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Book Review: Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct

Does your resolve to eat sensibly begin to crumble when you see those cookies in the bakery window? Does your pledge to stop smoking vanish like a puff of smoke with the first hint of a cigarette craving? Can you keep your face out of Face Book long enough to complete the day’s work?

If you are up against the temptation of a habit you want to curb, apply the “Ten Minute Rule” of habit control. Acknowledge the urge, breathe deeply, and wait ten minutes. If, in ten minutes, you still want the object of your urges, then go for it. Apply the rule repeatedly and you’ll find that the desire eventually diminishes. Neuroscientists have found that the Ten Minute Rule robs a habit of its immediacy, giving the brain’s reward circuit time to cool down. In that ten-minute pause, you might just remember why giving in to that habit isn’t such a good idea.

The Ten Minute Rule is just one tip you’ll find in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct. She is an award-winning psychology instructor who teaches the popular Science of Willpower Course at Stanford University. Her book is about that course and the research behind it. If you want more willpower, this book is for you!

Most people name “lack of willpower” as the chief reason they struggle to fulfill their goals and achieve their potential. Additionally, most methods that people turn to for self-control are ineffective. McGonigal’s course and her book give scientific insight into practical strategies that can help people eliminate their unwanted habits and adapt positive behaviors such as sensible eating, exercise, budgeting, and punctuality.

Studies show that people with high levels of self-discipline achieve more and are happier and healthier than people with less control. This self-help book tells readers how to dispel misconceptions about self-control and adapt new ways to meet willpower challenges.

You might learn for example, that meditation is better than medication for lowering anxiety and strengthening the brain’s executive function. Regular physical exercise pays off by giving people more ability to curb other habits such as smoking, overeating, and procrastination. Breathing exercises, adequate sleep, and relaxation training also boost the ability to make better choices that affect health and productivity.

McGonigal also addresses the cognitive and social aspects of self-control. You might be surprised that feeling overly virtuous about your ability to avoid temptation in one instance (say, ordering the salad) often leads to giving in to temptation later on (ordering the desert). At the same time, self-criticism and shaming yourself for your indulgences only reduces self-control that much more.

Associating with friends and family members who share your unwanted habit makes it more likely that you will engage in that habit. By the same token, if you want to start a new, healthy habit, hanging out with others who share your goal will provide social reinforcement. Maintaining an image of a future self enjoying the rewards of that new, healthy habit will strengthen your commitment.

Here are a few other little nuggets from The Willpower Instinct:

• For most people, willpower is strongest in the morning.

• When it comes to maintaining a health habit, strive for small, yet consistent goals, rather than impressive accomplishments.

• The most effective stress-relief strategies are exercise or playing sports, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, taking a walk outside, attending a religious service, meditating or doing yoga, or spending time on a hobby.

• Trying to suppress recurrent negative thoughts only exacerbates those thoughts and feelings. One remedy is not to suppress such thoughts, but to acknowledge them and remind yourself they are not necessarily valid. Tell yourself it’s just the way the mind works, and it doesn’t mean anything.

I like everything about this highly readable book. Anyone who reads it will get at least one good idea for increasing self-control.

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