Willpower, self-control, ego drain, mood swings, change, habits, and more …

Your mind is powerful. It can aid you doing what you want. But, it can also hinder much of that. How do you train your mind and mental muscles?

Many people may have tried to change a habit, either good or bad, with varying degrees of success. I write about the topic because saving and/or spending can also be good or bad habits in need of tweaking. But, although are thoughts and actions are normal, we don’t know how to tweak these very well.


Below are some thoughts and excerpts from The Willpower Instinct, How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What you Can Do to Get More of it, by Kelly McGonigal, a professor at Stanford University. McGonigal writes in and easy to read and understand manner.


She believes that the best way to gain self-control is to understand why you lose control. “Knowing how you are likely to give in doesn’t, as many people fear, set yourself up for failure. It allows you to support yourself and avoid the traps that lead to willpower failures. Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. Why? They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in. They expose themselves to more temptation. They’re also most likely to be surprised by setbacks and give up on their goals when they run into difficulty.”

“This bias is not unique to willpower – for example, people who think they are the best at multitasking are actually the most distractible. Known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the phenomenon was first reported by two Cornell University psychologists who found that people overestimate their abilities in all sorts of areas. The effect is most pronounced among people who have the least skill. This explains, among other things, a large percentage of American Idol auditions.”


The Dunning-Kruger Effect is especially problematic when people thing about their money. They think they’re saving enough or not spending too much. Some may have a concern or worry about money and may or may not seek to address that concern simply by talking themselves out of it. How do you overcome your Dunning-Kruger Effect bias? Simple – get a second opinion! This is especially important in the area of money and planning for your various goals. For example, there are many calculators available free online. But, if you don’t understand the inputs and their interaction – garbage in, garbage out – how can you be sure the answer you got is actually even close to the correct one for you? Get a second professional opinion. Note, I said professional, since opinions from someone equally uninformed doesn’t help much other than confirm both of your biases.


Each of the 10 chapters dispels a common misconception about self-control to give you new ways to think about your challenges and mistakes we all make. There are three types of willpower challenges: 1) I will: something you want more of; 2) I won’t: something you want less of; or 3) I want: you have a goal you want to focus on – what “want” may distract or tempt you away from that goal?


She makes the great point that we are all programmed with the same brain structure and the various parts of the prefrontal cortex are what makes us human. We have the capacity to do various things, but also the desire to do others. “Sure, it might be possible to resist temptation, but that doesn’t guarantee that we will. It’s conceivable that we could do today what begs to be done tomorrow, but more often than not, tomorrow wins.” As humans evolved, our brains didn’t. “Evolution prefers to add on to what it’s created, rather than start from scratch. That means that for any instinct that once served us well, evolution kept it around – even if it now gets us into trouble.” It is like there are two brains inside us – one that acts on impulse for immediate gratification, and the other has self-discipline so we can accomplish something longer term. A conflict between Present Self and Future Self.

These are important concepts to understand when it comes to managing your money … a little for today, and a little for tomorrow (actually retirement planning is for your elder years when you aren’t, or can’t, work anymore).

She explains that the fight or flight as a threat response that is a physical change in the body – not a psychological change. The changes occur in our brain and nervous system so make sure you act quickly – an automatic response. The chemical changes in our brains make sure there are no stray thoughts that inhibit our reaction to the perceived danger and inhibits our prefrontal cortex to make us “more” impulsive! “That’s right, the fight or flight response wants to make you more impulsive. The rational, wise, and deliberative prefrontal cortex is effectively put to sleep – the better to make sure you don’t chicken out or overthink your escape.” “The fight or flight stress response is an energy-management instinct. It decides how you are going to spend your limited physical and mental energy.” An automatic response that takes over.

So, I’ll put this into the financial realm … this can be a problem because your first reaction stimulated by fear is to get out. Not the correct response in the modern world where we are not living on the savannah’s of Africa with creatures out to eat us anymore (at least not those investing).

Our bodies experience a second kind of physical threat response to something else that catches our attention suddenly. Cheesecake! Oh no! And here willpower enters the story. Instead of the flight or fight response being triggered in our brains and nervous systems, the “pause and plan” response kicks in. “The pause and plan response differs in one very crucial way: It starts with the perception of an internal conflict, not an external threat.” “The perception of an internal conflict triggers changes in the brain and body that helps you slow down and control impulses.” She explains that the flight or fight response reduces prefrontal cortex activity so energy can go to the deeper brain and body responses, while the pause and plan response does the opposite so energy goes into the prefrontal cortex.


Why would understanding this help you? You can hardly work on something you don’t completely understand. She goes into how to easily train your mind and body to give you more of what you want over yourself – through simple exercise and sleep. Yes, you can get more willpower through sleep! She explains how stress depletes energy in that stress forces you to focus on the short term, while self-control focuses on the longer term.

She also explains that too much self-control is also bad for you. “We need time to recover from the exertion of self-control …” She goes through a couple of things you can do to experiment with yourself and see what works and doesn’t work for you so you get more of what you want and desire about yourself in the longer term.


I will translate this into a financial insight – losing self-control and spending more than you really want to detracts from your other desire to save a little. So how can you get a bit of both you’s (spender vs saver)?


Is there hope you can compromise with yourself? Yes, by understanding just a little bit about how willpower and self-control work. If you try to control too many things all at once, you’re likely to fail at all of them. “This failure says nothing about your virtue – just about the nature of willpower itself.” “Many things you wouldn’t typically think of requiring willpower also rely on – and exhaust – this limited well of strength.” Commuting, meetings, prioritizing, deciding. “This even includes trivial decisions, like choosing between the twenty brands of laundry detergent at the market.” “Luckily there are things you can do to both overcome willpower and exhaustion and increase your self-control strength.”

McGonigal then explains that if you never seem to have the energy to do something you’ve been telling yourself you need to do, schedule it when you have the most willpower. When is that? Typically when you start your day is when willpower is at the peak – you drain willpower during the day. Another tip – “sugar is your new best friend.” Low blood sugar, that is, is your willpower enemy – “It is as if running low on energy biases us to be the worse version of ourselves.” Having a little snack before critical decisions helps.


McGonigal discusses a number of techniques and tips about how to save and develop yourself you when you have a want you also have a will (paraphrased) to do, or resist, that want – depending on if the want is good or bad in your mind.


But, there’s a problem with progress she explains. Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of progress and then “treat” yourself for it? Soon, the treats become the norm, and that’s the problem. We’ve forgotten the why of what we were doing! Another problem is how our mind’s trick us into thinking we have more time to do something tomorrow than we do today. People don’t imagine their “future much like the present, full of competing time constraints, distractions, and daily fatigue. Or did they imagine some alternative reality?”

A fix is to ask yourself “Do I really want the consequences of always putting this off?” As always, McGonigal walks through the issues with little tips on how to improve continuing to do what you told yourself you’d do. She suggests reminding yourself “why.” Through another process I’ve seen in the past …. one thing you may do is Write a Letter to your Future Self to remind you why you’re trying to do something you think is important to you … to remind yourself in the future what you thought in the past!


McGonigal then discusses how stress, guilt and self-criticism leads to loss of willpower – they sap your strength and motivation. Our brains are wired to give in to temptations to feel better. “The promise of reward combined with the promise of relief can lead to all sorts of illogical behavior.” She lists a number of ways to reduce stress that I won’t enumerate here (p. 137). Instead of self-criticism, self-forgiveness surprisingly works better. But abandoning change, and then they feel out of control again and need another “hit of hope.”

The “false hope syndrome” fails as a strategy for everyone. “But that’s because it was never meant to be a strategy for change. It’s a strategy for feeling better, and these are not the same thing.” “The effort of actually making the change cannot compare, from a happiness point of view, to the rush of imagining that you will change. … much more fun, to milk the promise of change for all it’s worth, without the messy business of following through.”

In the personal financial world, I see this all the time when people come in to talk about saving and their goals, and are never seen again to talk about how to do that and what their progress is! In their minds, they’ve made progress by talking about it which makes them feel good.


You can read about how delay discounting works, where instant gratification vs future rewards come from different parts of the brain, and haven’t we all felt that we can spend now because we can always save more tomorrow? We want things now because otherwise we feel we might miss out. Instead, McGonigal talks about imagining your future self, enjoying the future fruits of today’s efforts.

For example, you could imagine enjoying the fruits of delay … retirement by having saved more versus your future self having to work longer because you didn’t save a little bit now. Your rational self and tempted self come from different parts of the brain. One reacts to feelings and the now, while the other is more rational. She discusses many tips and techniques to remind you and train yourself to pause long enough so your rational self interested in your future well being helps you.


She has segments in each section called “Under the microscope” where you think a bit about yourself, “Willpower experiments” where you try different things to see what works, and what doesn’t for you, and short chapter summaries taking you back to the bigger picture on that chapter.


What we feel and do is all normal. But, we don’t know how to do change very well because that’s not second nature. McGonigal’s book is a great aid to gain insight into yourself especially when you keep telling yourself you want to do something, and yet, seem to never get that far.


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