What I Learned from “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct Review

Willpower is a tool that separates us from other animals. In fact, within our brains, there is a specific area that we have that focuses on willpower, the prefrontal cortex. While amazing on its own, imagine a specific part of our brain that gives us willpower, most of the time, it come into war with our other brain. Yes, we have two brains, one of the main key points in this book. The 2nd brain is called the amygdala.

Here is the summary of willpower instinct:

The Willpower Instinct is a book by Kelly McGonigal that teaches the exciting science behind willpower. It comes with lots of tips and research about the science of willpower. How you can increase it, where it came from, and how to be mindful of it.

Even if we have the prefrontal cortex to battle our animalistic behavior, it can be hard for us to control our amygdala. Without our willpower, we will be different from what we are now. In the book, we have recorded someone who lost his prefrontal cortex in an accident and lost all of his willpower. This person is called Phianes Gage. Gage was known to be a man of self discipline but an incident occurred that an iron rod destroyed his prefrontal cortex. He miraculously survived the incident but in return, he has no self control. Lost all his willpower. In short, he turned to his animalistic behaviors because he lost his control over his animal brain.

While this is good history and all, as Kelly McGonigal explained in detail in the book, we are here for the main lessons it can teach us about self improvement, especially the science behind willpower that we can use in order to achieve our goals and dreams in life. So here are they.

Willpower is like a Muscle

Willpower is like a muscle in the sense that you can make it more powerful. The longer you use you willpower, the stronger it gets as time passes. However, also like a muscle, once you overuse it, it will also give up and in the case of willpower, it will be depleted.

Thus, like effective hacks on how to conserve willpower energy are also available for us. Such as habits. Habits are things that are automatic to us and uses less to no willpower at all. Making Good habits is one of the key fundamentals in maintaining willpower since you can use its power on some other tasks you need to do. I recommend you read my article on my book summary for Atomic Habits so you can have more insight on how habits work and how you can hack it on your way to conserve willpower.

Use your Fully Rested State to your Advantage

In Mel Robbin’s book about the 5 Second rule, (also a good book by the way, it comes with a different approach to willpower. Click the link for my summary on it.), She explained that your first 2 hours are the most important time of the day.

Now, The Willpower Instinct explained it in a scientific way. Not only you have energy because of the night’s sleep to follow your goals and dreams in life, this is also the time where you have recharged your willpower energy bar (If there is such thing).

Like a muscle, where the best time to lift weights is the time you had a good rest, same with willpower. Mornings are the best time to use your willpower to your advantage. This is also the perfect time to make a good morning routine, work on your dreams or just focusing on your work.

This simple tip is enough to make a significant change in your life. I, myself, have been using this technique and it works wonders for me. But this is just the beginning. The book still has lots of things to teach us about willpower. Specifically how can we improve upon it?

Ways to Boost Willpower

As I said, willpower is like a muscle. Which means that there are ways to improve upon in. Here are the helpful ones I found that I hope would also be helpful for you.

Bait Yourself

It may look counterintuitive but if this works for you, then good for you. For me, it doesn’t. But, of you can find a way to use willpower in such an easy way such as you are sure you can resist a cheesecake on your table then you can do it. Constantly using willpower will strengthen it in the future. Continue on making yourself better each day and you will see the difference for yourself.

In my case, I do not follow this rule, this is just torture for me. Instead, I use the other way said in the book. the 5 minute mindfulness exercise.


This is the one that works well for me. Another advantage of mindfulness meditation is that even 5 minute sessions are enough to boost your willpower. It is also very simple and you don’t need any equipment for it.

What you need to do is to sit in a comfortable position, no need to do the lotus sit. Whatever feels comfortable to you is okay. I do not recommend lying in bed though because you might fall asleep instead (learned it the hard way).

Now, once you got to a comfortable position, get yourself a timer. If you don’t have one, your phone has one and I’m sure 99% of the readers here have a phone. Set it to 5 minutes.

Start to close your eyes and just feel your breathing. Focus all your attention to it. Just be mindful on your breath. You may focus on the air in your lungs, how the air touches your nose and many more.

Now, here come the exercise part. Once you’re doing this, the brain will feed you up with most likely useless information. Start doing the exercise by not minding them and just focusing on your breath. It might be frustrating, but that is actually a good sign that you are now exercising your willpower.

Continue and do this 5 minute sessions everyday. Eventually you’ll see how you can control your impulses better than before,

Conserving Willpower

I said there are 2 ways to have better willpower. One is to improve upon it like lifting weights at the gym makes you stronger, the one is to conserve its energy so it can be of use on more meaningful things and activities.

The best way for this is to use one of the tips in the book Atomic Habits, which is to change your environment.

For example, if you are quitting smoking, then remove it from your sight. To a point when you have no choice but not to smoke. if you want to eat healthy, rather than put cake on your table, change it with fruits instead. Make things obvious so that you have no choice but to do the thing you needed to do most.

If you want to start jogging, then put your running shoes on a visible place or even better, place it beside your bed if you want to jog after waking up.

The best way here is to make it obvious and eventually, you will learn that once these things become a habit, it would be easier for you to do it in the long run.

Enemies of Willpower

There are numerous enemies of willpower. The best way to beat them is to first know them. Accept that they can be enemies for your willpower. Being mindful for them is one of the main keys in fighting them and put yourself in the upper ground.


This might be obvious to all and you just need to remember that stress is an enemy especially if you want to improve upon yourself in the future.

You might also notice that most of us have stress as a cue for doing our bad habits such as compulsive gaming, smoking and many more.

To deal with this, learn a different way to handle stress such as exercising, relaxing or just simple things such as sleeping instead. Accept stress as one of the things you need to deal with in life and it will be easier for you to handle it once it comes up.

I already failed mentality

This needs a special portion because it affects almost all of us. Let’s say you want to eat healthy then one day, you accidentally took a bite of cake. Most of us will just think that I failed anyway, let’s just continue this then you already ate a lot and eventually got the sugar crash.

Guess who you failed by it. You.

Always remember this and take note of this in your head. What differentiates successful people from the unsuccessful ones is that they can get back up fast after a downfall.

We are all humans and we all fail. There is no need for you to beat yourself up to it. Always do your best. You failed, then move on and continue building good habits.

Instead of the I already failed mentality, learn to have better stress management mechanisms, to forgive yourself and move on.


It might be weird to see success as an enemy of willpower but hear me out here. There are times where you feel that you’ve accomplished something that you’re so happy. So you said this to yourself.

Well I did good today so let me reward myself with a smoke for doing good today.

We all have a tendency to give ourselves up because of success. It might be okay to reward yourself after doing a good job but remember to still stick with your plans in life.

The best way to combat this is to always stay humble and remember that being good can sometimes give us a reason to be bad.

People Around

Good influence, bad influence. Whether we admit it or not, we are shaped by people around us.

Be careful of this, this one give a lot of impact on our personality. We are born to live with others. We are wired to interact with other people. Be careful of bad influences because it really affects us.

I don’t recommend ditching friends if they’re not good influence to you but to find an accountability partner or a friend that focuses on their dreams in life. In constantly improving themselves and become a team that challenges each other to be better. This is a better way to combat this.

Another way if you feel you are surrounded with people of bad influence is to use your first minutes each and every day to remind yourself of YOUR OWN goals and dreams. What are the GOOD HABITS YOU WANT TO FORM. This way, you can be assured of your goals and not be easily influenced by the goals of others.


Jason Ong is a YouTuber and the one who owns this site. He shares what he learned with people and makes videos if necessary. He was a former lecturer. The things he taught are topics related to Clinical Laboratory Science or what others call Medical Technology. Right now, he is also working part-time in an app company as a production supervisor. You can visit his YouTube Channel on https://ongjason.com/youtube

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