

This is a state that can be triggered when you’re facing a willpower challenge and will boost your willpower in that particular moment.

Instead of heightening your senses and releasing adrenaline, like in the fight-or-flight state, this response allows you to pause and reflect, by shifting your attention to your inner conflict.

It gives you that short time buffer you need to make the better decision.

This is your biological willpower instinct, and like your gut, it can be trained. However, since willpower is like a muscle, it does get exhausted over time.

This is why your decisions get worse later in the day. Some ways to stock up your willpower to the maximum are:

  1. Eating healthy food, especially low-glycemic foods.
  2. Meditating for as little as 11 hours over several sessions.
  3. Exercising regularly.
  4. Getting a good night of quality sleep — every night.
  5. Spending time with someone who has strong willpower.

Lesson 3: Past good behavior can’t be an excuse for present bad behavior.

Let’s say you’re trying to quit alcohol and you do incredibly well all week.

You resist the temptation to go to a bar with coworkers on Wednesday, you get through your gym workout the day after, and are highly motivated to lose those extra pounds.

So on Sunday, what do you do?

You reward yourself with a beer, because you’ve done so well.

This is the worst thing you could do.

Note: Speaking of beer, my friends Ruari and Andy are causing some riot in the UK with their One Year No Beer challenge. Some of us coach.me coaches are helping out, it’s a great way to see if you want to quit the booze.

Giving yourself a reward that drives you away from your long-term goal is counter-productive and not a good strategy to win. As your reward for taking 7 steps forward, you’re taking 1 step back.

The message is to be aware of your attitude, because when you do well, you get lazy.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t use your past successes as an excuse to fail today.

Your turn

What will you use your extra willpower for?

Start a business? Finish a book? Kick ass at work?

I’m using mine to write short summaries like this one, every single day.

Don’t let your excuses hold you back. As my friend Kelly would say:

“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.” — Kelly McGonigal

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I’m also working on a book to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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