"We are born to be tempted, and born to resist. Self-control is a matter of understanding these different parts of ourselves, not fundamentally changing who we are."
A conflict between two competing goals is the ultimate willpower challenge. We make countless decisions and trade-offs every day between immediate gratification and the pursuit of long-term goals.
Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works provides a solid look at self-discipline and ways to enhance it when we need it the most. Her book is based on a ten-week course that the award-winning psychology instructor teaches at Stanford. She includes simple exercises that the reader can do to gain insight on specific situations or circumstances that could derail willpower. She believes “the best way to improve self-control is to understand how you lose control.”
The first step to understanding the inner workings of willpower is boosting our attentiveness and mindfulness.
The Big Idea
Meditate to enhance self-control
"If there is a secret to greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you are making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s noticing how you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or how you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence."
“How can you control yourself if you aren’t even aware that there is something to control?” Before we can take charge of our determination, we need to recognize when we’re making a choice requiring willpower.
One of the most effective ways to boost self-awareness is through meditation. McGonigal points to a study demonstrating improved self-control after only three hours of meditating. Meditation boosts willpower because it trains the brain to pause before acting. This pause or break helps boost our attentiveness as we make decisions throughout the day. “It’s the habit of noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult thing instead of the easiest.”
Once you’ve increased your awareness, watch out for your future self.
Don’t over-commit your future self
"We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage."
The author makes the distinction between our present and future selves. Since the brain has a tendency to take the path of least resistance, the Present Self is interested in immediate gratification. Future Self has more time, energy, and motivation than present self and always has your long-term interests in mind. But the problem is that when the future arrives, we keep postponing it to our future selves again.
“We put off what we need to do because we are waiting for someone else to show up who will find the change effortless.” We tell ourselves that we’ll skip our workouts today but will go tomorrow when we’ll have more energy. The reason we defer the tough choices to our future selves rather than act on our commitments is because our future selves don’t feel as real and pressing as our present self.
One of her recommendations to alleviate this is to “make choices in advance and from a clear distance, before your future self is blinded by temptation.” Basically, make it easier for your future self to act on your rational preferences and more difficult for your present self to give in to your immediate gratification.
An example would be to pre-commit or schedule and prepay for personal training sessions in advance. Eliminate temptations, such as bringing credit cards in your wallet when you’re out shopping and only bring a predetermined amount of cash you plan on spending. Find a way to make immediate gratification inconvenient and difficult.
An additional strategy is to use visualization and imagine your future self in lively detail, enjoying the benefits of the choices or commitments you want to make. One of the studies she refers to involved non-exercisers imagining a healthier future version of themselves. Two months later, the people who visualized were more frequent exercisers compared to the non-visualizers.
“The more real and vivid the future feels, the more likely you are to make a decision that your future self won’t regret.”
Be more compassionate
"Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about."
Our brains are programmed to use the promise of reward to alleviate feeling bad. Why does stress lead to cravings? It stems from the brain’s fight or flight response and its inclination to protect our body and mind. Stress alters our brain into a reward-seeking condition. We end up “craving whatever substance or activity that our brain associates with a promise of reward.”
How do we avoid this? When faced with stress and failure, increase self-compassion to boost motivation and self-control. Realize that setbacks are part of being human and don’t use it as an excuse to indulge further.
Forgiveness (and not guilt) increases accountability, giving a boost to our self-control. “Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for their failure than when they take a self-critical point of view.”
Use effective stress relief strategies, such as exercise and meditation, to feel better. These stress relievers “boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin,” and help reduce the stress response.
The exercises and thought-provoking questions posed throughout this book are well worth the price. Take time to reflect on your choices to gain a better understanding of your self-control. Pay attention to how you handle willpower failures. After all, “The motivations we understand are always easier to change than the influences we cannot see.”