Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): After years of watching her students struggling with their choices, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., realized that much of what people believe about willpower is actually sabotaging their success. Committed to sharing what the scientific community already knew about self-control, McGonigal created a course called "The Science of Willpower" for Stanford University's Continuing Studies Program. The course was an instant hit and spawned the hugely successful Psychology Today blog with the same name. Informed by the latest research and combining cutting-edge insights from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine, McGonigal's book explains exactly what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters. 

Sometimes self-help books aren't actually that helpful. And sometimes scientific non-fiction is more interesting than it is practical. This book, however, is a good combination of both interesting and incredibly practical.

McGonigal (who teaches at Standford University, and I can't tell you how tempted I am to move to California to enroll in one of her courses just so I can call her Professor McGonigal) is a specialist in the science of self-control. She spends a lot of time explaining the neuroscience behind our decision making process, and how a lot of what we believe about self-control and willpower is actually not true. Honestly, I found this stuff fascinating.

In each chapter, McGonigal focuses on one aspect of self-control, explains the studies and research behind what is going on in the brain, and offers strategies for increasing self-control. I loved this organization of the book, especially the helpful chapter summaries at the end that succinctly state each strategy discussed. She instructs the reader to pick a willpower challenge at the beginning of the book, and then to try each of the strategies respectively to see what is most effective. And some of these strategies for gaining self-control are not as intuitive as you would think.

My willpower challenge while reading this book was finding the self-control to effectively study for the GRE (since I'm working on my grad school application right now). Being a full-time stay-at-home-mom meant that I had to carve my study time out during naptime or after my son went to bed, but often it was far more tempting for me to take a nap myself. Or watch TV. Or read for pleasure. Or do any of those million and one things that you can't do when you have a toddler demanding your attention. And studying for the GRE wasn't the most fun option for my break time (even if it was potentially the most rewarding). Here are a few of the suggested strategies that I found particularly effective:

-Meditation. Yes, even just five minutes of meditation a day can increase your willpower. This has something to do with increasing the flow of oxygen to your prefontal cortex, or whatever, but I was surprised at how well this one actually works for me. Days with meditation were noticeably better than days without it.
-Meet Your Future Self. This one is about being self-reflective about your future, and trying to keep future benefits weighed in the balance of present rewards. So I would tell myself things like, "Yes, my present self really, really, really wants to take a nap. But my future self will really love me if I study and do well enough on the GRE to get a scholarship. The rewards of a scholarship beat the fleeting pleasure of a nap."
-Catch Self-Control. This strategy is about the influence people around you can have to strengthen or weaken your willpower. McGonigal suggests thinking about or surrounding yourself with people who exercise self-control themselves. I had a built-in role model with my husband, who has not only been an example of extraordinary self-discipline when it comes to his legal studies over the past three years (I can't tell you how many hours he put in studying for the LSAT, and how much it paid off), but he was also my biggest champion (and lecturer) when it came to encouraging my GRE studying.

Those are just a few of the many strategies that worked for my specific goal, but McGonigal discusses many more, and I really think this is the kind of book I need to reread every year (maybe around the New Year, with all those resolutions...) to keep it fresh. In general, most of the strategies are about simply becoming a more self-reflective person, being conscious about the decisions you make, and knowing yourself well enough to know what tempts you or what triggers a certain behavior. Gaining willpower is really about gaining self-knowledge, and I thought that was a really powerful idea.

One interesting observation I had about some of these suggestions for increasing willpower is how, even though McGonigal kept everything strictly scientific with solid research to back her up, many of these suggestions are preached from religious pulpits. There was a whole chapter about the need to forgive ourselves when we mess up, because being harder on ourselves actually increases the chance we will fail again. The whole idea of "meet your future self" and delaying gratification can be re-construed in the general religious practice of avoiding temptation here in hopes of a better reward in the after-life. Meditation is a concept brought to us by ancient religions (and one that heavily parallels prayer). McGonigal never discusses religious parallels (although she uses terminology like "sin" and "temptation" all the time), but I drew my own and find it interesting that religious practice might generally increase a person's willpower.

Anyway, this review has already gotten far too long, but I hope you can tell how much I enjoyed this book. Not only was it well-written and well-organized (with some humor to boot), I'm just so pleased at how useful it was in my real life. Because I took the GRE just a few weeks ago, and while I won't reveal my scores here, I will say I did better than I expected.

Thanks for that, Professor McGonigal.

Recommend this one to anyone who wants to develop more self-control (and really, shouldn't that be everyone?).

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