Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney


One of the latest books I’ve read is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s the collaborative effort of Roy Baumeister, a renowned psychology, and John Tierney, a New York Times journalist. As you may have guessed, the primary focus of this book is in explaining the psychological concept of Willpower, and suggesting how your Willpower can be improved. There were many, many takeaways from this book and I cannot possibly share them all. So, I will highlight a few of my favorite concepts and ideas.

For one, you must understand that Willpower is a finite source of energy, prone to depletion. That’s right, we all don’t have infinite tanks of willpower deployable at any moment if we just focus hard enough. It’s more like the gas in our fuel tanks that gets used up when we make decisions, focus on hard tasks, or fail to self-regulate other parts of our life. And we use the same reserve of willpower for all manner of tasks; a different reserve isn’t used up when we engage in strenuous activities as opposed to simple tasks.

The stores in our tanks used to fuel willpower is glucose. Low levels of glucose, Baumeister found, correlated with low levels of willpower. The takeaway: if you find yourself unable to focus, eat something that can provide a sustainable source of glucose. Yes, I know simple carbohydrates like candy with lots of sugar is most likely to give you that glucose spike you desire, but stay away from those short-term glucose boosts and choose a slow digesting carbohydrate like grains or nuts. If you do need that quick hit, like I did when I was in several of my exams over the last couple of weeks, chose a fruit like a banana.

Another important attribute you must consider when improving your willpower is self-regulation, which is really another way of saying self-control. Throughout the book, the authors suggest various ways you can increase your self-control: the necessary element for enhanced willpower. The first step in self-control is setting a clear goal. So, whenever you sit down to complete a task, reflect on the goal completing the task would accomplish. This goal shouldn’t be some nebulous idea, like, get done with this chapter so I can read the next one, or, write this memo so I can be done with work for the day. Instead, think about this goal’s effect on your future.[1]

Baumeister also cautions against the danger of leaving goals unfinished. Unfinished goals can give rise to a cool concept called the Zeigarnik Effect: The tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued but left incomplete. Ever wonder why a song gets stuck in your head? This idea suggests its because you didn’t finish the entire song and your unconscious mind is nagging your conscious mind to complete the task. Setting and completing goals will help you overcome the Zeigarnik Effect and aid you on your path to self-regulation and stronger willpower.

There is really so much in this book, and for the most part, the results of Baumeister’s studies really “click” with the reader and won’t shock you. I was often unsurprised by the results of the various studies Baumeister conducted. Nonetheless, the results still had a profound effect because if you’re anything like me, I have trouble accepting any scientific proposition—much less implementing it in my day-to-day life—without empirical research. Suffice it to say, I have incorporated many of Baumeister’s Willpower-improving suggestions when writing, studying, and doing anything else that requires self-control.

Understandably, then, the most useful aspect of this book was the recommended techniques for improving your willpower. Thus, I’ll conclude by briefly explaining three of these strategies.

  1. The Precommitment Strategy: Making it impossible to stray from your path by leveraging a negative emotion, such as humiliation, that would result from abandoning your goal. For instance, you could install a software like Covenant Eyes that will track your web browsing and then e-mail the visited sites to designated parties—i.e., boss or spouse. Precommitting to Covenant Eyes will institute a sense of accountability and nudge you away from visiting those tantalizing websites. This practice will eventually increase your self-control in the process.
  2. The Orderly Habits Strategy: Engaging in simple activities like flossing, shaving, making your bed, and turning these into habits. Once you have used your willpower to make the simple habit customary, it becomes a relatively automatic mental process expending little or no further willpower. In other words, this practice leaves you with the willpower necessary to engage in more demanding tasks. To summarize, turn your little activities into automatic mental processes so that you don’t deplete your willpower reserves early on in your day or on menial tasks.
  3. Focusing on lofty-thought strategy: Willpower has been found to increase with people who think in high-level terms—i.e., asking “why you are doing something” instead of “how you are doing something” and thinking more universally about a concept instead of more specifically. These manipulations of mental state have been scientifically proven to encourage people to pass up a quick reward for something better in the future—self-control. The reason: the right questions force you to think about the future and abstractions, which is a higher level of thinking, and this higher level of thinking enhances willpower.

So, try implementing these strategies and see if they help improve your self-control. And check out a copy of Baumeister and Tierney’s book here:

Also, I’ve attached a pdf outline I made for this book, which you can find here: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength Outline



[1] Baumeister found that people with high incomes tend to look into the future more than people with low incomes.