10 Lessons from The Willpower Instinct | Kelly McGonigal

How to Stop Reaching into That Cookie Jar

Jack Yang
5 min readJun 18, 2020
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do yo Get More of It

Overall Impression

A book by the instructor of the popular Standford University course “The Science of Willpower”. It is a very well structured book that contains both scientific facts of willpower as well as the practical applications of those facts. This book discusses willpower from a biological and neuroscience point of view and helps me see understand many of my indulging actions. For me, reading this book feels more like the following a guide than studying a textbook. After each section, the author provides try-it-yourself experiments or challenges that get the reader involved in improving their willpower, which I found really practical and helpful.

Score: 4.5/5

Recommendation: for anyone who wants to improve their willpower by learning about the science and its practical implications


1. Self Control separates humans from other animals. Now it separates humans from humans.

Throughout evolutionary history, humans stand out from the sea of many animal species because we have the ability to refrain our impulses and plan for the future. However, the same trait that separates humans from other animals now separates humans from each other. Those who have control over their own primitive instinct are more likely to have control over their own lives. Especially in the society where there are countless temptations each day if people just follow wherever their primal instinct leads them to be, they are likely to end up in bad situations.

2. May the three forces of willpower be with you

According to McGonigal, there are three types of willpower, the “won’t” power, which stops you from devouring the cookie you saw on the table, the “will” power, which challenges you to receive delay gratification on a daily basis, and the “want” power, which is your long term goal. It is important to learn to navigate through the three types of power. We can never escape the primitive instinct. The key to willpower is to have them work for you instead of trying to fight against it. In order to exert control, you should tap into the “want” power and consider what you want in the long term rather than in the moment.

3. Tired & Stressful brain = Bad Decisions

Our self-controls are driven by prefrontal cortex, which needs energy to operate. When we are tired, there isn't enough energy, and therefore our self-control is deprived. This explains why you are more likely to indulge in a large bowl of chocolate ice cream after a long day for stressful work than when you wake up in the morning. In addition, The human brain is designed to focus on the immediate outcome when we are stressed. This trait keeps our primitive ancestors alive in the wild but makes us forget our long term goal of weight loss. One way to counter this natural response to take a few deep breaths and think of your long term goal before committing any action you will regret. By taking deep breaths, you can lower your heart rate, which is directly associate with stress.

4. Don’t reward yourself something bad for the good

When we have conflicting desires, we often talk ourselves into giving ourselves a permission to be bad, also known as moral licensing. For instance, imagine you have been on a strict diet for a week, but when the weekend comes around, you decide to reward yourself with a mouthwatering Big Mac accompanied by some crispy fries and wash it all down with a milkshake. You just ruined your entire week of diets with a single meal but you don’t feel too bad about it because you think you deserve it. To prevent this from happening, you should shift your mindset and view your progress as evidence that you are committed to your goal. You should also change your identity to match your goal, which relates to the main lesson in Atomic Habits, “to read more books you have to be a reader.”

5. Don’t be soo hard on yourself

One of the reasons many people quit in the middle of their weight loss journey is self-criticism. When you indulge in an epic cheat meal after a week of tough dieting, you might find yourself in an uncomfortable position and criticize yourself for being so reckless. However, self-criticism leads to stress, and stress shifts the brain into an instant gratification seeking mode, which further lowers your self-control. If you indulge yourself one day, do not be over critical of yourself. Move on and make sure you follow your habit the next day. One day is a mistake. Two days is a habit.

6. Train your willpower

Most people think willpower is a pool that has limited resources. On the contrary, willpower is more like a muscle than a pool. To strengthen this muscle, you can create small but manageable challenges. For instance, you can put some candy on the table, but restraint yourself from eating it. If that is too difficult, put the candy somewhere that you will notice but not to a point that is too tempting.

7. Invest your future self

As mentioned previously, the key difference between humans and other animals is the ability to think long term. People go on a shopping spree the day they receive their paycheck does not have their future selves in mind. One way to address this issue is to think of anything you do as an investment to yourself. For instance, if you read one more page, your future self would be a bit wiser. If you skip a cheat meal, your future self would be a bit fitter. In another word, we have to find a way to connect our present self with our future self in order to have delay gratification work for us.

8. Do not read this paragraph

You probably see the title and decide to read this paragraph regardless. This is called “ironic rebounding”. When you try to suppress a thought or a feeling, the stronger it becomes. Paradoxically, when you allow yourself a thought, it tends to be less haunting. This applies to our daily life when we keep telling ourselves, “don’t eat that cookie on the counter!” It actually plays the opposite effect. To counter this instinct, step back and realize that thoughts are not always within your control but you can always choose whether to act on it.

9. Mediate

Mediate could greatly boost willpower. The key to self-control is to realize you have control over your current situation. However, this isn’t easy. Meditation allows you to increase awareness of your surroundings, observes decisions you make on a daily basis that you might not be aware of before, and reminds yourself of what your long term goal is. This can also help with ironic rebounding or the thought that you can’t suppress. When you acknowledge the presence of those haunting thoughts, they usually become less distracting.

10. Surround yourself with positive people

Social influence plays an important role in shaping the behavior of individuals. Willpower can be contagious, so it is crucial to surround yourself with the right people. In fact, studies show that you are more likely to be obese if your friends or neighbors are obese. The opposite applies. If your friend quits smoking, you are much likely to quit smoking as well. Therefore, to take advantage of the social factor, make sure to be around people who have qualities you want to have, and use them as a positive reinforcement to your own willpower journey.