Concept: How self-control works
The Willpower Instinct
Kelly McGonigal
Category: Self Development
Rating of the concept: 9/10

Concept: How self-control works.
Our instincts do not help us to walk away from our temptations. Two different minds house in our heads: the mind that is tempted by short-term temptations (candy, television, checking email, surfing on the internet etc.) and the mind who wants something in the longer term (eating healthy, staying in shape by going to the gym, spending time with your family etc). We can all relate to the tremendous effort that is needed to let the long term mind win from the short term temptation.
This reflex towards the short-term is totally natural and exactly what made us survive as primates, the same reflex we call the fight-or-flight stress response. It decides how you are going to spend your limited physical and mental energy. Having the reflex of eating food that comes along your way might just save your life as a primate.
Today this life-saving reflex sabotages our daily lives. It withholds us from fulfilling our long term objectives.

Two basic mechanisms can help us to overcome.

  • Become more aware: try to find out which thoughts withhold you from doing or stop doing something.
  • Find your ‘want power’. When you find your biggest want power -the motivation that gives you strength when you feel weak- bring it to mind whenever you find yourself most tempted to give in or give up.

In the following movie Kelly McGonigal explains the basic principles on how you can increase willpower based on one of the most modern temptations: technologies.

Books in business comment
The way Stanford psychologist McGonigal elaborated the book is quite impressive. She managed to link scientific insights to practical tips and invites you at the same time to experiment on a weekly basis after each chapter. The book is actually the course material at Stanford where students are going through the course in the same way she suggests in the book. It’s not a surprise that this course appears to be one of the most popular courses at Stanford.

Here you can find some of her practical tips from the book that work well for me in increasing my willpower:

  • Breath slower, try to inhale 4-6 times per minute. This will make you shift into the psychological state of self-control.
  • Get the five-minute green willpower fill-up. Get active outdoors-even just a walk around the block- to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost motivation.
  • Zzzzzz. Undo the effects of sleep deprivation with a nap or one good night’s sleep. A lack of sleep decreases your willpower.
  • The willpower diet: make sure that your body is well fueled with food that gives you lasting energy (low-glycemic foods: lean proteins, nuts and beans, high-fiber grains and cereals, and most fruits and vegetables, basically food that looks like its natural state and doesn’t have a ton of added sugar, fat and chemicals). A food diet that’s in line with Tony Robbins insights.
  • Exercise your willpower muscle: you can train your willpower even with small things, start doing things (eg. meditating, calling your mother, finding something in the house that needs to be thrown away), or start things not to do (eg. stop swearing or refraining from a habit of speech) or increase self-monitoring (eg. keep track of your spending, track the time you spend online).
  • Each time you get tempted, postpone the gratification for ten minutes, it will increase the chance that your long term ‘want’ will win from your short term indulgence.
  • Five-minute brain-training meditation: focus on your breath using the words “inhale” and “exhale” in your mind. When your mind wanders, notice, and bring it back to the breath.

I came across Kelly McGonigal via the TED-talk below. Here she explains how counter intuitively stress is a healthy thing as long as you consider it as being a good thing. She is definitely a scientist to be followed. She has the ability to link counterintuitive insights from human science to business and self-development in a natural and authentic way. You can connect with her online via or