Notes from 'The Willpower Instinct'

The lack of self-control is not only a psychological problem, but also influenced by physiology, psychological traps and various social factors.


Dr. McGonigal of Stanford University offers a course called “The Science of Willpower” that has been described as “life-changing” by those who have participated in it. This course is the basis for the book “The Willpower Instinct”.

Because I can’t stand my own procrastination and laziness, I have tried various methods to change, including making lists, writing plans, self-reflection, painful resolutions, and reading chicken soup, but I still repeatedly fall into degradation, leading to inner torment.

I used to think that lack of self-control was just a psychological problem and a personality flaw. After reading the book “The Willpower Instinct”, I realized that the lack of self-control is not only a psychological problem, but also influenced by physiology, psychological traps and various social factors.

As I read, I followed the examples, questions and action suggestions in the book to dissect my past habits and failures. I also got to know myself from a more scientific perspective and reconciled with myself, also learned some scientific and effective ways to improve my self-control.


This book is more like a diagnostic book prescribed by a doctor to get to the root cause of our illness. We used to look for ways to correct and improve our self-control, but we neglected why we can’t control ourselves. This is a course that deals with psychology, physiology and even economics, and it gives a lot of good explanations for the problem of willpower.

The book mentions many ways to enhance willpower, there is a good summary from a user on Douban, as follows.

1. Usual practice

  • Focused breathing is a simple and effective meditation technique.
  • Exercise is the way to restore physical fitness and willpower.
  • Make sure your body has an adequate supply of food, which will give your brain more sustained energy.
  • Consistent self-control in the little things will improve overall willpower.

2. Timely adjustment of physical and mental state

  • A quick way to improve willpower: slow down your breathing and take 4-6 deep breaths per minute.
  • A 5-minute “green workout” can reduce stress, get out of the office, find the nearest piece of green space, breathe fresh air and do some simple stretching activities.
  • Effective ways to relieve stress. Exercise or participate in sports, pray or attend religious services, read, listen to music, spend time with friends, get a massage, go for a walk, meditate or yoga, and develop other creative hobbies.

3. Advance preparation after setting a goal

  • 6-7 hours of sleep per day.
  • Do the hardest things when your willpower is strongest, usually in the morning.
  • Predict how you will be tempted and break promises in the process of achieving your goals, and imagine what you should do then to not give up.
  • Put pressure on your future self by making medical appointments, buying an annual gym pass, going out shopping with only cash, putting your alarm clock at the other end of the room, etc.
  • Imagine a better picture of the future.
  • Write a letter to your future self. Describe to your future self what you will do now. Imagine that your future self will feel grateful for what your present self has done.
  • Imagine the self you wish to be and the self you fear to be in a specific scenario, and then compare and contrast.
  • To avoid repeating the mistakes of others who have lost their self-control, take a moment at the beginning of each day to think about your goals.
  • Find a “group” to join that shares your goals. Being in such a group will make you feel that your goals are the social norm.
  • Find someone close to you to be a role model for your willpower.

4. Facing temptation

  • The “willpower muscle” can last longer with the right motivation. Tell yourself, “A lot of things that are hard now will become easy.”
  • There is no difference between tomorrow and today. Tell yourself, “Do you really believe that you can eat this piece of fried chicken today and stick to your veggies all day tomorrow? Do you really believe you won’t study today but you’ll make up for it tomorrow? Don’t lie to yourself!”
  • When expecting to get what tempts you, tell yourself the reality: “When you really go to ……, you’ll find it’s not as happy as you thought!”
  • When you find yourself using the effort you’ve made as an excuse to indulge, tell yourself, “Because I ate vegetarian all day yesterday, so I can reward myself with a McDonald’s today. This is not the right logic. It should be: I ate vegetarian yesterday for the goal of losing weight, and I should do the same today.”
  • Schedule a 10-minute waiting period in front of all temptations. If after 10 minutes you still want it, you can have it. But within the 10 minutes, you must always resist the temptation by thinking about the real goal. If possible, create some physical distance away from the temptation.
  • When you are tempted to decide to do something that is contrary to your long-term interests, imagine that you have already achieved your ultimate goal. Then seriously ask yourself, “Have you really decided to give up your goal of losing weight for the meat in front of you?”
  • Think what you think and follow your feelings, but don’t believe all your thoughts. When you have unpleasant thoughts, focus on your breath and imagine them fading away like a floating cloud. Face your desires, but don’t act on them. When a desire comes, notice it, but don’t immediately try to distract or argue with it, remembering your truly important goals.

5. Failure

  • When you fail, tell yourself, “Failure at this point is nothing, I can’t give up on myself.”


While reading this book, I was surprised many times by the various conclusions analyzed from a physiological point of view, and gained many scientific and practical ways to enhance my willpower.

I also gained a new understanding of self-control, stopped doubting myself, learned to reconcile with myself, accept my flaws, act more positively in a good direction, and have a clear vision of a better future😁.