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Summary: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

“People who use their willpower seem to run out of it. In study after study:

  • Controlling emotions didn’t just lead to emotional outbursts; it made people more willing to spend money on something they didn’t need.
  • Resisting tempting sweets didn’t just trigger cravings for chocolate; it prompted procrastination.

It was as if every act of willpower was drawing from the same source of strength, leaving people weaker with each successful act of self-control.” – Kelly McGonigal

Neuroscientists have found that self-control resides in an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. Each time you use the pre-frontal cortex to make decisions, think through problems, or resist temptations, you deplete your limited willpower reserves.

In the modern age, you face an onslaught of self-control challenges. If you aren’t careful, you will quickly use up your limited self-control reserves, which leads to excessive procrastination on our biggest projects. Therefore, you need to have a large willpower reserve to avoid becoming defenseless against temptation and distraction later in the day. In addition to the two strategies detailed in my animated summary video (increasing heart rate variability by slowing your breathing to five breaths per minute and forgiving yourself for past willpower failures), here are four daily habits to strengthen your willpower:

Book Summary: The Willpower Instinct - How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Eating Low-Glycemic Foods

Snack on nuts instead of food with added sugar. Cut out soda and avoid meals high on glycemic index (i.e. pasta, bread, and desserts).


“Blood sugar spikes and crashes can interfere with the body’s and brain’s ability to use sugar – meaning that you could end up with high blood sugar, but low energy. When your blood sugar drops, your brain will favor short-term thinking and impulsive behavior. Most psychologists and nutritionists recommend a low-glycemic diet – that is, one that looks like its natural state and doesn’t have a ton of added sugar, fat, and chemicals” – Kelly McGonigal


Go outside for alight 15 minutes run, or walk on the treadmill with a raised incline for 15 minutes.


“Exercise turns out to be the closet thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and snakers with cigarattes.” – Kelly McGonigal.

Exercising increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and replenishes your willpower reserves. A consistent exercise routine has been shown to regenerate brain cells in the prefrontal cortex and permanently increase willpower ability.


Take 10 minutes each morning to listen to a guided mediatation (search for ‘guided meditation’ on YouTube or download a guided meditation app on your smartphone, lik ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’).


“Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles… One study found that just three hours of meditation practice (over the course of several days) led to improved attention and self-control.” – Kelly McGonigal.

Afer a few days of meditation, you’ll increase self-awareness and have the ability to pause and plan prior to giving in the temptation.

Sleeping 7-9 Hours

Turn off your computer, smartphone, and TV, and don’t start any new projects after a certain time, like 10 pm. Make it a rule. With fewer things distracting you, you’ll find it easier to get to bed.


“Sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, your cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. This leaves them underfueled, and you exhausted. This leaves them underfueled, and you exhausted… even if you try to refuel with sugar or coffee, your body and brain won’t get the ebergy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently… So for better willpower, go to sleep already.” – Kelly McGonigal


Book Overview:

In “The Willpower Instinct,” Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist and lecturer, provides a comprehensive guide to developing self-control and willpower. She emphasizes the importance of self-awareness, mindfulness, and a growth mindset in cultivating willpower, and offers practical strategies for overcoming common obstacles to self-control, such as stress, temptation, and procrastination.

Key Takeaways:

  • Self-control is a limited resource: McGonigal explains that self-control is like a muscle that can be depleted when we exert it too much, leading to “willpower depletion.” This concept highlights the importance of pacing oneself and conserving willpower throughout the day.
  • Mindfulness is key: McGonigal stresses the importance of mindfulness in developing self-control. By paying attention to our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the present moment, we can better understand our motivations and make more intentional choices.
  • Growth mindset matters: McGonigal argues that a growth mindset, the belief that our abilities can be developed through effort and learning, is essential for developing willpower. By embracing challenges and viewing setbacks as opportunities for growth, we can build resilience and perseverance.
  • Self-compassion is crucial: McGonigal emphasizes the importance of self-compassion in overcoming self-control challenges. By treating ourselves with kindness and understanding when we make mistakes, we can cultivate a more positive relationship with ourselves and our goals.
  • Context matters: McGonigal highlights the significance of context in shaping our behavior. By understanding the cues and triggers that influence our behavior, we can make more intentional choices and avoid temptation.
  • Willpower can be developed: McGonigal offers practical strategies for developing willpower, including setting specific, achievable goals; breaking tasks into smaller steps; and seeking social support. She also emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and self-awareness in identifying areas for improvement.
  • Mindfulness practices can help: McGonigal provides a range of mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, to help readers cultivate self-awareness and willpower. These practices can help us become more attentive to our thoughts and emotions, and more intentional in our actions.


  • Provides practical strategies for developing willpower and overcoming self-control challenges
  • Offers a comprehensive framework for understanding self-control, including the concept of willpower depletion
  • Emphasizes the importance of mindfulness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset
  • Includes a range of mindfulness practices to help readers cultivate self-awareness and willpower


  • Some readers may find the book’s focus on self-awareness and mindfulness to be too abstract or difficult to implement
  • The book’s emphasis on willpower depletion may lead some readers to feel overwhelmed or discouraged by their perceived limitations
  • Some readers may find the book’s tone to be too prescriptive or lacking in personal perspective

Target Audience:

The target audience for “The Willpower Instinct” is likely individuals who are looking to improve their self-control and willpower, particularly in the context of personal growth and development. This book may be particularly helpful for individuals who struggle with self-control challenges, such as procrastination, overeating, or substance abuse.

In conclusion, “The Willpower Instinct” is an exceptional book that offers a comprehensive understanding of self-control and provides practical strategies for enhancing willpower. Kelly McGonigal’s expertise in psychology, combined with her accessible writing style, makes this book a valuable resource for anyone seeking to improve their self-discipline and achieve their goals. Whether you struggle with procrastination, addiction, or simply want to lead a more balanced and fulfilling life, this book offers valuable insights and tools to help you on your journey towards greater willpower and self-mastery.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:

  • Willpower is not a finite resource. It can be strengthened through exercise.
  • There are a number of strategies for developing willpower, including setting realistic goals, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, and rewarding yourself for your progress.
  • Stress, fatigue, and negative emotions can undermine willpower. It is important to find ways to manage these factors in order to protect your willpower.
  • Willpower is essential for success in many areas of life, including our health, our relationships, and our careers. By understanding the science of willpower and developing our willpower muscles, we can achieve our goals and live more fulfilling lives.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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