Willpower Challenges From The Willpower Instinct

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you trying to improve your self-control? Does your willpower seem to vanish at crucial moments?

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal is all about why humans struggle with willpower and how to strengthen it. Willpower is like a muscle and it can be improved if you’re willing to put in some work.

Here are some willpower challenges to help increase your self-control.

Willpower Challenges

Most people think of willpower as a virtue, an admirable trait that we strive for but don’t always achieve. But science tells a different story. Willpower—the ability to exercise self-control when you need it—is an instinct that’s wired into our brains. 

Yet it seems like willpower vanishes at crucial moments, like when your coworker shows up with a box of donuts. To harness your innate willpower, here are some willpower challenges inspired by The Willpower Instinct.

Square Off With Your Challenge

Since increasing your willpower requires that you understand your own traps and pitfalls, think about the Personal Willpower Challenge you’ve decided to tackle. Imagine you’re facing your challenge. 

  • What makes this particular challenge hard for you to attain? Name the biggest obstacle that might lure you away from accomplishing your goal. 
  • You’ve chosen this Personal Willpower Challenge because you know what you desire in the long term. But our brains want right-now rewards, too, which may be at odds with our long-term goals. Ask yourself, “What does my most impulsive self want?” Name two or three of the things that you seek for immediate gratification. 
  • It’s important to get to know the part of you that’s seeking immediate gratification over long-term goals, so consider giving a name to your impulse-oriented self. What would you call him or her? (Examples: The Procrastinator? The Candy Fiend?) 

Account for Small Choices 

Part of empowering our willpower instinct is training our minds to recognize when we’re making choices related to our big goals. 

  • Make a list of three choices or actions that you make in a typical day that affect your Personal Willpower Challenge either positively or negatively. (For example, if your goal is to work out more often, ask yourself what choices you make related to working out. Do you wear your sneakers to work so you don’t have to change shoes? Do you check your email just before yoga class starts, then wind up missing the class because you’re responding to a client?) 
  • Next, analyze your data. Can you think of two more daily choices you could start making to support your goal? 

Pay Attention to Daily Stress 

Science informs us that stress depletes our self-control. Stress also blinds us. When we’re stressed, we become distracted and stop attending closely to the choices we’re making. Pay attention to any stressing situations that come up in the next day or two and see what you can learn. 

  • Make a list of three situations or times when you felt worried, overworked, tired, angry, lonely, hungry, or distracted.  
  • In any of these situations, did you need or want to exercise willpower? If so, did your willpower feel depleted or diminished? 
  • When that stressful situation occurred, did you give in to a craving or impulse, or did you maintain your self-control? Describe your actions as they relate to willpower or lack of it. 

Track Your Willpower Stamina 

Your willpower doesn’t maintain a constant, steady state throughout the day. Gaining knowledge about the highs and lows of your willpower stamina helps you to plan your day around achieving long-term goals. If there are things you’d like to accomplish that you never seem to have time or energy for, work on them during your highest willpower hours. 

  • Pay attention to when you feel like your willpower is strong and when you feel like you want to just give in and give up. Do you notice any certain time of day when you’re more capable of pushing yourself to accomplish tasks that aren’t especially fun? Record the exact hours of the day. 
  • On the flip side, do you notice that you lose willpower stamina at any other time of day? Make a note of those hours. 

Control One Small Thing

You can train your willpower muscles by cultivating a small new habit. Instead of tackling some huge, difficult willpower goal, decide to control one small thing that you don’t ordinarily control. (This exercise teaches your brain to break out of autopilot mode and to do a harder thing when it’s accustomed to doing an easier thing.) 

  • Make a list of two small new habits you could cultivate. It can be something inconsequential like making your bed as soon as you get out of it, using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, or eliminating the slang interjection “like” from your conversation (as in “I want to stop, but like, I can’t.”). Then try injecting those new behaviors into your day. 

Outwit Your Willpower Traps 

Think about the four willpower traps described in this chapter: Utilizing moral licensing, we tell ourselves we deserve an indulgent treat because we’ve been good. With “I’m Making Progress,” we tell ourselves we’ve already taken a few steps toward our goal, so why not take a break? With “Too Much Optimism,” we reward ourselves for our potential good behavior in the future. And under the halo effect, we believe that virtuous choices cancel out bad ones. 

  • Now consider your Personal Willpower Challenge, and ask yourself if you’ve ever fallen into any of those traps while trying to achieve your challenge. Which trap applies to you most often? 
  • Now develop a framework to help you work around that trap (like Jeff’s plan to avoid rewarding himself for future behavior by eating only vegetarian food during the day). Write down your plan: 

Recognize Your Dopamine Triggers 

Although dopamine serves an evolutionary purpose, it can often derail you from your long-term goals. The promise of reward can leave you repeating the same behaviors without ever achieving deep satisfaction. Once you understand the impact of dopamine on your brain and your actions, you can mitigate this impact. 

  • Keep a list of the little “thrills” that make you feel excitement or anticipation, like some kind of reward is waiting just around the bend. Is it logging on to your Instagram account to see what your friends are up to? Playing the lottery? Smelling the coffee beans roasting at your favorite coffee shop? Shopping online, even if you don’t buy anything? 
  • Next, ask yourself if indulging in those triggers is actually satisfying. Do you feel truly satisfied after you check your Instagram account, order a $6 latté, or shop online, or do you feel like something is lacking? 

Make Dopamine Your Ally 

Dopamine doesn’t have to derail you—it can work in your favor. If you can find a way to add a dopamine rush to your least favorite chore, it will become a lot easier and more fun. 

  • Make a list of two or three tasks you’ve been putting off (perhaps raking the leaves, cleaning out the garage, or planning out next year’s budget).
  • Now ask yourself how you can make at least one of those tasks more fun by adding a dopamine hit—something that will tickle your brain with pleasure while you’re doing that unpleasant task. (You might consider playing your favorite music, lighting scented candles, or doing the task while drinking a mug of hot chocolate at your local cafe.) 

Examine Your Social Influences   

Social influences play a big role in willpower challenges. It’s worth taking some time to think about the habits and behaviors you may have adopted from people in your family or social circle. Sometimes common behaviors are the basis of relationships—and those behaviors may be ones you want to keep or ones you want to discard. 

  • Can you think of any behaviors—virtuous or not—that you’ve mirrored from people close to you? If so, what was the habit, and who were you mirroring? 
  • Why do you think this person had such a strong influence on your behavior? 
  • Are there people in your life who you are more likely to indulge with? (Perhaps someone who shares your willpower challenge—food, cigarettes, alcohol, and so on.) How can you both support each other’s willpower goals more?
Willpower Challenges From The Willpower Instinct

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Willpower Instinct summary :

  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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