Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

This is a book I purchased of my own volition, with my own Audible.com credit. I'm sharing it with my readers because I found it interesting and potentially helpful. Like many other bloggers, I use affiliate links when I'm writing about a product, mostly because it's convenient.


I heard an interview with Kelly Mcgonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, somewhere recently. Probably NPR, as I listen to it a lot. I liked what she had to say, so I bought the audiobook the next time I had Audible credits. Now I'm wishing, as I often do when I like an audiobook, that I also had a print copy so I could refer back to some of the exercises without listening to the whole thing again. I listened all the way through the first time, getting an overall sense of the book and its content and seeing what insights I could get from it while listening casually. Unfortunately, though, it's not really that kind of a book -- it's the kind of book that demands a little more active participation from the listener/reader.

Mcgonigal is a willpower researcher, and has created and taught a 10-week class on willpower for Standford Continuing Education. This book mimics that class and shares insights that can be put to use to boost your I won't power (what most of us think about when we hear the word willpower -- resisting temptation), I will power (the power to do the things you need to do to reach your goals), and most importantly, your I want power, the often forgotten need to remember our long term goals and focus on what we really want in life, not just on our immediate desires.

When I was talking about the book to my husband, he said something that really stuck with me, that willpower "would be the greatest superpower to have." Imagine what we could all accomplish if we could do what we really wanted to do and not do the tempting things that get in the way of our long-term goals. Thinking about it like that takes it out of the realm of "deprivation," which is what most of us think about when we think about willpower.  Thinking about willpower as a superpower instead of as self-deprivation has really changed my attitude about the whole idea of willpower.

The book also, interestingly, talks about the need to indulge sometimes.  Though it's tempting to think that our lives would be perfect if we could abandon all desire, in reality, people who lose touch with their basic drives through injury or constant iron-fistedness end up depressed and unhappy.  It seems that the middle way, one where both drive and willpower play a role, is the way of truth.

My plan is to listen to the book again chapter by chapter to see if I can put some of the willpower strategies to work. I have started with noticing when I'm making a choice, and noticing what thoughts and feelings get in the way of my willpower.  Since committing to this, I've noticed that a lot of times, I either eat things I really shouldn't or avoid exercise and other things I really should do because I'm tired and lacking energy.  I have gotten in a sleep deficit (a real willpower killer, according to Mcgonigal) lately, and also have felt mentally tired from a lot of work- and family-related stress. No wonder I'm not raring to go out for a run or feeling steel-willed when looking at a tempting sweet treat. It has helped me realize that I'm not lazy or unmotivated, I'm just tired.  I need to remember this the next time I'm caught up in a family drama or considering watching just one more episode of "30 Rock" on Netflix.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who has any kind of willpower challenge to tackle.  The audio version narration is good (though it's odd that a man narrates the book even though the author is a woman). The insights are sensible and many of them were new to me, and I read a lot of self-help and "brain" books. As I listen to the book again, I may share a few of them here.

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07