Latish Sehgal's Blog

Book Notes: The Willpower Instinct

Read On: Nov 25, 2013
Reading Time: 9 hours
Rating: 10/10


The Willpower Instinct explains the new science of self-control and how it can be harnessed to improve our health, happiness, and productivity. It explains exactly what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters and combines life-changing prescriptive advice and complementary exercises to help readers with goals ranging from losing weight to more patient parenting, less procrastination, better health, and greater productivity at work.


  • Best way to improve self control is to know how and why you lose control.
  • People that are distracted are more likely to give into tempations.
  • For better or worse, your brain gets better at whatever you ask it to do regularly. You can train your brain to get better at self-control. Simplest way to do this is to meditate - increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.
  • When faced with internal conflict, your “Pause and Plan Response” redirects energy from your body to the brain. This calms you down and gives you time for more flexible thoughtful action. This can be measured using “Heart Rate Variability” (higher is better).
    • Heart Rate Variability can be improved with clean eating, meditation, good sleeping routine, good friends, healthy spiritual life etc. It decreases with stress, anger and illness.
    • Physical exercise and meditation make the brain bigger and faster.
    • When you are sleep deprived, your body can’t absorb glucose from your blood stream efficiently. This makes you crave for sugar and caffeine and starts a vicious cycle.
  • When it senses danger, the amygdala shuts down the prefrontal cortex in the brain. This makes you impulsive. Your heart rate goes up and variability comes down.
  • Evolution works because of the promise of happiness, not its experience. When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases Dopamine (a neurotransmitter). This tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to. It builds anticipation for the reward, but does not help enjoy it.
    • When we add the instant gratification of modern technology to this primitive dopamine delivery system, we end up with dopamine delivery devices that are nearly impossible to put down.
    • High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification (making you less concerned about long term consequences). For example, the food and drink samples offered at your local store put shoppers in a reward seeking state of mind.
    • A lot of our willpower failures are triggered by dopamine triggers in our everyday environment.
    • Dopamines’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy. Not only does it build anticipation for the reward, it also sends a message to the brain’s stress centre, making you anxious as you anticipate.
    • The solution is not to eliminate wanting, since that might not be a life worth living. The paradox of rewards:
      • The promise of reward doesn’t gurantee happiness.
      • The absence of the promise gurantees unhappiness.
        We need to separate the real rewards (that give our life meaning) from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction might be the best we can do.
  • The most commonly strategies for dealing with stress activate the brain’s reward system, which are highly ineffective since there is no reward. In fact, we might feel guilt for giving in. To avoid such stress induced willpower failures while dealing with stress, we should use the following strategies:
    • exercising/playing a sport
    • praying/religious service
    • reading/listening to music
    • spending time with family and friends
    • Meditation/Yoga
    • Spending time on a creative hobby
  • Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward, these stress relievers boost mood enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as feel good hormone oxytocin. Since these activities aren’t exciting like dopamine releases, we tend to underestimate how good they’ll make us feel.
  • It’s not the 1st giving in that causes the biggest relapse, but the feelings of shame and guilt that follow the 1st relapse. Guilt does not motivate us to correct our mistakes but rather it’s just one more way for us to feel bad and give in. Indulgence -> Regret -> More Indulgence
  • Self-Criticism drains the willpower, leads to low motivation and loss of self-control. Self-forgiveness, not guilt, creates accountability.
  • False Hope Syndrome: Sometimes we resolve to make big changes (especially in guilt). This offers an immediate sense of relief and vowing to change fills us with hope as we imagine and fantasize about the person we wil be. This is another form of instant gratification. Once we face the initial setbacks, failing to meet our grand expectations, it triggers the same old guilt, depression and self-doubt, and we abandon our efforts. It wasn’t a strategy for change, but a strategy to help us feel better. We must use the promise of change to fix our behaviors and not our feelings.
  • Immediate rewards (instant gratification) triggers our primitive reward system which does not care about long term benefits. The prefrontal cortex can do this but it needs to cool off the reward system first. For a cooler, wiser brain, institute a 10 minute wait policy for any temptation.
  • Impulsive behaviors are contagious (stay away from Reality TV). Try to be a part of a group of people with similar goals as yourself.
  • The more easily we remember something, the more likely we think it’s true.
  • When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Accept the presence of your negative thoughts, but do not believe them or try to act on them. Imagine your urges as a wave. They will build in intensity, but ultimately crash and dissolve. Learn to surf and ride the wave, not fight it. Observe your body and focus on breathing during the wave.
  • Self-Control is a matter of understanding the different parts of ourselves, not changing who we are. Self-Awareness is our best weapon.


Another great read and a perfect complement to The Power of Habut, which I read recently. This book finally convinced me to meditate regularly, even if it’s for only 5 minutes.

P.S I have moved all my Book Notes to Read My Book Notes.