Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

Happy New Year! In honor of the new year, I have decided to start a new tradition on the blog – Reading Round-up. Every week, I will post either a book review of a book that has really inspired me (in keeping with the themes of the blog of course), or link to the most interesting articles and blog posts that I came across in the past week, on being more creative as well as productive every day.

(Update: I sort of abandoned that - my bad. But instead, I have awesome interviews with authors on their writing process, so check that out!)

This week's post is a book review, of a book I recently finished reading: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, a professor at Stanford University. It is a fitting book to discuss in the first week of the year, when we are still in the rosy glow of having made New Years' resolutions that we still think we will achieve. The book discusses the science behind willpower and self-control – how to refrain from behaviors that we would like to avoid, and build on the ones we would like to do more of.

Each year we make resolutions stating that we will do something – lose ten pounds (or forty), give up smoking, get more exercise or write that novel or screenplay. Then as the months go by, our well-meaning resolutions becoming mocking reminders of yet another failure – of either intention or action. As I read this book, I looked back on all those resolutions I had yet to accomplish, or ones that I had abandoned halfway through. Although last year was particularly good for me in terms of accomplishing long-awaited goals – I lost a significant amount of weight, and finally won Nanowrimo and wrote a complete novel for the first time – I also failed to make as much progress as I would have liked on many others. If anyone reading this is struggling with a long-promised goal or resolution, I would recommend McGonigal's books as a fount of practical strategies and insight into exactly why we fail to exert willpower when we need it the most, and what we can do about it.

The biggest takeaway from the book for me was the realization that I simply needed to pick one habit or willpower problem at a time, and focus as many tricks and strategies as I could to accomplish it. Somehow simply reading the book made me think that I could overcome some of the willpower challenges that I am facing currently, the most notable of which is my addiction to dessert. It remains to be seen how much my new-found intentions stand up to the scrutiny of time and a hectic schedule, but the dozens of strategies, coupled with the knowledge of why exactly I seem unable to reach for that cookie or make myself stick to my writing schedule, made it seem more likely that I will be able to accomplish my goals.

Here are three interesting ideas from the book that stuck out for me:

1.   Ten-minute delay – if you are trying to give up something - smoking, cookies, whatever – try waiting a mandatory ten minutes before you allow yourself to have the treat. The brain treats a slightly delayed reward and a more significantly delayed reward similarly, i.e. not as attractively as something that is immediately available, and this fact alone could reduce how often you tend to give in.

2.   Plan for failures – knowing that we are fallible and will give in to our temptations when tired or distracted or for a myriad other reasons, we should plan for these failures. One good strategy is pre-commitment­, such as paying for your gym membership in advance. Another one – create rules that govern your behavior, such as (this is one that works for me) no starchy carbs after 6pm.

3.   Acknowledge the reality of your future self – the research shows that we are far harsher and more emotionally distant from our future selves. This is the reason we overly optimistically believe that in the future we will do more exercise, lose more weight, give more money to charity etc. Partially, this is because we don’t acknowledge that in the future we will be similarly stressed, tired, tempted to give in, etc. Instead we will make far more progress on our goals if we accept our current limitations, and find strategies for accomplishing our goals given these realities, instead of imagining an ideal future. 

What are your strategies for reaching your goals?

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