Palo Alto Weekly

- February 24, 2012

Don't touch that cookie!

Book offers advice on how to rev up one's willpower

by Kathy Cordova

"The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It," by Kelly McGonigal, The Penguin Group, 275 pp., $26

It's that time of the year when most of us who were optimistic or foolish enough to make New Year's resolutions have inevitably given up our low-carb diets, triathlon training and the hope that we will ever be able to fit our car into the garage.

Why is it that aspirations that seem so promising on Jan. 1 are often abandoned by mid-February?

The answer, most people would agree, is willpower. Most of us would also agree that we don't have as much willpower as we would like. In fact, Americans cite lack of willpower as the biggest reason they struggle to reach their goals, according to the American Psychological Association. Imagine how our lives could change if there were simple, proven ways to train our brains to order the salad instead of a burger or get off the couch and go for a run?

That is the promise of the new book, "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It." In it, author Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., who teaches a class about willpower at Stanford University, combines the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology and economics with feedback from her students to create an accessible, step-by-step guide to understanding and strengthening willpower.

With a book like this, it's easy to wonder if it's just another of the many platitude-filled, self-help books published at the beginning of the year that won't improve our lives any more than our forsaken resolutions.

As a mass consumer of self-help books, including everything from "The Secret" to "Master Your Metabolism," who has been trying to lose the same 10 pounds for the last five years, I know a little about the genre and the subject. The trouble with most self-help books is that after you read them you know what to do, but you still have the problem of motivating yourself to do it. I may have found the answer to this dilemma in the pages of this book. "The Willpower Instinct" has several things going for it:

First, the author has impressive credentials. McGonigal is a health psychologist and educator for the Stanford School of Medicine's Health Improvement Program who specializes in helping people manage stress and make healthy choices. McGonigal also writes the "Science of Willpower" blog for Psychology Today. She's a longtime vegan, a yoga expert and a two-time author at the age of 34 — evidence pointing to some personal expertise in her subject.

Second, the book, which is dense with academic studies (with 25 pages of reference notes), is grounded in the experiences of her students, making the theories relatable and reality-tested. The author writes: "A class survey four weeks into the course found that 97 percent of students felt they better understood their own behavior, and 84 percent reported that the class strategies had already given them more willpower." She also notes that if the scientific conclusions didn't work as well in real life as they did in the laboratory, we won't find them in the book.

Most importantly, the book explains complex brain science and its applications in a clear and entertaining way that makes them easy to understand and use in our daily lives. The information, anecdotes and advice make inherent sense. I found myself highlighting and dog-earing almost every page and I had too many "Aha!" moments to count.

The book is divided into 10 chapters, modeled after the 10-week course. McGonigal suggests reading one chapter per week to let the ideas sink in and to take the time to do the "Willpower Experiments" that are interspersed throughout the book. The author provides specific strategies for strengthening willpower in many different areas, including dieting, exercising, procrastinating and curbing addictive behaviors such as smoking, drinking, gambling and obsessively checking email. Most of the advice and exercises are simple and quick to implement.

For example, McGonigal cites "The Ten Minute Rule," instructing us that if we have a craving, we should tell ourselves that we can have whatever it is we desire — in 10 minutes. Often the time delay is enough for the craving to pass and give us the strength to resist. If we spend that 10 minutes "surfing the urge" and paying attention to how the craving makes us feel instead of trying to distract ourselves, we have an even better chance of exerting willpower over our temptation.

Sometimes all it takes is a reframing of how we think about things to increase our willpower. When we are doing well, we learn to think of our positive actions not as "progress," which might make us believe we deserve a treat that will derail us, but as commitment to our goal, which reinforces our resolve.

The book's prevailing themes are that stress and fatigue deplete willpower and that by doing things like meditating, exercising and getting enough sleep we can recharge and store up our willpower reserves. We are told that even small efforts in these areas — five minutes of meditation a day or a quick walk around the block — are enough to reduce cravings and increase self-control.

At times, the book, like science, offers up ideas that seem to contradict one another. For example, we are told that being tired reduces our willpower, but, also that "the limits of self-control are just like the physical limits of the body — we often feel depleted of willpower before we actually are" and urged to push through those limits like a marathon runner. In these cases, readers must find their own balance.

For a book about willpower, the tone is surprisingly compassionate. The author encourages us to let go of shame and guilt, which weaken our willpower, and to instead forgive ourselves, accept our feelings and treat ourselves with kindness.

McGonigal sums up her message, "If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. Self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most are the foundation for self-control."

Freelance writer Kathy Cordova can be emailed at khcordova@gmail.com.

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