Book Summary

The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters and what you can do to get more of it By KELLY MCGONIGAL 

Your willpower instinct is essential to your productivity, your waistline and your professional relationships. Without it, you’d watch cat videos all day instead of doing your work. You’d order a cheeseburger every time you drove by McDonald’s and you’d tell that annoying co-worker what you really thought of them.

Whenever you encounter a choice or a desire, it is your willpower instinct that reminds you of your long-term interests. Your willpower instinct is what resists short-term pleasure and pushes you to do hard and boring tasks that will pay off in the years to come.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when people are struggling to maintain their self-control, they activate a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the newest addition to the human brain in terms of our evolution and it has the ability to override signals from the older more primitive animal-like regions of the brain that want to indulge in every urge, impulse and temptation. These primitive parts of your brain will usually yell, “Eat that! Drink that! Smoke that!”

Kelly says, “When it’s easier to stay on the couch, your prefrontal cortex makes you want to get up and exercise. When it’s easier to say yes to dessert, your prefrontal cortex remembers the reasons for ordering tea instead. When it’s easier to put that project off until tomorrow, it’s your prefrontal cortex that helps you open the file and make progress anyways.

However, neuroscientists have also discovered that the more willpower challenges you face the less active the prefrontal cortex becomes. It’s like a muscle whose strength is limited. The more you flex your willpower muscle the less effective it will be. That’s why it’s easier to resist chocolate cake at 9:00 a.m. and not so easy at 9:00 p.m., after a long day of work.

Knowing that your willpower is like a muscle can be both reassuring and discouraging. It’s reassuring because it makes your past willpower failures like giving up on that diet the result of an exhausted willpower muscle not the result of being a weak or lazy person. You’ve been less than perfect in the past; you’ve been working too hard or working in an environment with too many distractions; like an environment where co-workers and clients routinely bring in boxes of donuts.

Working in an environment like this depletes your willpower. It leaves you defenseless against the impulses and urges later in the day. The fact that willpower is limited is discouraging because we live in an age of endless choice, temptation and distraction; each of which drains our willpower reserves.

Research reveals that the average person makes 227 food based decisions a day. Thanks to Amazon and other online stores, you are just one click away from satisfying the temptation to purchase that new gadget you don’t need and you can’t afford. Thanks to Apple and Samsung, you now have a smartphone in your pocket that allows you to be constantly distracted with email, text messaging and video games. There is an all-out assault on your limited willpower reserves. So how can you possibly stick to that diet or deadlines and avoid becoming a will powerless zombie.

In an effort to fight back, author Kelly McGonigal, a psychology professor at the University of Stanford, created a course called ‘the science of willpower’. In her core, she arms her students with the latest willpower strategies, validated by science. Here are two promising and unexpected strategies that you can use to maintain your willpower reserves throughout the day and stick to your goals, despite the constant drain on your willpower.

The first strategy is increasing heart rate variability. When tempting recovering alcoholics with a drink, those who have a high heart rate variability are more likely to resist the drink and stay sober. Those who have lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of relapse. Kelly says if you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.

So what exactly is heart rate variability? If you had a heart rate of 60 beats per minute, it doesn’t mean that your heart would be beating at exactly one-second intervals for the full 60 seconds. If you are healthy and relaxed, it should actually be beating at varied intervals like 1.07 seconds then 0.98 seven seconds and 1.05 seconds and so forth. These aren’t dangerous rhythms. They are just slight heartbeat variations. The more varied your heartbeat intervals are, the higher your heart rate variability is.

So how can you raise your heart rate variability and gain access to a larger willpower reserve? Kelly says you won’t find many quick fixes in this book but there is one way to immediately boost your willpower. Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability.

One way of performing Kelly’s recommended five breaths per minute is by inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight seconds. You could try doing this for a minute at first and see for yourself. It might feel like you’re suffocating but you’ll quickly adapt and feel calm. If you feel like you’re losing your self-control, just remember 5 breaths per minute: 4 seconds in, 8 seconds out.

The second willpower strategy is self-forgiveness. Kelly says if you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you’re not alone, but you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.

A study at Carleton University in Ottawa tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester and found that students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on an initial exam were more likely to procrastinate on subsequent exams. The less the students forgave themselves, the longer they procrastinated on studying for the next exam.

Forgiveness, not guilt, is what allowed students to overcome procrastination and improve their grades. Self-criticism backfires as a strategy for self-control because like other forms of stress, it drives you straight to comfort-coping activities like binge eating ice cream or watching TV instead of finishing that project. Therefore the next time that you are about to lose self-control, reflect and forgive.

Reflect on the last time that you gave into temptation or started procrastinating. Relive the moment. Recall how horrible you felt afterwards then be a good friend and forgive yourself. Say to yourself, “Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and loses control from time to time. I’m only human and there’s nothing wrong with me.”

With that dose of self-forgiveness, you give yourself the ability to use your willpower muscle again. So the next time that you find yourself searching for self-control, forgive yourself and slow down your breathing. Doing so will ensure that you have enough willpower reserves to finish that project or stick to that diet.

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