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  • Jennie Antolak

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Book Review: by Jill Stuber, Certified Life Coach Practitioner



Willpower is often a struggle for each of us and our clients. We want instant gratification, and if that doesn't occur, it feels impossible to wait to practice self-control. @Jill Stuber found in the book, The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal that McGonigal's research helped Jill better understand self-control and what can be done when working with clients who struggle in this area. Jill took the time to review The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, and I'm excited to share it with you. You will find that Jill purposefully highlights the book's examples to entice you to read the rest book. Her review allows you to understand better how our mind works and the factors that cause people to sabotage their own goals.


How often do you work with coaching clients who create an overall intention, claim they are fully committed to what they claim they want and then, week after week, make no or little effort toward their vision? Read Jill's review to discover how you can strengthen your partnership with your client so they reign their self-control.


The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal


Key Points & their meaning

1. Willpower is about self-control, which is really about self-knowledge.

To break it down even further, self-knowledge is self-awareness which is required to observe/reflect on our actions and thoughts. When we pay attention to our actions and thoughts, we can then begin to challenge actions/voices in our heads to make changes in our lives. Being able to challenge and control these voices/actions helps us drive past the immediate gratification that pulls of off course of our true goals and passion. “To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters.”

Dopamine is one powerful drug.

Our dopamine release is in full force as we anticipate the immediate gratification from things such as the onset of information and consumables at our fingertips. The parts of dopamine discussed by Dr. McGonigal that I found powerful were:

We mistake the experience of wanting (dopamine release for immediate gratification) for a guarantee of happiness aka., we chase things that do not deliver. That gives a whole new perspective to dating when the chase is fun, but the catch is not.

We reach dopamine fatigue, so marketers continually find ways to trigger dopamine for a new “high” to entice people to fill that immediate gratification aka., dopamine release.

When the choices that seemed to provide us satisfaction no longer provide satisfaction, we continually seek (or are shown) new ways to trigger dopamine. No wonder there are so many new products launched each year.


If we can begin to understand what reward our brain expects compared to what we really receive, we can re-train our brain to adjust to the reality of what we get. For example, if I eat the cookie, it doesn’t make me happy. Now I know it doesn’t make me happy so I can choose a different behavior.


2. Power of those around you.

Dr. McGonigal discussed how both the good and bad habits of those around us can infect us and others. It’s like a good mood can spread, so can habits. Our brains have functions like mirror neurons that keep us focused on what other people are feeling/doing and be “like” them, or goal contagion where catching a person’s goals in a way that changes your behavior, or even social proof when we do something because everyone else has done it – it must be right/good. I love the example of “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you too?”. Dr. McGonigal says based on social proof, probably. Unless you can surf the edge (see below).

3. Surfing the edge.

Surfing the edge is a good metaphor for how one can visualize an urge or feelings and sit with those urges/feelings till they dissipate. This gives space to respond versus react to an urge/feeling.

Application to Life Coaching

In life coaching, we presume people approach a situation with the same lenses and perspectives they have in the past thus making it challenging for movement toward a new state or goal. Often this default approach is considered part of our habits. As we begin to observe our habits, we can have awareness around the habit cycle of thought, action, and response. Building insight to our feelings and triggers as each step of the habit process will help provide options for alternative actions to drive new behaviors and thoughts. This applies to life coaching because as we help people discover and uncover goals and challenges, we need to ask powerful questions that allow people to consider how their habits support or sabotage their goals.

The other part of Willpower Instinct discussed the primitive brain vs. the evolved pre-frontal cortex and how these cause willpower challenges. This directly relates to our inner critic and champion. Understanding these functions better will help me support clients examine and discover how their thought processes help or interfere with meeting their goals.

o The prefrontal cortex is the part of our “civilized” or more evolved brain that is meant to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing through three different functions (described below). The prefrontal cortex is essentially our INNER CHAMPION.

-The I WILL portion: the voice that tells you to stick with it, drive through the hard part, you can do this.

-The I WON’T portion: Hold you back from following every impulse and crave.

-I WANT portion: keeps track of our goals and purpose

o The primitive part of our brain just wants the dopamine to trigger. This is when we “don’t think” and instead react to the immediate gratification that pulls us off track.

Favorite passage:

On page 236, Dr. McGonigal writes:

“Each of these studies teaches us something about ourselves and our own willpower challenges. They help us recognize our natural capacity for self-control, even if we sometimes struggle to use it. They help us understand our failures and point at possible solutions. They even tell us something about what it means to be human. For example, we’ve seen again and again that we are not one self, but multiple selves. Our human nature includes both the self that wants immediate gratification, and the self with a higher purpose. We are born to be tempted and born to resist. It is just as human to feel stressed, scared, and out of control as it is to find the strength to be calm and in charge of our choices. Self-control is a matter of understanding these different parts or ourselves, not fundamentally changing who we are. In the quest for self-control, the usual weapons we wield against ourselves – guilt, stress, and shame – don’t work. People who have the greatest self-control aren’t waging self-war. They have learned to accept and integrate these competing selves.”

This passage is my favorite because it is a concise and insightful summary of self-control, yet recognizes our humanity.

Application of the key messages within my coaching:

I will use the key messages in this book in my coaching by 1) understanding our complex brains to have more compassion for my clients, and 2) creating powerful questions that challenge the primitive and prefrontal cortex voices in our heads to help my clients drive the goals and changes they want to see.

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