Home Psychology The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct
Read in 17 min.
Listen in 22 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct

The importance of willpower and self-awareness

What happens inside us when we give in to temptation or when we postpone something we know we need to do? How can we turn awareness of our mistakes into strategies for success? Understanding how willpower really works will enable you to develop self-control and greater determination in pursuing important goals. In TheWillpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal helps us to understand those imperfect (but perfectly human) behaviours common to us all: with a curious and attentive, but non-judgmental approach, we can all monitor our daily actions and at the same time practice improving our self-control.

The Willpower Instinct
Read in 17 min.
Listen in 22 min.

Willpower is made up of three powers which, when harnessed, can help us become a better version of ourselves

We can define willpower as a set of three interconnected powers: the ability not to do something that does not benefit us (but rather harms us), the ability to do what we need to do (even if a part of us does not want to do it), and, finally, the ability to remind us of what we really want.

These are the three powers that the author defines as the “I will”, “I won’t”, and the “I want” power; willpower is about using these three powers to achieve your goals.

Willpower is what distinguishes us from other living beings. It has been proven that those who are able to exercise greater self-control over their thoughts, emotions, and actions are happier, healthier, get better results in work and study, manage stress better, and live longer. Therefore, if we want to improve our lives, strengthening our willpower is a great place to start.

There is a part of our brain that is responsible for self-control: the principal task of the prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead and eyes, is that of getting us to do the harder thing. The prefrontal cortex is divided into three areas, each of which presides over one of the powers we saw earlier.

An area on the left is responsible for the “I will” power, and therefore helps us to complete tasks that may be boring and demanding, but important (when we would rather be doing something else). 

The region on the right is the one that controls the “I won’t” power, and therefore holds us back from impulses and desires that would be harmful to us. 

Finally, there is the central region, which deals with the “I want” power: it keeps track of our goals and desires and reminds us what we really want. The more the neurons in this area are activated, the more we are motivated to do something, because we contextualise it within the broader scheme of things.

Some neuroscientists are of the belief that we have one brain, but two minds - and this would explain why often a part of us seeks instant gratification, while a wiser part of us reminds us of our long-term desires. Practicing self-awareness can help us understand that these two competing minds can sabotage us and make it difficult for us to become the person we want to be.


The key ideas of "The Willpower Instinct"

Willpower is made up of three powers which, when harnessed, can help us become a better version of ourselves
To strengthen willpower, you need to be in a psycho-physical state that allows you to channel your energy towards self-control instead of self-defence
Train your self-control by starting small
Willpower should not be viewed as a virtue, but as a tool to achieve results
The promise of happiness makes us act, but we must be careful because what we pursue does not always lead us towards our goals
Self-compassion contributes to increasing motivation and improving self-control
We choose immediate gratification at the expense of future satisfaction
Willpower is contagious and does not depend on individual effort alone
The limits of “I won’t” power: if they tell us not to think about polar bears, it will be very difficult not to!
Take-home message
4books preview

Try 4books Premium for free!