The Willpower Instinct - Kelly McGonigal PhD

The Willpower Instinct - Kelly McGonigal PhD

 Video Book Summary

Download all of the Mind Maps here.

Book Summary Notes 

The Willpower Instinct

“We may all have been born with the capacity for willpower, but some of us use it more than others."  

"People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top.

"Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma (sorry, Tony Robbins), and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut). If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.”

Want to improve your life?  Start with willpower.

Probably the single most important skill to learn..  How to allocate and use willpower!

Trying to build a business?  Strategy only takes you so far..  Hard work an commitment are almost always required!

Trying to get into shape?  The 'perfect' diet plan doesn't work so well if you don't have the ability to follow it!

These are just some of the more obvious ways willpower impacts our lives.. 

Reality is that our entire lives are dictated by our use (or non-use) of willpower! 

Small everyday things like not getting into arguments, getting out of bed and paying attention to YouTube videos all require some amount of willpower!

So what are we going to learn?

HOW willpower really works!

Strategies to INCREASE your willpower!

1 thing you think about willpower that is WRONG! 


“There is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control."

"What does willpower training for your brain look like?”

“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness."  

"People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines."

"Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.”

What does a 'Willpower Training Camp' look like?

Well..  It looks like meditation!

There is some amazing science on the power of meditation to (almost instantly) increase your willpower!  Check it out:

"After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses."

“Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain." 

"It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it.”

Lifting weights for the brain!

  • Meditation of course has some amazing in-the moment benefits just like exercise..  
  • Increased energy, decreased stress and a clear mind are all good places to start!
  • But the studies show..  The long lasting effects are pretty insane!  
  • A small amount of meditation makes your life a heck of a lot better.

So what are we waiting for?

From 'Willpower' by Roy Baumeister we learned that almost ANY type of meditation or prayer will increase willpower..  

Here is the one I recommend for beginners (habit stacking mindfulness):

  • Step 1: Brew your warm drink in the morning. 
  • Step 2: Sit on your couch and enjoy that drink!  No distractions.  Constantly bringing your attention back to the delicious drink. 
  • Step 3: Whoops your meditating!  Welcome to willpower land.

Pause & Plan

“Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, studies how states of mind like stress and hope influence the body." 

"She has found that, just like stress, self-control has a biological signature." 

"The need for self-control sets into motion a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. Segerstrom calls those changes the pause-and-plan response, which couldn’t look more different from the fight-or-flight response.”

What is the opposite of fight or flight?

We've all been there before..

  • Something stresses us out at work or at home!
  • Suddenly we can't think straight, our heart is pounding and our breathing is fast and shallow..  
  • That's the fight and flight response (which is not where willpower lives).

'Pause and Plan' is the willpower response!

Here is what it looks like from Kelly:

“Your brain needs to bring the body on board with your goals and put the brakes on your impulses. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other automatic functions. The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”

How do we shift from fight or flight to pause and plan?

  • Well meditation is a great place to start!  Building up those muscles of awareness and detachment is important..  
  • But coming up next is a great 'in the moment' hack for calming the mind and moving to pause and plan!


“You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower:" 

"Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience."

"Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”

Want an immediate path to willpower 'in the moment'?

Slow down your breathing!

  • 10-15 seconds per breath is the sweetspot.. 
  • That's in for 4-6 seconds and out for 6-8 seconds!
  • Test it right now: notice the immediate calming response.  Pretty cool right?

This connects PERFECTLY with our IF_________ THEN ___________ statements from other books.

  • IF THEN statements allow us to choose how we'll react in a situation before we are forced to react.. 
  • They are extremely helpful because it's often hard to respond effectively when in fight or flight mode!
  • Here is an example: IF I feel stressed at work before a presentation THEN I will step outside and do 2 minutes of slow breathing. 

Check out there books:

  • 'Re-Thinking Positive Thinking'
  • 'Willpower'
  • 'Solving The Procrastination Puzzle'


“Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered." 

"For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes."

"The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac."

"Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain."  

"When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other."

"Physical exercise— like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.”

Who would have thought..  Exercise increases your willpower!

How much do we have to exercise?

  • Hal Elord tells us in his book 'The Miracle Morning' that it doesn't take much!  
  • Start with what you can..  A 5 minute walk, 20 squats or some pushes!

There are no shortage of amazing things that exercise does for us!

  • But knowing that putting a little bit of willpower into the bucket of exercise actually makes all other buckets bigger is nice!
  • This isn't a 'only have so much willpower' game..  

Coaching clients who are hard charging business owners often use this as an excuse! 

  • 'I don't have time to exercise' or 'I'm burned out by the end of the day'
  • This is obviously somewhat true..  It does take some time willpower to get it done!  
  • But it's a counterintuitive point about willpower!  Some things that take willpower build it..  
  • Put a small amount of exercise into your daily routine and you'll be thankful.


“Other studies have found that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control— improving your posture, squeezing a handgrip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending—can increase overall willpower." 

"And while these small self- control exercises may seem inconsequential, they appear to improve the willpower challenges we care about most, including focusing at work, taking good care of our health, resisting temptation, and feeling more in control of our emotions.”

Want to build your willpower?  Find small, meaningful but non-depriving willpower challenges.. 

This is such a key point!  Not only does mediation, exercise and breathing train our willpower muscles.  But so does USING them.

But it's not just about 'building stronger willpower muscles' as we might normally think of in exercise..

"It’s the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest. Through each of these willpower exercises, the brain gets used to pausing before acting."  

"The triviality of the assignments may even help this process. The tasks are challenging, but they’re not overwhelming. And while the self-restraints require careful attention, they’re unlikely to trigger strong feelings of deprivation. (“What do you mean I’m not allowed to say ‘yeah’?!?!? That’s the only thing that gets me through the day!”)

"The relative unimportance of the willpower challenges allowed participants to exercise the muscle of self-control without the internal angst that derails so many of our attempts to change.”

Noticing what you're about to do and doing the more difficult thing instead of the easy thing!

  • What she is saying here is how you do one thing is how you do everything..  
  • Constantly choosing the easy path?  How can you expect yourself to do hard things when they are required.

How about you?  What are your small commitments!

  • Here are some examples:
  • Find a nighttime routine that you follow.. 
  • Focus on having good posture during the day.. 
  • Keep a list of everything you need to do in a day.. 

Long Term Shift

“Aim to reduce the variability of your behavior day to day." 

"View every choice you make as a commitment to all future choices." 

"So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” Or if you’ve been putting something off that you know you should do, instead of asking “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” ask yourself, “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?””

I LOVE THIS idea!  Instead of what you're feeling in the moment..  Try to shift to the long term consequences of any action!

This is another great 'IF __________ THEN __________ Statement'

  • If I find myself thinking of eating a candy bar I will remind myself of the long term consequences to my body.
  • If I find myself procrastinating on something I will remind myself of the consequences of being a procrastinator. 

What a powerful re-frame for the mind!

  • Generally I think our minds are looking at the good in every decision vs the bad.. 
  • The candybar looks delicious and we don't think about the 10-20 extra lbs a candy bar habit puts on us..  
  • Netflix is entertaining but we don't think about the projects we're not able to complete because of binge watching a show.. 

Try this out!  What is a habit you want to break.. 

  • Can you visualize the damage it might cause in 1 year, 5 years or a lifetime? 
  • Now..  Don't use this is a 'if you don't do this then you'll be a failure' negative kind of way.. 
  • We'll talk about the importance of self compassion later on!  
  • But this technique can just as easily be used to course correct out of self love as out of self hate!

Find What Works

“While many of the most popular stress-relief strategies fail to make us feel better, some strategies really work." 

"According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby."

"(The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)”

Finding a strategy for coping with stress that works is a lifesaver!  

Why does it seem so easy to choose the strategies that don't work?

“The main difference between the strategies that work and the strategies that don’t?" 

"Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward, the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel- good hormone oxytocin. They also help shut down the brain’s stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response. Because they aren’t exciting like the dopamine releasers, we tend to underestimate how good they will make us feel."

"And so we forget about these strategies not because they don’t work, but because when we’re stressed, our brains persistently mis-predict what will make us happy. This means that we’ll often talk ourselves out of doing the very thing that will actually make us feel better.”

Turns out our brains are wired to seek dopamine when we're feeling down, stressed or have to make a decision..  

  • Knowing this..  We can understand why we might choose activities that actually end up causing us more stress in an effort to reduce it!
  • These activities give us that short term feel good hit of dopamine..  
  • But they rob us of the long lasting mood stabilizing and stress reduction effects of Serotonin, GABA and Oxytocin. 

How can we make the right choice?

  • Step one: know what activities you enjoy that relieve stress in a meaningful and long lasting way. 
  • Step two: know that when you are stress you WILL NOT want to do those things! 
  • Step three: if you're in that situation..  GET STARTED and resolve to do an activity for 2-5 minutes. 
  • Step four: often the activity starts to capture moment and go on it's own!  
  • Step five: if step four doesn't work..  See the next point in the mind map.

Be Nice

“If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong." 

"Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.

"In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control."

"Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves."

"The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.”

Think being hard on yourself is motivating?

Well..  Studies show that you might have to think again!

  • This is something I have dealt with throughout my life, coaching clients bring it up all the time and I think we're taught this idea from a young age..  
  • For some reason we think that in order to motivate ourselves we need to be unhappy about something! 
  • Most of us even think that the harder we are on ourselves the more motivated we'll be!

Remember a couple of things:

  • “Everybody makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. How we handle these setbacks matters more than the fact that they happened.”
  • “We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, wants the best for you, and will encourage you when you feel discouraged.”

Does this mean we can't hold high standards?

  • No..  Actually it's important to hold high standards AND be nice to ourselves when we fall short.
  • Constant self criticism is a great way to make sure you continue to do the things you want to change..  
  • Know that you can be self compassionate, highly motivated and extremely successful..  in fact it's the easier way!
Back to blog