book review, psychology, self-control, self-management

Book review: Willpower

Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength

Author: Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney

Date published: 2012

Topic: Personal success / self-improvement

Willpower is a book about just that: the self-control – aka willpower – needed to resist temptation, make good choices, perform better at work and better regulate your emotions. In it, Baumeister and Tierney argue that far from the modern belief that self-esteem is the answer, more self-control or self-discipline enables you to achieve more and be happier. They show evidence that the two factors which most predict success are self-control and IQ, and argue that unlike intelligence, it might be possible to improve one’s stock of self-control – or at least how far it goes – through simple exercises and judicious choice of use.

The thesis is an alluring one. At last, something that affects every aspect of our lives – from interactions with our families, to the decisions we make at work, the money we spend and the food we eat – that can be easily improved by anyone. In reality, the book suggests that your overall stock of willpower may not improve with exercise, but what does happen is that it’s used more sparingly for everyday tasks, leaving you more in the tank for important choices and relationships.

Baumeister and Tierney describe willpower as a muscle, which, like our physical muscles, requires glucose to operate effectively, is depleted throughout the day as it’s used, and is recharged by rest and a good night’s sleep. They suggest that willpower is expended on all sorts of tasks throughout the day, including resisting temptations, making decisions and controlling one’s thoughts, emotions and actions. Because the same stock of willpower is used for all these things, you can immediately see that conserving willpower for the most important things is key. Sure enough, those who exhibit the strongest willpower in fact expend less on day-to-day temptations and decisions. Instead, they’ve used their willpower to set up positive habits and routines which take away the need to make small decisions (‘Shall I have a shower today? When shall I brush my teeth?) or resist temptations (like the chocolate in the fridge).

From a self-improvement point of view, the book offers two main pieces of advice. One is about making the most of the willpower you’ve got, the other is about increasing your self-control stamina (i.e. decreasing your depletion of willpower for a given task) by exercising the willpower muscle.

To make the most of the willpower you’ve got, in order to make good choices, the authors bring together some classic advice that’s probably quite familiar to you:

  1. Sleep and eat well to avoid unnecessary depletion;
  2. Have long-term goals and aspirations, but then make short-term, specific actions for your to-do list;
  3. Precommit to a particular course of action (to avoid having to make the decision every single time you come across that scenario), and use implementation intention (if x happens I will do y) to think through stressful situations in advance with a cool head;
  4. Monitor your progress. For extra effect, delegate the monitoring to someone else: a friend, family members or a higher power;
  5. Invest your limited stock of willpower in creating good habits and making small changes that will make your life better overall.

To increase your self-control stamina – i.e. avoid depletion of willpower – exercise it regularly. Suggested exercises include improving your posture (straightening up every time you think about it), using the other hand for activities you’d normally do with your dominant hand, or trying to improve your speech vocabulary. In essence, anything that gets you to regularly override a habit and reform it into something else acts to exercise your willpower. Ideally, of course, this should be something you’re looking to improve on anyway, so you can develop good new habits and exercise your willpower at the same time

Overall, this book is an interesting read with a credible theses backed up by numerous examples, and if you can follow the advice you may well become more effective at home and at work. It does ramble a little – the chapters are not as structured as I would have liked, and there is some repetition – and the main benefits can probably be gained by following the 5 bullet points above without reading the entire book. However it was an enjoyable read and if you like to impress your friends with anecdotes to back up your claims – or you need more convincing of the hypothesis – it’s definitely worth a look. For me, it was preaching to the converted, as many aspects of the advice resonate as an approach that I’ve unconsciously followed for most of my life.