Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Willpower Instinct

This is not the first book I have read to try to boost my own willpower, but in some ways it is the most practical.  I had watched Kelly McGonigal, the author on a TV Ontario program hosted by Steve Paikin and was quite impressed with her ideas to stiffen our resolve.

Self control is more critical than intelligence, charisma or empathy.  We all, one way or another realize that to get what we want we have to overcome our impulses that run counter to our goals.  Still our impulses come from our evolutionary past as ways to survive so they will not just disappear on their own even though our circumstances are different from our ancestors.  It is seldom that fight or flight will effectively deal with most of the problems of the modern world.

We want willpower for different purposes.  I will do something, I won't do something and I want something.  The key one is you want something, an over-riding goal that will help you deal with the everyday urgent temptations and procrastinations we all deal with.  I will exercise and I won't eat bad foods so that I can get the body that I want for myself is a classic example of willpower dynamics.

Kelly's first advice is to see how and why you lose control.  Determine what you do just before giving into temptation.   This is almost always a decision to relieve tension.  You need to recognize that at one point you have made a decision.

Good health stemming from exercise, diet and proper rest is an important foundation for developing self-control.  Stress is a willpower drainer.

The idea of meditation has appealed to me for a number of years.  Like many of my readers I have become a multi tasker even though I am well aware it is counter productive.  The emotional element is that there are so many things you can do, but so little time that you feel cheated.  Trying to do something constructive, such as for work, watch tv (with channel surfing), on the computer, eating, a book on the side.  I have read several books regarding meditation and even once took a class.  Didn't really feel I got far, but Kelly's description was more encouraging and I think I am headed in the right direction.

Often to reward ourselves after achieving some task we will indulge in something that is often counter-productive for example eating  a fattening treat after achieving a diet goal.   This is viewed as a goal-sabotaging strategy.  We should view success as proof we are on our way to reaching our goals and try to reinforce our progress.  Look for alternatives (healthier, but tasty snacks, healthier, but enjoyable activities) as rewards.

Kelly teaches a class at Stanford University on the topic of willpower which is a two way process.  She conveys what she knows and she gets lots of feedback from her students.  Some of what we know about willpower is counter-intuitive.

One recounted experiment was about how people could not stop thinking about white polar bears once the idea was suggested.  A strategy that works is to accept the thought.  One of Kelly's strategies is to "surf the urge"which means to accept the thought that is tempting and just surf with it for awhile.  Eventually it will seem less important and you can move on.

One suggestion she made was to email yourself (through from the future.  The point is that we have an ideal of how we would like to be in the future, but it seems so strange in comparison to all the temptations at hand.  Get to feel more comfortable with your future self and it will be easier to resist both temptation and procrastination.

Ultimately the only way to increase willpower is to stretch it.  When you feel like giving up just hang on for a little bit more and the next time a little bit more on to that.

Every person reading this book will be unique in some way.  There are so many tidbits of advice many of which will hit home, but it cannot be predicted which will have the most impact on you.

Her ending advice is worth repeating.  You must pay attention when making choices.  Self awareness is something you can use to help do what matters most.

If you are interested to learn more about "The Willpower Instinct" and the author Kelly McGonigal you can visit her website at

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