Notes on The Willpower Instinct Talk

There are effectively two different minds, which compete with eachother to determine your behaviour in relation to taking right action:

  • The mind which seeks comfort and short-term pleasure, alleviation of pain
  • The mind which has your core values, is aware of long term implications etc – this is the mind which delays gratification and takes right action.

With willpower, you want to be in the second mind because that’s what will get you closer to where you want to be in life. This “willpower mind” is based in the prefrontal cortex.

There are 4 factors which have been proven to increase willpower:

  1. Getting enough sleep
  2. Meditation
  3. Working out
  4. Low glycemic and/or plant-based diet

*Although these require willpower to do they have a global training effect on the prefrontal cortex/willpower areas of the brain. For most of these, it takes a few months of application to see a noticeable change in the brain. You should aim to make this change in your brain by doing these things.

Feeling bad about failures actually increases your likelihood of failing again in the future. Because it gets you in the part of the brain that naturally goes for short-term gratification.

You need a strategy to be your willpower self when you fail -> Self compassion message.

Three components of a self-compassion message:

  1. Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings (probably shame, guilt etc)
  2. Common humanity (don’t take it too personally, be compassionate towards yourself, forgive yourself, see it as part of the big picture, see it as being universal human behaviour)
  3. 3. Encouragement over criticism


The more continuity you feel with your future self the more willpower you have. If you don’t really feel what they feel etc then you will be less likely to act in their best interest. Perhaps this engages the short-term gratification mind productively?

Write a letter from your future self. It should feel real like they’re a real person.

It’s effective to imagine good and bad future realities. Motivators of pleasure and pain.

Imagining failure is actually more motivating.

It’s useful to know that you’ll be tired, tempted etc in the future. Optimism about future behaviour licenses self-indulgence today.

Defensive pessimism:

  1. What is your goal?
  2. What would be the most positive outcome?
  3. What action will I take to reach this goal?
  4. What is the biggest obstacle?
  5. When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur?
  6. What can I do to prevent the obstacle?
  7. What specific thing will I do to get back to my goal when this obstacle happens?

Ability to hold your breath actually predicts success in achieving difficult goals. This is because of something psychologists call distress tolerance. This is the ability to stay put when things get uncomfortable.

Surfing the urge is the most effective way to deal with urges.

Similarly, acceptance is an effective strategy for dealing with emotions that stop you getting where you need to be, such as anxiety. Notice what emotions lead to your willpower failures and pay attention to them and ride them out.

Willpower rules summary:

  1. Train your willpower physiology
  2. Forgive yourself
  3. Make friends with your future self
  4. Predict your failure
  5. Surf the urge
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