Given that my pleasure reading time has dwindled to almost nothing (a little bit of time before hitting the rack), it took me a while to finish Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s excellent new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Now that I’ve done so, I highly recommend it to those looking to understand the science behind self-control and learn some new ways to boost the mental muscle that allows us to resist temptation.
One of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t read like the kind of typical lame self-help book that some people might take it as (and that would turn off readers like me). Instead, it is a highly accessible survey of the scientific literature on willpower from which lessons emerge rather than hit us over the head. For high performers at work or home, you are probably already using some of the techniques discussed. However, you’ll still enjoy learning about why these things might be working for you. And these lessons will almost certainly be of use for those whose self-control is lacking.
Here are some of the neat little terms used in the book (and scientific literature) that may become part of your vocabulary: “ego depletion,” “decision fatigue,” “monkey mind,” “hyperopia,” “self-forgetfulness,” “hyperbolic discounting,” “counterregulatory eating,” and the “Zeignarnik Effect.” Stay ignorant of them at your own peril!
As for the lessons, here are a few:
1. Set goals and standards and then consciously monitor them. The last part is critical. Also reward yourself for reaching a goal.
2. Focus on one project at a time. Multitasking is debilitating. Set time limits to tasks, especially those that aren’t very important but need to get done.
3. Feed the beast and sleep enough (because sleep helps recharge after “ego depletion” and glucose helps restore willpower).
4. Monitor yourself for the symptoms of waning self-control. Don’t make key decisions when your energy is down.
5. Precommitments and bright lines help. One extreme form is the “Nothing Alternative” in which you set aside time to do one and only one thing — and prevent yourself from doing anything else
6. Because of the Ziegarnik Effect, making specific plans to finish a task you can’t do now will allow your unconscious to relax (thus reducing ego depletion).
7. Put yourself in position to be successful through self-control. So avoid things like procrastination. However, there are some cases in which procrastination is a good thing (for example, with eating temptations). Telling yourself that you’ll have that dessert later makes it more likely you’ll ultimately deny yourself that temptation.
My chief criticism of the book is that the conclusion doesn’t wrap the book up and discuss its implications and lessons so much as it repeats what was already said. This suggests it was written for the business executive who can’t be bothered to read the rest of the book and onlywants the self-help lessons. I’d have preferred something more value-added for those of us who had the willpower to read the whole thing.