Insights into Willpower and Spending

Willpower and spending

One of my Cheapist thrills is my public library.  I rarely set foot inside, but I download e-books and audio books regularly.  I have been listening to The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.  She illuminates why our best intentions so often fall prey to our illogical impulses, including when it comes to willpower and spending.  The writing is accessible and applicable and the case studies are fascinating.

I was hoping for an advantage in controlling my diet, but McGonigal addresses a wide range of willpower challenges including spending habitsThe biggest take-away for me is that willpower, as a character trait, doesn’t exist.  There are behaviors and situations that help and behaviors and situations that sabotage.  When someone’s habits and life conditions enable them to make good choices, our perception is that they have “willpower.”

The people with “strong willpower” are just people whose behaviors and situation enable the logical, long-term thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) to control decisions.  People who demonstrate behaviors that run contrary to their rational, long-term goals (based on the primitive mind and the brain’s response to temporary stimuli), have “poor willpower.” She encourages the reader to “become a willpower scientist” and to make themselves the subject of everyday willpower experiments.

Main ideas about willpower from Dr. McGonigal

Understand that different parts of the mind give different messages.  Imagine the motif of the angel and the demon sitting on your shoulders. You can change your behaviors and situation to give your willpower mind the advantage.  Following some key behaviors will enable you to have what we perceive as willpower.

brain illustration

Realize that almost everyone is totally oblivious about how they make decisions.  We think that we are free to make our rational choices, but researchers (and advertisers) have demonstrated repeatedly that this is not the case.  If a scientist can predict your decision with incredible accuracy by manipulating stimuli and conditions, how much choice did you really have? We interpret our decisions as a choice when it is often our hormones or primitive impulses calling the shots.

Think of willpower as a battery that can be charged or drained.  If your will-power mind becomes over-taxed or stressed, the impulsive mind takes control.  We celebrate people who seem to have an iron will, but, for most of us, this drive for “mind over matter” often backfires.

willpower battery

Dopamine is a fiend. It is an anticipation hormone, not a happiness hormone.  Pay attention to how willpower challenges induce anticipation.  Remove or avoid unwanted dopamine manipulations when possible.  We mistake the excitement of wanting for happiness.  For example, we are driven to eat some cake, but while we should be enjoying the cake, our mind is already preoccupied with getting another piece.  The cake does not deliver the happiness that the dopamine promises.  Pay close attention to what you are actually feeling.  Are you really getting satisfaction or just the constant promise of satisfaction?

Even though conventional wisdom tells you to “put it out of your mind,” don’t try to block thoughts, it doesn’t work. “Surf the urge” by stopping to think about what you are feeling, what you want, why, and what it will feel like if you act on the impulse.  Usually this kind of introspection will help you make the logical choice.

Beating yourself up for a setback causes increased setbacks.  Don’t say, “Well, I’m going to punish myself at the gym for this setback.” Nor should you say “Well, I’m a loser, I might as well eat the whole thing.”  You are a human being and you have challenges and setbacks like every other human being.  One setback (or even many) does not change your worth or what you want for yourself.

man who lost willpower

Use meditation (the willpower of denying distractions) to strengthen your prefrontal cortex.  I don’t believe in any kind of higher plane or transcendence, but meditation (especially if you think that you are terrible at it) actually changes your brains behavior.  Meditation can put your mind in the right frame of mind to make logical, long-term decisions.

meditating increases willpower

Use breathing (very slow and mindful) to manipulate brain activity.  The closest physiological signal that your mind is primed to demonstrate “willpower” is the what Sciency-ologists call heart-rate variability.  Very slow breathing actually puts your mind in the willpower zone.  I don’t really understand it, I’m not a seismologist, but McGonigal explains it well.

Stress, poor health, and tiredness drop heart-rate variability (the best physiological metric of willpower).  Exercise, sleep, and take care of yourself.  Deciding that your iron will can overcome poor conditions is a losing strategy. If you just drive yourself without taking care of yourself, you are sabotaging your mind.

Avoid unnecessary stress. You might think that you are avoiding stress (Isn’t everyone?), but do you like scary movies or CSI shows? How about those sensationalized investigative shows or even the news?  You may be enjoying the show, but it is putting your mind in a state to act on impulse.

scary news image

Find ways to increase your “I want” power.  Create reminders of your real goals.  What will it be like when you have started to follow the behaviors that you want to follow?  Can you envision the positive changes? How can you create a visual or consistent reminder of your thoughtful mind’s desires? This does not apply if your long-term goals include eating cake daily, declaring bankruptcy, and ruining your relationships.

Pre-committing works.  Telling others about your goal helps.  Establishing a irrevocable commitment helps.  For example, if you are going to run your first 5K, pay for it in advance, find someone to run with you, and tell others that you are going to do it.  You may feel like you are risking embarrassment, but you are much more likely to go through with your plans.


Social pressure works.  Despite what we may say or believe, we are profoundly influenced by the behaviors of people around us. Behaviors are contagious; realize that the people you spend time with influence your behavior. On the plus side, this works for good behaviors as well.

Don’t lie to yourself about what you deserve.  As Clint Eastwood said before shooting the town’s sheriff, “Deserve has nothing to do with it.” People say, “I haven’t gone to the mall all week, I deserve a new pair of spats.” (Yes, I hear people say that all the time.) Sabotaging your long-term goals because you have been working toward them makes no sense.  (But I have been so good this week!)

Related post: The Tao of Cheap: What Taoism Teaches about Money

Don’t lie about your future self.  Your primitive brain is programmed to reward your current self at the expense of your future self.  This made more sense when humans were scavenging in the savanna and living day to day.  Your future self will not be happy to pay for today’s bad choices.  You might think, “I’ll eat out less when work isn’t so crazy; my future self will be happy to cook and do the dishes.” Your future self will not be happy cook and do the dishes, and work will always be crazy. Your future self will not be happy with the credit card bill from your past self. Your future self will not have more patience, time, money, etc.  Do your future self a favor and stopping using them as an excuse.

sink of dirty dishes

Willpower and spending habits

McGonigal relates many of her willpower examples to spending.  She addresses spendthrifts in some examples, but she also analyzes what is going on in the psychology of a bargain hunter.


I love stores like Harbor Freight, Ollie’s, Dollar Tree, Ocean State Job Lots, etc., because I feel that I am beating the system and thumbing my nose (literally) at all of the suckers spending more.  I must remind myself that when I am bargain hunting, I am psychologically identical to someone in a designer boutique.  My dopamine is firing.  I am being manipulated by “halo” words like “mark-down” and “close-outs.” A bin of factory seconds has the same effect on me as a glamorous Gucci installation on someone else. Am I thinking about the money I am “saving” and not about how much space I have left in the garage?  Is keeping the money (and my long term goals) worth more to me than the items in question?  Am I tired or stressed? Are the other crazed bargain hunters influencing my behavior? Will I be as excited about the deal when I get home?

Conclusions on increasing your willpower

Be mindful of your mind.  What is going on beneath your present decisions? Is your rational, long-term mind really making the choices? Is the deal, item, bad habit, or treat really that great or is has your impulse mind taken the wheel?

I have done a poor job relating how fascinating this book is, but if you want to be more mindful of your choices and behaviors, The Willpower Instinct offers amazing insight and is easy to read (even if you are not a Scientologist).

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