"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Intro and Ch. 1

Hi folks!

Per the general book club thread, here’s the thread for The Willpower Instinct (for the Intro and Chapter 1)

Let’s try following along like the book suggests, one chapter per week. Including the introduction and such, let’s try to get to the end of Chapter 1 by 2018/08/27. That gives you all an extra weekend to get started.

If you’re following along in Audible or on an ebook or something, that’s ~11% of the total length.

I would love feedback about pace. I think this is going to be a very leisurely pace, as long as you keep up along the way.

There are exercises in each chapter, and I’m going to do them this time though. I invite you to join in as well–it should make our discussion even better.

As you read, think about taking notes of things you find interesting, helpful, or that you don’t agree with. Is there something that you already do that superpowers your goals? Is there something you feel like you wish you knew years ago? There are a lot of references–if you love or hate something, maybe dig into the source and share what you find.

Check in if you’re going to read along, and if you have a Beeminder goal to keep up, I’d love to see that too :slight_smile:


I will be reading along and working on the exercises. I read this book last year and I am looking forward to learning how everyone incorporates the tips into their beeminder use!



I’ve read this book but I think I’ll follow along with y’all anyway, since I use several things from its pages on a regular basis now and am sure to have missed plenty. Good idea to Beemind keeping up. I think I’ll do that too:


Will read this again, this time with some note taking on the end-of-chapter exercises. :slight_smile:

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I’ll be reading along and doing the exercises! :slight_smile:

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I’ll be reading along. I read this book a few years ago, but didn’t do the exercises last time. This time around, I am going to apply the material to a specific willpower challenge:

I have a bit of a sensitive stomach. It doesn’t take much in the way of sugary treats or junk food to cause me discomfort. I’d like to stop impulsively eating junk, while still allowing myself to have a dessert in an appropriate context (taking my son out for ice cream on a special occasion.)

This passage from chapter one caught my eye:

[…] one study asked people how many food-related decisions they made in one day. What would you say? On average, people guessed fourteen. In reality, when these same folks carefully tracked their decisions, the average was 227.



Hmm. If I decide to get a pizza, choose which of 10 toppings to put on, and choose what size pizza out of three different sizes, is that 1 decision, 2, 3, 12, 3072, or 3073?


I’m going to read along as part of my 1 book a week goal for 2018 on Goodreads, which is tracked on Beeminder automatically. I did notice that I can’t get this book on Kindle in the UK, which is a little odd, but I found it elsewhere online so I’m using that format.

Initial impression is that the idea is good - that by understanding more about the underlying mechanisms and how we tend to fail, we will enable ourselves to be more successful. Mindfulness is part of this, as well as remembering we aren’t as heroic as we might feel - that actually we succeed best by planned avoidance of pitfalls, rather than marvellous escapes when we are beset.

As a meditator already, I’m perhaps ahead of the curve on one of the activities for the week, but I will double down on the “noticing” aspect of it. Experienced meditators do say that meditation is like bicep curls for the brain - the workout is precisely the exercise of noticing you’ve drifted, and returning to the task. Rather like the objective of bicep curls isn’t to hold your weight at your shoulder the whole time, but to let it back down, and exercise by pulling it back up!


I’m also reading along, and finally adding meditation to the things I beemind.

Are you planning a real-time meeting to discuss the chapters over VC? Or something like that?

I was thinking we would just discuss asynchronously here, but if enough people are interested in a real time thing, I’m not opposed to that either!

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I started writing a longer post about this week’s reading, but unfortunately I ran out of time after a jam-packed weekend. I’ll get that up soon, but until then, what are folks thinking of the pace? I think it’s nice and comfortable!

I think pace will be great (once my book finally arrives today)! Lost Amazon order?! I didn’t think such a thing could happen:roll_eyes:. I’m looking forward to reading/discussing with you guys!

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The pace has been working great for me. One week cycles are plenty of time to read the chapter and then try out the exercises.

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.

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I love that you bring up HRV!

Both my wife and I recently got a wearable with an HRV component. It basically doesn’t work for my wife, almost showing a midrange number, pretty unrelated to what she notices or feels.

Mine, on the other hand? I can sit and watch my number and make it go up or down, and it’s pretty spot on in terms of “man, I’m freaking out now!” is a 90+, and “Wow, I’m super relaxed” is 10 or lower.

Not sure why it doesn’t work for my wife–it might be something on the collecting data side, like fit or something optically with her skin, or maybe her autonomic system variance isn’t the same as the algorithm-tweakers assumed, or perhaps she’s a sophisticated robot :robot:


I have yet to go beyond the first page (reading other stuff though), this is me publicly shaming myself :slight_smile:


I am actually the same way, I need to get caught up this week.

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Bonkers psuedoscience is a good description.

As I understand the bogus HRV “theory,” the idea is that if you subtract the number of heartbeats for the in-breath from the number of heartbeats from the out-breath, or maybe it’s the heart rate, you get some supposedly meaningful number.

HRV proponents also suggest an exercise where you breathe in for 8 heartbeats, then out for 8 heartbeats, and that’s supposed to “correct” your HRV.

Anyway, thank you for warning me not to waste my time with “The Willpower Instinct” - I try to avoid pseudoscience and it’s not a good sign if the book uses it.

I’m hoping the next book doesn’t discuss MBTI types or something…

The part of the HeartMath company that I’d call “bonkers” is their insistence that people sync each other’s moods via magnetic fields generated by the heart. That’s just crazy!

I don’t know what you’re describing here, but it isn’t any measure of HRV I’ve ever seen:

The measures of HRV I’ve encountered are all some variation of:

  1. sampling the waveform of the heart beat for some interval
  2. measuring the intervals from one heart beat to the next
  3. calculating some measure of statistical dispersion in those intervals (e.g. the standard deviation)

There is also a well-established phenomena where the heart rate varies with respiration, called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). My wife is a researcher in development psychology and she uses physiological measures (including RSA) in her work. Measuring RSA is a bit more sophisticated than the other HRV measures I described above, because it requires both the waveform from the heart beats and a measure of respiration, but it is well-established in the literature that HRV correlates with the fight-or-flight response.

Whether or not the breathing exercises can increase your baseline HRV, who knows. I’m agnostic about that. But If I take deep, paced breaths for five minutes, I feel substantially calmer. I don’t think it’s that far out there to think that one could practice calming yourself down and improve.

Finally, whatever pseudoscience is coming out of HeartMath is irrelevant to the credibility of The Willpower Instinct. Kelly McGonigal isn’t endorsing them or reference their work (other than casually mentioning one of their biofeedback devices in a footnote). Yes, she talks about HRV, but that isn’t pseudoscience. Everything she has said (so far! I’ve read through chapter two) is mainstream in the psychology literature.