Monday, May 27, 2013

Book review: The Willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal (PhD)

Everyone thinks that their willpower fails them, often on a regular basis. Those people who say they have a lot of willpower often have the least. Willpower is undeniably good to have and in studies it is correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Dr.McGonigal thankfully does not teach the reader never to “give in” to the things you like. Rather you should ask yourself what it is that you would like to stop/start doing and then focus on that goal. She refers to these goals as willpower challenges. Typical willpower challenges are to go to bed in time, to exercise more, to work instead of checking facebook updates, eat less snacks etc etc.

Most people have many willpower challenges. One important lesson from this book is that you do not have unlimited willpower. Therefore you should not take on too many willpower challenges simultaneously, because that will result in failure.
So what strategies does Dr.McGonigal propose for increasing willpower? This book includes a wealth of advice and I feel pretty confident in claiming that most people will find at least one strategy that helps them. Her first proposed strategy is meditation, which is just not my cup of tea (for me doing meditation would be a willpower challenge on its own). After taking about meditation and breathing exercises she moves on to more obvious candidates: exercise and sufficient sleep. I am sure that you have all heard it before but I will reiterate: exercise is good and getting enough sleep is important for all kinds of things, including willpower. Regarding sleep she also points out that people have started sleeping less in recent decades, and in the same time people have become more obese. In is not inconceivable that the rise in obesity in the recent decades in part is related to reduced willpower which in turn is due to the fact that we sleep less. After all, those evening snacks that we consume in the evening after a stressful day can contain quite a lot of calories.
Dr.McGonigal introduces plenty more strategies for overcoming willpower challenges. The ones I feel were most useful include the following: (1) If you really want say a snack, wait 10 minutes, and then, if you still want it, go ahead and take it. (2) Thinking more about your future self. People are often prone to ignoring the needs of their future selves I don’t care so much how their actions may affect their future selves. (3) Focusing on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. Don’t think of pink elephants! Hard right? Similarly constantly telling yourself not to eat that snack will draw your attention to it, making it harder to resist. It is better to focus on what you should and do.   
There are many willpower traps. Perhaps the most obvious one is exposing yourself to the thing you try to avoid. If you want to eat less snacks, don’t keep them in the home cause if you are like me you will eat them, sooner or later. Another trap which I personally used to fall into, is rewarding yourself after a strenuous exercise i.e., now that I have exercised so much I deserve to eat several large burgers and some candy after that =). I am not saying that such a reward in undeserved, only that the calorie intake from a large meal is much larger than the calorie output during exercise. Yet another trap is the “what the hell effect”. Having succumbed to temptation many people say to themselves - what the hell, now that I have started eating this snack I might as well eat the rest...
I sum, this book provides an accessible introduction to willpower, what it is, how it works, and what you can do if you face a willpower challenge. Regardless of whether you decide to utilize any of Dr.McGonigal proposed strategies I believe that merely starting to think and learn about willpower will help you reach your personal goals. It is also nice to know that more or less everyone has willpower issues, and very few (sickly?) people never succumb to temptation.

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