The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters and What We Can Do to Get More of It Book Summary
I was so grateful when I came across this book just when I was struggling with self-control and self-regulation. While working from home, at some point I was losing grasp of my self-control and basically working with no order at all. The Willpower Instinct helped me regulate my I want power. Through this summary, I hope you learn how to apply willpower in various areas of your life.
This is a book about self-control and how we can use it to change our habits. Books about habits are some of the most effective self-improvement books as they help us become more productive, quit bad habits, and become better versions of ourselves. The book explains how we can use self-control to improve our health, happiness, and productivity.
Willpower has three powers:
- I will power
- I won’t
- I want.
These powers help us become better versions of ourselves. The “I will” power concerns things you would like to do such as exercise more in a day, eat healthier, become more productive.
The “I won’t” power is about habits you would like to quit such as being on social media all the time, quit smoking, and such.
The “I want” power is about taking charge of what you want and channeling it towards wanting better choices that will help change your life positively.
What is willpower?
Willpower is a battle between taking control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. To master willpower, we need to learn self-awareness so we can get to self-control. With this kind of self-knowledge, we will find the willpower to do the hard thing which is often the right thing.
Developing self-awareness helps you become aware of your emotions such that you can catch yourself before you do something you shouldn’t. Becoming self-aware gives you the ability to realize what you are doing as you do it, why you are doing it, and catch yourself before you get to it.
For example, if you want to quit checking social media all the time, self-awareness helps you catch yourself right before you reach your phone and remind yourself about your goal.
Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.
The more tired and stressed you are, the less you can resist immediate gratification. Willpower is developed to help us protect ourselves. Your willpower instinct is supposed to kick in when you sense a threatening situation, such as a cheesecake when you are trying to watch your waistline.
However, when you are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and pushes you to do the thing that feels good now. This book, therefore, advises that to master willpower, reduce stress, and take care of health through exercise, good night’s sleep, spending time with friends, to improve the body instincts that will help catch you when you are about to seek instant gratification.
Too tired to resist: Why self-control is like a muscle
The author says that like a muscle, our willpower follows the rule of ‘use it or lose it’. The only way to increase our self-control is by stretching our limits. We become more in control when we exercise self-control in different levels of our lives, such that we make a habit out of it.
License to sin: why being good gives us permission to be bad
When we turn willpower challenges into measures of moral worth, it permits us to be bad. For example, if you feel that when you exercise you did something good, you are likely to take a cheat meal or skip exercise for the next several days.
We have labeled exercising as ‘right’ and not exercising as ‘wrong’ and when we do the ‘right’ thing we justify doing some ‘wrongs’. Other than tie our willpower to moral worth, you can focus on goals and values instead.
Why we mistake wanting for happiness
Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness. It, therefore, makes us chase satisfaction from things that don’t serve us or help us meet our goals. For example, we tend to tell ourselves that when we finish that run, we can eat death by chocolate, since it will make us feel better.
We mistake our wanting this treat for happiness. Of course, we need a promise of reward to look forward to but we need to learn how to separate fake rewards from real rewards. The real reward in this example is living a healthy life from eating healthy and having regular exercise.
How feeling bad leads to giving in
When you feel bad at failing at a willpower effort, you give in and say ‘well, I have already screwed up, I might as well eat the whole cake/watch the rest of Netflix series”. However, when you drop the guilt, you become stronger, and your willpower increases.
When we experience setbacks, we need to admit that this happens and forgive the failures. We should not allow setbacks to be the reason we give up. When it comes to self-control, we need a good amount of self-compassion.
Instant gratification economics
We seek instant gratification because we are short-sighted. We choose the person today over the future person we want to be. The future rewards feel less compelling and we choose the immediate rewards.
To exercise willpower, we need to be future-sighted and try to see the future we want and the person we want to be in the future. We need to remember that our future self suffers the consequences of our behavior today.
Willpower is contagious
Whether we like it or not, our decisions are influenced by the actions, beliefs, and behavior of others. What others do can influence our self-control or pull us towards temptation. You cannot say you are eating healthy and then hang out at the steakhouse with your friends.
The pink elephant
If I tell you to stop thinking about a pink elephant, you cannot help yourself but think about a pink elephant. It is all you think about. In the same way, when you try to suppress thoughts, emotions, and cravings, you are more likely to think about them.
A couple of years ago, I quit eating bread, and then it was all I could think about. I didn’t even like bread but quitting made me dream about sandwiches all the time. For better self-control, accept that it is impossible to control what comes to your mind, but choose what to believe and what to focus on.
How to build willpower
You can strengthen the “I won’t” power by committing to not doing something you are trying to stop or something out of the ordinary. For example, you can choose to use a non-dominant hand to perform daily easy tasks such as opening doors.
You can strengthen the “I will” power by doing something you don’t usually do and choosing to do it every day. For example, you can decide to work out for 15 minutes each day or journal for 5 minutes daily.
Strengthen your “I want” power by keeping track of something you don’t pay much attention to. For example, you can limit hours spent on social media and exercise these muscles.