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WILLPOWER: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Book Review:  Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

I tend to be an impulsive person so I was automatically captivated by the title of this book:  Willpower.   Written by the pioneering research psychologist, Roy F. Baumeister, in collaboration with New York Times science writer, John Tierney, Willpower has proven its weight in gold.

One of the most powerful messages of Willpower – is that lack of self-control is an all-pervasive problem.  A challenge that is only escalating in these modern times when there are more temptations than ever.  In fact, one-fourth of our waking hours are spent resisting urges.

So if you find yourself low on willpower there’s no need to hide in embarrassment.  Almost everyone else is just like you.

That doesn’t mean developing willpower is a hopeless endeavor.  The authors provide reams of scientific evidence to the contrary.  And they outline the essential knowledge and tips you need to succeed.

There’s a very good reason to focus on willpower:  happiness. 

As it turns out, there are two personal qualities that predict positive outcomes in life:  intelligence and willpower.  While intelligence is inborn, willpower is malleable.  So if happiness is on your radar, the authors advise,

“Ultimately, self control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.  We’re confident that this book’s lessons can make your life not just more productive and fulfilling but also easier and happier.”

Since most major societal problems steam from lack of willpower, increasing self-control is also an elegant way to bring more happiness and sanity to the world.

Just in case you equate science with dry writing, be assured the studies presented in Willpower are interspersed with lively and illuminating examples from the likes of performer Amanda Palmer, who once worked as a living statue, comedian Drew Carey, whose desk was a mess, and endurance artist David Palmer who binges between his awe inspiring challenges, among other willpower stars.

The authors also dig into history to present the fascinating self-control experiments of Benjamin Franklin and the explorer Henry Morton Stanley of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame.

Willpower:  Key Points

Although I tend to be an impulsive person in some areas, my willpower excels in others like performance control.  So it was interesting to discover that there are actually 4 types of willpower:

  • Control of thoughts
  • Control of emotions
  • Impulse control (the ability to resist temptation; you can’t control the impulse only your reaction)
  • Performance control (accomplishing a task)

Here are some of the other key points I found in Willpower:

  • Willpower is finite.  There is not an endless supply; it must be replenished.
  • You use the same reservoir of willpower for different things.
  • Willpower is like a muscle. It can become fatigued by overuse, but it can also be strengthened on the long term through exercise.
  • Strengthening willpower in one area has a spillover effect on other areas of your life.
  • When you exercise willpower it becomes stronger so it is less easily depleted.
  • The first step in self-control is to set a goal.
  • Orderly habits like neatness can improve overall self-control.
  • Glucose is the fuel behind will power.
  • Mental work uses glucose, the crucial compound of willpower.
  • Decision making depletes your willpower.
  • When your willpower is depleted, you are less able to make decisions, experiencing what is called “decision fatigue”.
  • Decision fatigue leaves us more vulnerable to marketers.
  • People with strong self-control spend less time resisting desires than others.
  • Developing good habits and routines enhances self-control.
  • People with good self control use their willpower not to get through emergencies but to avoid them.
  • Inner willpower leads to outer kindness.

10 Essential Tips for Cultivating Willpower

The authors neatly sum up 10 essential tips – the secrets of self-control – that will help you cultivate willpower in the last chapter.  The elaborate on them in far more detail so this list is not a replacement for reading the chapter or the book.

  • Know your limits
  • Watch for symptoms of depletion of your willpower
  • Pick your battles
  • Make a to-do list
  • Beware of underestimating the time needed for a task
  • Don’t forget the basics like a good diet and sleep
  • Use positive procrastination
  • Focus on one thing and one thing only, nothing else
  • Keep track, monitoring your progress
  • Reward yourself often

An Overview of Willpower

Take a look at the chapter titles of Willpower to get more of a feel for its contents.  Here they are:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1:  Is Willpower more than a metaphor?
  • Chapter 2:  Where Does Will Power Come From?
  • Chapter 3:  A Brief History of the To-Do List
  • Chapter 4:  Decision Fatigue
  • Chapter 5:  Where Have All the Dollars Gone?  The Quantified Self Knows
  • Chapter 6:  Can Willpower Be Strengthened? (Preferably Without Feeling David Blaine’s Pain)
  • Chapter 7:  Outsmarting Yourself in the Heart of Darkness
  • Chapter 8:  Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr Stop Drinking?
  • Chapter 9:  Raising Strong Children:  Self-Esteem Versus Self-Control
  • Chapter 10.  The Perfect Storm of Dieting
  • Conclusion:  The Future of Willpower – More Gain, Less Strain (As Long As You Don’t Procrastinate)

This book contains the magic secret to willpower.  But it’s not a magic wand.  Cultivating willpower is eminently possible, but it does take focus and determination.

So doesn’t it make sense to use all the latest advice from the heart of science to grow your willpower and find more happiness too?

Are you a willpower wimp like me?  Or have you already discovered the secrets of willpower yourself.  Confess and share in the comments.  Remember, you are not alone!

Thank you to TLC book tours for the opportunity to review this book.

If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thank you! You can also connect with me on Google+ or the Always Well Within Facebook Page.  With love, Sandra


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  1. I feel I have found both the limits of willpower, and the freedom of submission. The ultimate end of will is either killing or healing. Submission to a higher power within provides a rudder with which to navigate the passages of morality. Good work, Sandra!

    • Mike,

      Willpower does have its limit. I’m glad you mention that here. In Chinese medicine, we can imbalance the kidneys if we overuse the will power. Excellent, point.

  2. Great review, Sandra–I’ve just put in a request for it from the library. I’m a willpower burnout, and would love to rebuild it for the way I live now, and for what I need now. The glucose/willpower connection is especially intriguing.

    • That’s interesting, Meg, as I would have assume you are a paragon of will power. But it just goes to show you, we think everyone else has but the truth is most people haven’t mastered it. The research on glucose and willpower is interesting and useful to know.

  3. Great review and explanation of willpower. Sounds like one I need to read!

    I know from personal experience that you can increase and strengthen willpower. I have. It is interesting to see the four different kinds. I think, they tend to all overlap. I want to learn more. The benefits do spill over into all areas of life!

    • Yes, I think this is the type of book that you would happily devour! It helps to hear your positive experience increasing and strengthening will power. There is a way!

  4. Great review. And it sounds like an interesting book! Unfortunately I’m not a fan of the word “control”. It makes me uncomfortable. I rebel against consistency and regularity, perhaps that is a weakness of mine. I guess instead of willpower itself, I prefer to ask Why? Why do you need control? If your lack of self-control is causing problems, that would be a good reason to implement more willpower. If it’s not causing problems, I don’t see the need for more willpower. I’m not one for artificial order 😛 If something needs to be done, then it needs to be done.

    Willpower could be strengthened through greater self-esteem, greater self-love. I feel like that should be the focus, embracing one’s authenticity, which will naturally lead to the necessary willpower of making your life more grounded + authentic.

    I also have some issue with the idea that “intelligence is inborn.” I think it can be cultivated, if people are taught to think in the right ways. I think some people have a better time with it than others, but that doesn’t mean some people can’t have intelligence.

    But I appreciate the concept. I understand that people feel a need for more control over their lives, in order to realize their desires more fully. Your posts are always thought-provoking! Thank you!

    • Lynn,

      You’ve raised some interesting points! Especially the idea that willpower can be increased naturally by great self-esteem and self-love. I understand why the word “self-control” pushes a button for you. I see it more as the reality that we are constantly presented with choices in life and self-control is a skill that helps us chose and follow through on positive, life-enhancing choices. The negative side of self control is try to deny or push away our true self. So yes, there it does become problematic.

      I”m not sure if the authors actually used the word “inborn” with regard to intelligence, but the sense that I get is that we are all have certain IQ, whereas with self-control it can be strengthened and expanded. Maybe this can also happen with intelligence in some ways.

      “Why” is always a great question!

    • Thanks for this review. I’ve put WILLPOWER: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength on my winter reading list. I’m posting here because what Lynn Fang has said resonates with me and reflects my own experience.

      “Willpower could be strengthened through greater self-esteem, greater self-love. I feel like that should be the focus, embracing one’s authenticity, which will naturally lead to the necessary willpower of making your life more grounded + authentic.”

  5. Thank you for such a nice review of a book that I now want to read. I was surprised to read that we spend 1/4 of our time resisting urges. Wow.

  6. Hey Sandra – I wonder how a spiritual practice can help with willpower? I think it can add significantly to the 4 types of practices you mention above.

    • Interesting question, Vishnu. It seems like the two have a dynamic relationship. When you increase your willpower, you can increase your ability to establish a regular meditation practice, for example. On the other hand, when you have a daily meditation practice that has become automatic, it no longer requires willpower (or not an excessive amount) and good habits likes this strengthen our willpower across the board. So definitely an interconnection there.

  7. I tend to be a willpower wimp as well, so it sounds like this would be a great book for me!

    I’m glad you found it to be helpful. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

    • It’s a fabulous book, Heather. I like the way the authors summed up the key points in the concluding chapter. Thanks for connecting.

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