Willpower Instinct

It’s almost a new year. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, simply because the chapters of my own life never align so perfectly with what we arbitrarily call January 1st. However, I am one for setting goals, wanting to become a better self, and being aware of time.

My “2014” started about three months ago. I had set some of the biggest goals I’ve ever set in my life, and I was determined to not give truth to the saying that all new year’s resolutions were meant to be broken. That said, I was also aware my excitement was from starting something new, and excitement is never enough to last the effort that would ensue. My biggest doubt was in persevering through the mundanities of daily progress some few months down the line. There is no sense of external urgency. My daily tasks are too far removed from directly impacting the achievement of my goals. I questioned how I would fend off temptations to just bum out.

At that time, I had lunch with a friend who recommended a very appropriate book to me called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. The book could not have come at a more pivotal time. It teaches you the basic science behind self-control and how to fight common willpower challenges. You’ve probably faced problems of these variations before:

  • procrastination: I have a week left and I need to start a semester-long project
  • giving in to temptations: I smelled the popcorn when walking by and just had to buy it
  • undoing your previous effort: I’ll eat an extra cupcake as a reward for working out
  • screw the rest of it: I already screwed up my diet today so I’ll just eat whatever I want

For me, reading the book was like preemptively donning sword and shield against the very real possibility of productivity and motivation doldrums. While weapon and armor are necessary, so are practice and skill before the actual battle. I was glad I found the book before I found myself stuck in a slump.

I had certainly independently arrived at some of the tactics suggested in the book by fine-tuning from my past experiences. For example, when procrastination tempts me, I just tell myself to do the task for ten minutes with no pressure to complete it. Once I’m started, it’s often a lot easier to continue. Other times, it’s okay to just give in. I’m a person with limited energy. I need to pick my battles carefully.

Learning from past mistakes is great, but I certainly wish I were equipped with some of this knowledge during my college years. Procrastination was my biggest struggle. I would stay up late to watch movies instead of doing work. I didn’t understand why I kept procrastinating when it so obviously made everything worse. If only I had known that as humans, we’re wired to seek immediate relief from what is causing us distress. My problem was that I was stressed about being behind, and thus I coped by procrastinating more to avoid thinking about my problem of being behind.

It’s empowering to learn about self-control. I now understand it’s how my brain works, that it’s not just my personal shortcomings. I just have to set up my life such that I minimize opportunities for my primitive brain to reign over my self-control one. So do yourself a favor. Read The Willpower Instinct for your new year’s resolution. Let this be the resolution that enables all future resolutions.


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