"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Ch. 2

Other threads:

Hi folks! This is your “The Willpower Instinct” Chapter 2 thread!


Reposted from the ch. 1 and intro thread, now that we’ve decided to split by chapter.

My highlights from chapter two:

  • Physiological conditions (diet/exercise/sleep) are going to have a substantial impact on how much self-control you have.
  • The body can go into either fight-or-flight mode or pause-and-plan mode in response to threats and conflict. In a secure, abundant environment, the former is rarely adaptive… and is almost certainly going to lead you astray when facing an internal conflict.
  • You can build the capacity to operate in pause-and-plan mode. Consistent exercise, meditation, sleep, and healthy diet all support more self-control and thoughtful decision making.
    • …however, these are all medium-to-long term interventions. For a immediate boost, don’t underestimate the power of taking deep breathes (5 seconds in/5 seconds out) and going for a five minute walk!
  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a physiological measure that correlates with better self-control.

I participated in a self-care workshop at my workplace last year, which was based partly on HeartMath’s HRV-based breathing practice. As a company, HeartMath endorses bonkers pseudoscience, but I think the basic intervention they recommend is good (and agrees with what Kelly McGonigal was saying in this chapter):

  1. Set aside time to deliberately practice slow, paced breathing to improve skill at getting into a calm, high-HRV state.
  2. Use the paced breathing when in a stressful situations to calm down fight-or-flight responses.

I have one of their biofeedback gadgets (the Inner Balance sensor), but I don’t think it’s really necessary. I can attest that paced breathing practice really does help – it got me through some of the worst of my son’s rebellious toddlerhood.

Reading about the physiological factors of willpower got me thinking about the correspondence bias (the tendency to blame circumstances for one’s own behavior and innate tendencies for the behavior of others). It feels like to me that the correspondence bias plays out a little differently when it comes to self-control. I’ve absorbed this cultural idea that willpower is a measure of character and that when I make bad decisions it’s because I’m a Bad Person. I know that’s an unhealthy perspective, but it’s a mental rut I can’t seem to totally purge. I wonder if I can train myself to remember the physiological circumstances when evaluating my impulse control, and in doing so vaccinate against useless self-blaming.


So, I’ve been sort of side-eying the science in this book – it’s all very, um, enthusiastically presented so far, without many caveats (and there are always caveats about human research, especially research involving weakly-defined subjects like “willpower”).

I was particularly disappointed to see yet another citation for the Oaten/Cheng experiment, which involved a whole twenty-four participants, in a not-even-slightly-blinded experiment (their past behavior was used as their control, meaning the significantly-behavior-altering fact that they were in a study was not controlled for at all). I mean, credit to the author for not pushing some of the really questionable interpretations of that study, but given that the conclusion listed was “exercise is good”, could they REALLY not have found a larger-scale study that showed these effects? If your strongest, most influential study (that you take several paragraphs to hype up!) involves fewer people than my last house party, I’m not going to be very convinced.


I don’t have the book in font of me now , but the exercise in chapter was something about finding the source / trigger of your willpower challenge.

My challenge was initially social media / news consumption during the day.
I find that the effort of trying to be mindful when I am reaching for my phone results to :

  • realising that I do it much more often than I thought (similar to the example of the book about how often we make choices on whether/what to eat)
  • expanding the challenge to include email, as I notice that the trigger/action loop felt similar
  • articulating the challenge as “find something on my phone to distract my mind”
  • determining my triggers as the typical sources of procrastination: facing a difficult task, hesitating to take a decision, feeling tired, etc.

That said, while I have read quite a few stuff on the topic, it is very different to go through this process of definition, writing down and trying to be more aware of thoughts and feelings. Practice >> theory (duh!)
Also to note the book club is turning more interesting than I thought :wink:


I’m so glad that the book club is more interesting than you thought! I’m loving it. I think there’s some people who have joined who didn’t even use Beeminder before!


The most useful concepts from this chapter for me have been:

  • The concept of pause-and-plan vs fight-or-flight. If I’m feeling late for something I’ll often go into a stress-based mode to get motivated to get going, and I don’t always come back to a calm place afterards.
  • HRV as a measure of mindfulness. I like having a measure of this and I do notice it corresponds to how stressed I am. My productivity tends to take a dive when I start jugging 4-5 things and my mind starts to loop from thing to thing without making progress on any. Having a hint when I’m veering into that territory is helpful.
  • What is the threat? This connects to fight-or-flight mode. If I’m not achieving an “I Will” or “I Won’t” challenge it’s usually tied to a feeling of threat - usually frustration or just fear of disappointing someone. Noticing an upstream cause of this gives me options in terms of avoiding it or addressing it.
  • Sleep. It’s not groundbreaking, but when my sleep habits get off, all my other habits suffer, so I can’t get enough reminders.
  • Willpower as a resource? Stress enemy? I think a lot of the terminology in this chapter suffers from Ego Depletion being a less credible theory - willpower reserve, willpower meter, will-power fill-up. I know McGonigal has also talked about how she regrets causing people stress by telling them how bad stress is. But I think all of the advice can be reframed in the sense of mindfulness - once I’m in a headspace based on stress, I’m unlikely to return to a pause-and-plan headspace - unless I have habits like breathing exercises to return my thinking to some baseline.

I’m with you on this one: I often fight the feeling that I’m lazy. McGonigal talks more about guilt feelings in Ch. 4 and 6.

My default strategy tends to be negative self-feedback, so I’ve found myself trying to guilt away the guilt, which is … ineffective. I’d recommend you continue just noticing for a while longer before trying to change the rut. I am always amazed at what I learn when I do the detailed tracking exercise a la Ch. 1. The strategies in future chapters on reducing variability or self-forgiveness might be useful based on what you learn about your own mental process.


Yeah, I bought an Inner Balance sensor and the iPhone app was so broken that when I left the sensor on a flight I was not heart broken.

I still really like breathing exercises and after I read this chapter was very happy to find that the Breathe app on Apple Watch lets you turn the pace to 4 breaths per minute. It has a really nice haptic when you’re breathing in, it’s great for pacing and feels just like the HeartMath app. I’ve been using it whenever I have overwhelm or can’t quite focus. I’ve also been doing it before I go to bed, and before I sit for meditation. #PreefMode (Prefronal Cortex Mode, yeah I probably won’t use that again…)

For additional HRV reading and research, I found the HRV4Training founder to be extremely knowledgeable. He wrote a very detailed post on why Apple’s HRV in Apple Health is not accurate.

I would recommend people start with HRV4Training app before getting anything HeartMath related. Very expensive anyways.


I agree with @mattellsworth – don’t start with HeartMath! Their sensors are costly and their software is not great. I only bought the InnerBalance because I had prior experience with the emWave2 sensor and had already written scripts to extract the raw data from the HeartMath desktop app.

I haven’t tried HRV4Training. Thanks for the link! I’ll check that out.


(I made the Chapter 3 thread!)


My general Chapter 2 thoughts:

I’m skeptical of the causal implications bandied about in this chapter about HRV, and I think it’s really just sloppy language more than anything, but I’d like to both confirm that I love HRV measuring and I’m glad that we’re talking about it, but also that I’m slightly miffed by the language in this chapter about it.

I found regular, hard exercise to be essential in managing what was becoming overwhelming general anxiety. (I am not a professional at nearly anything, definitely nothing brain or medically related, and I’m certainly not your doctor, and I am not intending to shaming or implying that exercise is the only treatment for anxiety.) I’m 100% convinced it has more than physical effects.

In terms of sleep, I used to need quite little sleep. I know a lot of people think that who are just wrong, but it was definitely true for me. Between being in my thirties and also having two kiddos who end up interrupting my sleep more than half the week, I do need more than the 7 hours of in-bed time that I currently get. I am better than many at having a consistent bedtime and wake time, but I need to definitely increase the quality, and reconsider how many hours I need to spend in bed, and make the tough life choices to make that happen. Harrumph.

McGonigal wrote a whole book after this one called The Upside of Stress, and she explicitly writes that she regrets telling people that stress is bad for your health. I find her “yeah, I was wrong” attitude refreshing.

So you may think that I hated this chapter, but if I look at the chapter summary, I don’t see any fault with the summary!