The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It


Americans name lack of willpower as the #1 reason they struggle to meet their goals

The best way to increase your self control is to look at how and why you lose control

People who have control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it

I Will, I Won’t, I Want

I won’t: The “I won’t” power is our ability to resist desire

I will: The “I will” power is our ability to do what’s necessary, even if it’s against our hedonic desires

I want: The underlying motivation for behaving differently

Prefrontal Cortex

Many impaired states (sleep deprived, drunk, etc.) mimic the impaired state of Phineas Gage. When your prefrontal cortex is impaired you are unable to act in your best long term self interest.

You have to realize when you’re making a choice that requires willpower otherwise you may resort to the default

People who are distracted are more likely to give in to temptation–when your mind is occupied, your impulses drive your actions.

Fear, including scary stories on the news, lower our willpower.

Training Your Brain for Willpower

Practice exerting willpower in small ways. Not using slang, using your other hand for tasks, etc.

Anything that puts you under stress makes it harder to exert willpower

Exercise does a lot: but interestingly enough you get the most from 5 minutes of exercise spread throughout the day than just one 1-hour spurt

Think of exercise not as tiring you out, but as adding to your willpower reserves

Sleep deprivation also impairs your willpower, it’s equivalent to being mildly intoxicated

Look for a small way to practice self-control that strengthens your willpower, but doesn’t overwhelm it completely

We wrongly predict we will have much more free time in the future than we do today. Exercise equipment example

See acting against your best interest as creating a new rule (Categorical Imperative for willpower essentially)

The Self Control Muscle

Students studying for exams eat shitty food and smoke more. People on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse.

Trying to control your temper, stick to a budget, or refuse seconds all tap the same muscle

Boosting blood sugar helps to quickly restore willpower

Drinking diet soda hurts your blood sugar, and thus lowers your willpower

Fatigue isn’t our bodies giving up–it’s our minds. Many runners know this, and can push through supposed bodily fatigue. We often feel our willpower is depleted before it actually is

The Problem with Justifications

If you tell yourself you’re “good” for working and “bad” for procrastinating, you’re more likely to slack in the afternoon if you made progress in the morning. I ran today, I deserve a treat. etc.

Anything that makes us feel warm and fuzzy about our virtue can license us to follow our impulses.

We even give ourselves credit for what we could have done but didn’t. We could have eaten three slices of pizza but didn’t

Ask someone how committed they are instead of how much progress they have made

People who intend to exercise the next day tend to eat more at dinner.


Notice what gets your dopamine going, what causes it to start driving you to act?

Find ways to “dopaminize” your least favorite tasks. Find ways to make them exciting or rewarding

We get much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed small one

We confuse dopamine (the want of happiness) with actual happiness. Sometimes slowing down can help put it in perspective

Future Discounting

Just waiting 10 minutes can help get past the initial dopamine rush of wanting to do something

Imagine your future self as your current self, don’t discount it or put unnecessary work on it

Pre-commit yourself. Burn your ships at the shore, so to speak

Imagining your future self can increase your present self’s willpower

Willpower is Contagious

If a friend becomes obese, your risk increases by 171%. But if someone quits smoking odds are their friends and family can too.

Anytime we see someone else behaving badly, our own willpower deteriorates

Ask who you’re most likely to “catch something” from.

Not Thinking About Things

When you push a though away, and it keeps coming back, you are more likely to think that it must be true.

The more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed.

The vast majority of dieters regain the weight they lose dieting, and then gain more.

When we outlaw food, we increase desire.

Accept cravings, just don’t act on them.

Willpower Experiment

For one day, track your willpower choices. What makes you give in or succeed?

Five minute brain training meditation. Just focus on breathing. Start with 5 minutes, move up after it becomes a habit.

For your willpower experiment, identify the inner desire that needs to be calmed. Next time you’re tempted, turn your attention inward.

Breathe your way into self control: Slow your breathing and you’ll increase your willpower. It also makes you more resistant to stress.

5 minute Green willpower fillup: Leave the office and go somewhere green. Walk/jog around the block. Take your dog outside to play. Work in your yard/garden. etc.

Start sleeping better. Consider what you are saying “yes” to instead of sleep

Take time to relax–it helps your willpower recover as well. Nothing drains willpower faster than stress, and 75% of Americans are over stressed

Pay attention to when you have the most and least willpower

A low glycemic diet will help keep your willpower high by avoiding sugar spikes and crashes

Willpower workouts:

  • I won’t: Commit to not swearing, not crossing your legs, not using your dominant hand
  • I will: Do something every day just for the sake of building a habit. Like throwing one thing away.

The next time you feel “too tired” to exert self control, challenge yourself to go beyond that first feeling of fatigue

What’s your Want power?

  • When your willpower is running low, find new strength by tapping in to your want power.
  • How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge?
  • Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge?
  • Imagine that this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now

Watch how you and others talk about willpower successes and failures

  • Do you tell yourself you’ve been good when you succeeded and bad when you failed?
  • Do you use good behavior to license bad ones?

Surround yourself with people who share or already have your willpower goal

Ask yourself how proud you’ll be if you succeed

Feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything that you thnk

Accept cravings, just don’t act on them

  • Notice that you are having a craving
  • Accept the thought or feeling without trying to immediately distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white-bear rebound effect
  • Step back by realizing that thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but you can choose whether to act on the
  • Remember your goal. Remind yourself of whatever your commitment is, as the students reminded themselves of their agreement not to eat hershey’s kisses

Try to turn “I won’t” challenges into “I will” challenges