A little bit about “The Willpower Instinct”


I think I mentioned on my Facebook page a few weeks ago that I am reading a book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I wanted to share with you just a few insights from the book, because they are thoughts that I have definitely struggled with in the past and I know many of my clients have as well.

Kelly basically says that we have 2 competing selves. One part focuses on the long -term goals, while the other self wants more of the instant gratification. We need to be aware of both sides, but our commitment has to be strong enough with regards to our long-term goals in order to make better choices. This is what strengthens our willpower over time.

In addition to this, there was one chapter that really resonated with me. Chapter 4 is titled “License to Sin: Why being good gives us permission to be bad”. The chapter discusses how when we turn our willpower challenges into moral dilemmas, we are more likely to do something “bad” because we’ve been so “good”. Here’s an example. You want to lose 10 pounds. Resisting dessert has helped you to lose 7 pounds. Instead of focusing on your long term goal of losing 10 pounds, you “reward” yourself with a dessert (something that goes directly against your goal).

Have you ever done that? It’s like we sabotage ourselves! Kelly calls this Virtue and Vice. Using the good behavior (resisting dessert and losing 7 pounds towards our 10 pound goal) to give ourselves permission to do something not so good (eating dessert because we’ve made some progress). One side of us wants a reward for losing the 7 pounds, but eating the dessert goes directly against our long-term goal of losing 10 pounds.

Psychologists have actually found that making progress can sometimes encourage us to take part in behaviors that directly go against our goals. It is a constant battle between our long-term goal and what we want right now. Such as in the example of losing 10 pounds vs. the instant gratification of having dessert.

Kelly says, “You need to look at what you’ve done and conclude that you must really care about your goal, so much so that you want to do even more to reach it”. She says it’s just a matter of changing our mindset. We need to focus on why we need to continue instead of why we want to stop. Focus on your “why”.  Take a piece of paper and right down what your goals are and why you want to reach them. Then, when you are faced with a willpower challenge, think about your “why” instead of the instant gratification of whatever it is pulling you away from your long-term goal. Your goal has to be worth it for you to resist the temptation. If you continually succumb, maybe your goal really isn’t worth it to you. You may need a bigger goal, or a different reason to stick to your goal.

Have you ever had those weekends where you say to yourself “might as well get it all in today, I’m starting to eat healthy tomorrow”. Kelly calls this, “When tomorrow licenses today”. Telling ourselves that it is okay to eat and drink whatever we want all weekend because our new diet starts on Monday. I used to do this ALL THE TIME. Like every weekend. Much like we wanted to reward ourselves for losing the 7 pounds in the previous example, we also want to give ourselves credit for good behaviors we plan to do in the future. Oh the mind is a tricky little devil!! Rewarding ourselves because we are merely THINKING about starting a diet or an exercise routine?! It sounds so crazy, but I’ve honestly done this too many times to even count!

If you are constantly in this cycle of starting tomorrow, behavioral economist Howard Rachlin suggests not changing the behavior itself, but it’s variability. Kelly uses an example of a man who was trying to cut back on eating meats. Instead of going completely vegetarian and having good days and bad days, which always led to more bad than good, he chose to set a goal to only eat meat at one meal per day. Kelly says that using daily rules will take away the illusion that tomorrow will be any different than today.

I view my protein shake as my daily rule. I used to skip breakfast and be so hungry when I got home that I would eat way too much. I would end up feeling guilty and vowing to myself that I would be “better” tomorrow. Now, tomorrow is just like today. When it comes to fat loss, your Saturday should look very similar to your Monday. Something so simple, has made an enormous difference in reaching my goals. Are there any “rules” you can make that will make decisions surrounding food or exercise easier when it comes to reaching your goals?

Here’s another one for you. How many of you bought into the “fat free” craze of the 90s? Disregarding the calorie count or sugar content in bagels or snack wells cookies because they were labeled “fat free”? Kelly calls this “The Halo Effect”. You justify a vice (eating cookies) because of one virtuous aspect (it says “fat free”). Another example would be going gluten free in hopes of losing weight and buying every gluten free beer ever made, and drinking it, but justifying it because they were “gluten free”. We are blinded by the “halo” of the labels. Yup, been there too.

Kelly concludes the chapter by telling us that labeling things in moral terms, ie. “good” or “bad” and “right” or wrong” is a mistake. Research shows that we give ourselves way too much credit for doing “good” (or even thinking about doing good) and we are very good at justifying when we go off-track. I always tell my clients that we tend to overestimate how much we exercise and underestimate how much we eat. It’s human nature! Again, guilty of both.

I’ve played every one of these little mind tricks over the years. Knowing that they are actually legit things that psychologists study made me feel a little less crazy ha! I wanted to pass this on, because I feel like we are all in the same boat when it comes to finding peace with our bodies and with our relationships with food. Making little changes like the ones Kelly discusses, can go a long way in helping to overcome our willpower challenges, whatever they may be.

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