The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

willpower = self-control = self-discipline = serotonin

作者定义的willpower, 我理解为用prefrontal cortex来抑制impulse


2 questions

  1. increase serotonin reserve
  2. restore serotonin after using many

In request for self-control, the usual weapons – guilt, stress, and shame – don’t work.

Title: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
Authors: Kelly McGonigal
Edition: 1
Finished Date: 2017-05-08
Rating: 4
Language: English
Genres: Neuroscience
Level: Entry
Publishers: Avery
Publication Date: 2011-12-29
ISBN: 978-1583334386
Format: ePub
Pages: 288
Download: ePub


willpower is the ability to control

  • attention
  • emotion
  • desires



people struggle to change

  • thoughts
  • emotions
  • bodies
  • habits
    • break old habits
    • create healthy habits
  • conquer procrastination
  • find our focus
  • manages stress

strategies not effective

  • backfire
    • lead to self-sabotage and losing control

this book

  • brings together the newest insights about self-control
    • psychology
    • economics
    • neuroscience
    • medicine

the best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control

  • how you are likely to give in
  • support yourself and avoid the traps that lead to willpower failures


  • people who think they have the most willpower are actually
    the most likely to lose control when tempted

    • fail to predict when, when, and why they will give in
      • expose themselves to more temptation
        • hang out with smokers
        • leave cookies around the house
        • mostly likely to be surprised by setbacks
          give up on their goals when they run into difficulty

after reading the book

  • a better understanding of your own imperfect but perfectly human behavior.

  • everyone struggles in some way with

    • temptation
    • addiction
    • distraction
    • procrastination

how to use this book

  • while theories are nice, data is better
    • treat this book like an experiment

Under the Microscope: Choose your willpower challenge

  • “I will” power challenge

    • What is something that you would like to do more of
    • What is something that you would like to stop putting off because you know that doing it will improve the quality of life?
  • “I won’t” power challenge

    • What is the “stickiest habit in your life?”
    • What would you like to give up or do less of because it’s undermining your health, happiness, or success?
  • “I want” power challenge
    • What is the most important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on?
    • What immediate “want” is most likely to distract you or tempt you away from this goal?

Ch 1: I will, I won’t, I want: What willpower is, and why it matters

  • “I won’t power”: resist temptation control impulse ~ nucleus accumbent

    • food: a doughnut
    • a cigarette
    • a clearance sale
    • a one-night stand
  • “I will” power: the ability to do what you need to do, even if part of you doesn’t want to conscious thought ~ prefrontal cortex

  • “I want” power: the ability to remember what you really want: motivation motivation ~ ventromedial prefrontal cortex

根据the Upward Spiral, habits (routines & impulsion) 可以被prefrontal cortex

1. initiate prefrontal cortex
2. increase serotonin

Willpower is about harnessing the 3 powers of I will, I won’t, I want to help you achieve your goals. Neuroscience定义的willpower是什么样的?用了大脑哪些地方? circuit是什么样的?

the neuroscience of I will, I won’t, and I want

the prefrontal cortex

  • control physical movement

    • walking
    • running
    • reaching
    • pushing

* “I will” power: near the upper left of the prefrontal cortex left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
start and stick to boring, difficult, or stressful tasks
  • “I won’t” power: near the upper right of the prefrontal cortex right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex

    holding you back from following every impulse or craving

  • “I want”: lower in the middle of the prefrontal cortex ventromedial prefrontal cortex

    keep track of goals and desires

    The more rapidly its cells fire, the more motivated you are to take action or resit temptation

Under the Microscope: What is the hard thing?

Imagine yourself facing your specific willpower challenge.

  • What is the harder thing?
  • What makes it so difficult?
  • How do you feel when you think about doing it?

things inhibiting prefrontal cortex

  • being drunk
  • sleep-deprived
  • distracted
2 brains

limbic system prefrontal cortex

Under the Microscope:

Every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself the prefrontal cortex and limbic system

For your own willpower challenge, describe these competing minds

  • What does the impulse version of you want?
  • What does the wiser version of you want?

作者定义的desire是reasons to do things, 也就是motivation.

When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices When the prefrontal cortex is occupied by other stuff, you will use routines or impulses to act

willpower experiment: Track your willpower choices

To develop more self-awareness, a good first step is to notice when you are making choices related to your willpower

Weekly homework

This week, commit to watching how the process of giving in to your impulses happens. You don’t even need to set a goal to improve your self-control yet. See if you can catch yourself earlier and earlier in the process, noticing what thoughts, feelings, and situations are most likely to prompt the impulse. What do you think or say to yourself that makes it more likely that you will give in?

willpower experiment: a 5-minute brain training meditation 背书

breath focus

Ch 2: the willpower instinct

Under the Microscope: What is the threat?

For your willpower challenge, identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained. What is the thought or feeling that makes you want to do whatever it is you don’t want to do? If you aren’t sure, try some field observation. Next time you’re tempted, turn your attention inward.

the body’s willpower “reserve”

under stress: the sympathetic nervous system takes over

successfully exert self-control: the parasympathetic nervous systems take control

body’s willpower “reserve”: a physiological measure of capacity for self-control: heart rate variability

high heart rate ~ high willpower

decrease willpower reserve

  • anxiety
  • anger
  • depression
  • chronic pain
  • illness

increase willpower reserve

  • meditate
  • exercise
    • increase both gray matter and white matter
  • a good sleep
  • eat better

When you are tired, cells have trouble absorbing glucose form the bloodstream. This leaves them underfuled, and you exhausted

willpower experiment: breathe

a quick way to immediately boost willpower: slow breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute

10-15 seconds per breath

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability

the costs of too much self-control: energy

chronic self-control

give up the pursuit of willpower perfection: we cannot control everything we think, feel, say, and do

willpower experiment: restore willpower reserve

To trigger this relaxation response, lie down on your back, and slightly elevate your legs with a pillow under the knees (or come into whatever is the most comfortable position for you to rest in). Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise and fall. If you feel any tension in your body, you can intentionally squeeze or contract that muscle, then let go of the effort.


Stress is the enemy of willpower.

willpower experiment: stress and self-control

test the theory that stress—whether physical or psychological—is the enemy of self-control.

  • How does being worried or overworked affect your choices?
  • Does being hungry or tired drain your willpower?
  • What about physical pain and illness?
  • Emotions like anger, loneliness, or sadness?

Notice when stress strikes throughout the day or week. Then watch what happens to your self-control.

  • Do you experience cravings?
  • Lose your temper?
  • Put off things you know you should do?

Ch3: too tired to resist: Why self-control is like a muscle 如何增加serotonin

The willpower is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day. serotonin is highest in the morning.

A concentration task lead to

  1. worse attention over time
  2. depleted physical strength

The self-control is like a muscle. When used, it gets tired. You have to rest. serotonin is a limited resources. When we use serotonin, it becomes less in the reserve.

willpower experiment: the highs and lows of willpower

The muscle model of willpower predicts that self-control drains throughout the day.

This week, pay attention to when you have the most willpower, and when you are most likely to give in.

  • Do you wake up with willpower and steadily drain it?
  • Or is there another time of the day when you find yourself recharged and refreshed?

You can use this self-knowledge to plan your schedule wisely, and limit temptations when you know you’ll be the most depleted.

If you never seem to have the time and energy for your “I will” challenge, schedule it for when you have the most strength.

Why is self-control/serotonin limited?

restore exhausted willpower

use willpower => drop blood sugar

boosting blood sugar restored willpower.

cells in the brain can store some energy

When the brain detects a drop in available energy, it gets a little nervous. What if it runs out of energy? It will be unwilling to spend its full supply of energy.

The first expense to be cut: self-control, one of the most energy expensive tasks

psychologist提出的. neuroscience有证明吗?

low-glycemic foods that keep blood sugar steady 我不理解怎么保持steady. 若一直使用willpower, 也就是一直使用blood sugar, 这些食物会持续缓慢释放sugar????

  • lean proteins
  • nuts
  • beans
  • high-fiber grains
  • cereals
  • most fruits and vegetables

training the willpower muscle 看标题像increase serotonin reserve, 但其实是如何增加serotonin

challenge the willpower muscle

  • control one small thing that usually aren’t be controlled 我初中的时候就一直在做

    但这也不是在增加willpower reserve, 做这些事情本身就要用willpower. 成功后, 会visualize这次的成功, 增加做其他不愿意做的时候的serotonin. 这其实是增加serotonin, 但serotonin reserve并没有增加.


    • meet self-imposed deadlines
  • commit to any small, consistent act of self-control 这根本没有增加serotonin reserve. 是因为actions变成了routine, 使用的serotonin减少

willpower experiment: willpower workout

test the muscle model of self-control with one of the following willpower workouts:

  • Strengthen “I Won’t” Power: Commit to not swearing (or refraining from any habit of speech), not crossing your legs when you sit, or using your non-dominant hand for a daily task like eating or opening doors.
  • Strengthen “I Will” Power: Commit to doing something every day (not something you already do) just for the practice of building a habit and not making excuses. It could be calling your mother, meditating for five minutes, or finding one thing in your house that needs to be thrown out or recycled.
  • Strengthen Self-Monitoring: Formally keep track of something you don’t usually pay close attention to. This could be your spending, what you eat, or how much time you spend online or watching TV. You don’t need fancy technology—pencil and paper will do. But if you need some inspiration, the Quantified Self movement ( has turned self-tracking into an art and science.

When you’re trying to make a big change or transform an old habit, look for a small way to practice self-control that strengthens your willpower, but doesn’t overwhelm it completely.

don’t eat candy v.s. no candy from the candy jar in the hall

deceptive fatigue

  • I can’t do this
  • You are doing this

exercise fatigue might be caused by an overprotective monitor in the brain that wanted to prevent exhaustion.

The brain creates an overwhelming feeling of fatigue that has little to do with the muscles’ capacity to keep working.

The first wave of fatigue is never a real limit, and with sufficient motivation, they can transcend it.

We often feel depleted of willpower before we actually are.

The widely observed scientific finding that self-control is limited may reflect people’s beliefs about willpower, not their true physical and mental limits. 初中的时候我就push自己的willpower

under the microscope: Is your exhaustion real?

All too often, we use the first feeling of fatigue as a reason to skip exercise, snap at our spouses, procrastinate a little longer, or order a pizza instead of cooking a healthy meal.

But you may have more willpower than the first impulse to give in would suggest.

The next time you find yourself “too tired” to exert self-control, challenge yourself to go beyond that first feeling of fatigue. (Keep in mind that it’s also possible to overtrain—and if you find yourself constantly feeling drained, you may need to consider whether you have been running yourself to real exhaustion.)

Ch4: License to sin: Why being good gives us permission to be bad 因为serotonin减少了

Psychologists had long assumed that once you expressed an attitude, you would likely to act in line with it.

要我说, 不要看别人说他们的attitude是什么,而是看他们是如何做的.

Ch5: the brain’s big lie: why we mistake wanting for happiness? dopamine, impulse, routine, addiction

the reward circuit

anticipate a reward => release dopamine

Dopamine itself doesn’t create happiness itself – the feeling is more like arousal

Dopamine is for action, not happiness.

Anything we think is going to make us feel good will trigger the reward system

High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification, less concerning about long-term consequences.

under the microscope: What gets your dopamine neurons firing?

Do you know what your own dopamine triggers are? Food? Alcohol? Shopping? Facebook? Something else?

This week, pay attention to what captures your attention.

  • What unleashes that promise of reward that compels you to seek satisfaction?
  • What gets you salivating like Pavlov’s dogs or obsessed like Olds and Milner’s rats?

Dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones. You feel anxious when you anticipate your object of desire.

under the microscope:

Look for how retailers and marketers try to trigger the promise of reward. Make it a game when you go to the grocery store or watch advertisements. What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear? Knowing that cues have been carefully chosen to tempt you can help you see them for what they are and resist them.

willpower experiment: dopaminize your “I will” power

If there’s something you’ve been putting off because it’s so unpleasant, can you motivate yourself by linking it to something that gets your dopamine neurons firing?

Ch 6: How feeling bad leads to giving in

coping routines

Stress and negative emotions such as, anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety, increase impulses.

under the microscope: The promise of relief coping routines

  • What do you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or down?
  • Are you more susceptible to temptation when you are upset?
  • Are you more easily distracted, or more likely to procrastinate?
  • How does feeling bad affect your willpower challenge?

willpower experiment: try a stress-relief strategy that works

  • exercising
  • playing sports
  • praying
  • attending a religious service
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • spending time with friends or family
  • getting a massage
  • going outside for a walk
  • meditating or doing yoga,
  • spending time with a creative hobby

the least effective strategies

  • gambling
  • shopping
  • smoking
  • drinking
  • eating
  • playing video games
  • surfing the Internet
  • watching TV or movies for more than 2 hours

The real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also help shut down the brain’s stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response.

  • Is there a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better?
  • What encouragement can you create for yourself before you are stressed?

Why guilt/regret doesn’t work

guilt/regret triggers impulses and coping habits

not to be too hard on yourself = self-forgiveness can relieve guilt/regret

under the microscope: when setbacks happen

This week, pay special attention to how you handle any willpower failure.

  • Do you criticize yourself and tell yourself that you’ll never change?
  • Do you feel like this setback reveals what is wrong with you—that you’re lazy, stupid, greedy, or incompetent?
  • Do you feel hopeless, guilty, ashamed, angry, or overwhelmed?
  • Do you use the setback as an excuse to indulge further?

willpower experiment: forgiveness when you fail

Research shows that taking this point of view reduces guilt but increases personal accountability—the perfect combination to get you back on track with your willpower challenge. Bring to mind a specific time when you gave in to temptation or procrastination, and experiment with taking the following three points of view on that failure. When you experience a setback, you can bring these perspectives to mind to help you avoid a downward spiral of guilt, shame, and giving in again.

  1. What are you feeling? As you think about this failure, take a moment to notice and describe how you are feeling.

    • What emotions are present?
    • What are you are feeling in your body?
    • Can you remember how you felt immediately after the failure?
    • How would you describe that?

      Notice if self-criticism comes up, and if it does, what you say to yourself. The perspective of mindfulness allows you to see what you are feeling without rushing to escape.

  2. You’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. This is just a part of the human condition, and your setback does not mean there is something wrong with you. Consider the truth of these statements. Can you think of other people you respect and care about who have experienced similar struggles and setbacks? This perspective can soften the usual voice of self-criticism and self-doubt.

  3. What would you say to a friend? Consider how you would comfort a close friend who experienced the same setback. What words of support would you offer? How would you encourage them to continue pursuing their goal? This perspective will point the way to getting back on track.

making unrealistic decisions makes feeling better: a bad coping routine

我的coping routines 是说

1. “我决定….”
2. “我决定全部做完”

under the microscope: resolving to feel good

Take a moment to think about your own motivations and expectations for change. Do you only feel motivated to change when you are feeling bad? Is the best part of setting goals the pleasure of imagining how succeeding will change your life? Do you use fantasies of your future self to fix your feelings now, more than you take concrete steps to fix your behavior?

Ch 7: putting the future on sale: the economics of instant gratification impulse

Avoiding is better than resisting.

under the microscope: How are you discounting future rewards

For your willpower challenge, ask yourself

  • What future rewards do you put on sale each time you give in to temptation or procrastination.
  • What is the immediate payoff for giving in?
  • What is the long-term cost? Is this a fair trade?

If the rational you says, “No, it’s a lousy deal!” try to catch the moment you reverse your preferences. What are you thinking and feeling that lets you put the future on sale?

under the microscope: Are you waiting for future you?

  • Is there an important change or task you’re putting off, hoping that a future you with more willpower will show up?
  • Do you optimistically overcommit yourself to responsibilities, only to find yourself overwhelmed by impossible demands?
  • Do you talk yourself out of something today, telling yourself that you’ll feel more like it tomorrow?

We view our future self as a stranger.

Make use of other people

When it comes to our own self-control, we need to be careful about what we expect from our future selves. But when it comes to getting other people to commit their money, time, or effort, you can take advantage of the future-self bias by asking them to commit far in advance.

Ch 8. Social

Ch 9. The Limits of “I won’t” power

The more you try to push away a thought, the more likely it is to fight its way back into consciousness.

a paradoxical effect: People thought about it more than when they weren’t trying to control their thoughts, and even more than when they were intentionally trying to think about it. The effect was strongest when people were already stressed out, tired, or distracted.

  1. operator: direct attention toward anything other than the forbidden thought: the prefrontal cortex, self-control, require mental energy
  2. monitor: look for any evidence that you are thinking, feeling, or doing whatever you don’t want to think, feel, or do: threat-deciton system: automatically without much mental effort

If operator is tired, monitor takes over.

The brain is constantly processing the forbidden content just outside of conscious awareness.

under the microscope: investigating ironic rebound

Is there something you try to keep out of your mind? If so, examine the theory of ironic rebound. Does suppression work? Or does trying to push something out of your mind make it come back stronger? (Yes, you are going to give the monitor the job of monitoring the monitor.)

How to avoid ironic rebound: give up thought control

stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions: less intrude into conscious awareness

Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.

willpower experiment: feel what you feel, but don’t believe everything you think

When an upsetting thought comes to mind, instead of instantly trying to distract yourself from it, let yourself notice the thought. Oftentimes, our most disturbing thoughts are

  • familiar—the same worry
  • the same self-criticism
  • the same “memory.
    • “What if something goes wrong?”
    • “I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid.”
    • “If only that hadn’t happened. What could I have done differently?”

These thoughts pop up like a song that gets stuck in our heads, seemingly out of nowhere, but then is impossible to get rid of. Let yourself notice whether the upsetting thought is an old, familiar tune—that’s your first clue that it is not critically important information you need to believe. Then shift your attention to what you are feeling in your body. Notice if there is any tension present, or changes to your heart rate or breathing. Notice if you feel it in your gut, your chest, your throat, or anywhere else in your body. Once you’ve observed the thought and feelings, shift your attention to your breathing. Notice how it feels to breathe in and breathe out. Sometimes the upsetting thought and feelings naturally dissipate when you do this. Other times, they will keep interrupting your attention to your breath. If this happens, imagine the thought and feelings like clouds passing through your mind and body. Keep breathing, and imagine the clouds dissolving or floating by. Imagine your breath as a wind that dissolves and moves the clouds effortlessly. You don’t need to make the thought go away; just stay with the feeling of your breath.

Trying to avoid unwanted feelings often leads to self-destructive behavior, whether it’s a procrastinator trying to avoid anxiety, or a drinker trying to avoid feeling alone. For your willpower challenge, see if there is a feeling you are trying not to feel. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to feel it, using the breath and cloud imagery?


the power of acceptance

accept whatever thoughts or feelings they had about the chocolate, but also remember that they didn’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings. While not controlling their thoughts, they still had to control their behavior.

willpower experiment: accept those cravings – just don’t act on them

  1. Notice that you are thinking about your temptation or feeling a craving.
  2. Accept the thought or feeling without trying to immediately distract yourself or argue with it. Remind yourself of the white-bear rebound effect.
  3. Step back by realizing that thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your control, but you can choose whether to act on them.
  4. Remember your goal. Remind yourself of whatever your commitment is, as the students reminded themselves of their agreement not to eat the Hershey’s Kisses.

willpower experiment: turn “I won’t” into “I will” urge是来自nucleus accumbens, 那么用prefrontal cortex来解决

try one of the following strategies for flipping your focus:

  • What could you do instead of the “I won’t” behavior that might satisfy the same needs?

    Most bad habits are an attempt to meet a need, whether it’s reducing stress, having fun, or seeking approval. You can get the focus off of prohibiting your bad habit by replacing it with a new (hopefully, healthier) habit. One of my students was trying to quit coffee and turned to tea as a substitute. It had all the same benefits—being a good excuse for a break, giving him more energy, easy to get anywhere—without as much caffeine.

  • If you weren’t doing the bad habit, what might you be doing instead?

    Most of our addictions and distractions take time and energy away from something else we could be doing. Sometimes focusing on that missed opportunity is more motivating than trying to quit the bad habit.

    One of my students felt like she was wasting her time getting sucked into reality television shows. She had more success at turning off the TV when she set a goal for what she should use the time for instead—learning to be a better cook. (She started by substituting cooking shows for the shows she had been watching—a good first step—then transitioned from couch to kitchen.)

  • Can you redefine the “I won’t” challenge so that it becomes an “I will” challenge?

    Sometimes the very same behavior can be thought of in two different ways. For example, one of my students redefined “not being late” as “being the first person there” or “arriving five minutes early.” This may not sound like much of a difference, but he found himself far more motivated—and less likely to be late—when he turned being on time into a race he could win. If you focus on what you want to do, instead of what you don’t want to do, you sidestep the dangers of ironic rebound

willpower experiment: surf the urge urge是来自nucleus accumbens, 那么用prefrontal cortex来解决

When the urge takes hold, pause for a moment to sense the body.

  • What does the urge feel like?
  • Is it hot or code?
  • Do you feel tension anywhere in your body?
  • What’s happening with your heart rate, your breathing, or your gut?

Stay with the sensations for at least for 1 minute.

Notice whether the feelings fluctuate in intensity or quality.

Not acting on an urge can sometimes increases its intensity. See if you can stay with these sensations without trying to push them away, and without acting on them.

inner acceptance, outer control

The opposite of suppression is not self-indulgence.

temptation, self-criticism, stress