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“The development of willpower — I will, I won’t and I want — may define what it means to be a human.”
~ Kelly McGonigal.

Credit to this section goes to Kelly McGonigal and Cal Newport for their astounding work in the area of study of willpower and self-control.

Based on their research both authors independently came up with a definition of a willpower that will be a huge help to us, guiding us through the intricacies of forging self-discipline.

Willpower is a “muscle”.

#1. Willpower can be trained.

Here is an excerpt from the “Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal: “Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter — brain cells — and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise — like meditation — makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.

The conclusions of Dr. McGonigal are complementary to the research of Dr. Suzuki that we have discussed in the Health chapter. Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that are responsible for thinking and memory (prefrontal cortex and temporal medial cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise regularly. Growth factors that are being released during the workout have a direct impact on the health of existing brain cells, stimulate the formation of new blood vessels in the brain, and promote the generation of new brain cells. Exercise literally rewires the brain.

These findings have immediate practical value. The fact that physical exercise develops the brain, specifically the part responsible for self-control, flips the motivation for working out — aesthetics of the body is not the primary purpose of the exercise.

The primary purpose of the exercise is to train your willpower.

Nothing trains willpower better than a consistent exposure to physical pain. Fitness junkies often quote the saying “no pain — no gain”. In the light of our discussion, this saying can be reformulated to: “no pain — no brain”. Physical suffering is worth enduring. A strong prefrontal cortex enables you to predominate over the impulses of the reptilian brain that is concerned only with instant gratification. This ability distinguishes all highly successful people who came to an understanding of the secret behind their success — it’s the will, not the skill.

#2. Willpower depletes.

Our second willpower mindset is best summarized by the following excerpt from the “Deep Work” by Cal Newport: “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

All intelligently written training programs include well-thought-out planning of the recovery phase. It is during the resting period that muscle growth takes place in the process of so-called supercompensation. A good rest is a requirement for restoring the capacities of the body.

Willpower follows the same logic. The symptoms of willpower exhaustion are similar to those of muscular fatigue. Unlikely as it may sound, laziness is a key element in developing strong willpower. Taking quality rest allows you to maintain your willpower in a working condition. Your willpower will be always at its strongest if you zealously defend the block of time when you completely shut down from work to replenish your willpower reserves. Downtime is imperative.


Seeing and treating your willpower as a muscle is not everything you need to know about the mastery of self-control but it is enough to cause a dramatic positive shift in your productivity.

Search for the primary sources. The knowledge condensed in the works of Kelly McGonigal and Cal Newport is pure gold. There are few books out there that are worth reading and “Willpower Instinct” and “Deep Work” are definitely of that kind. The latter is explored in more detail in the following section.

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