Summary Written by Alyssa Burkus
"Self-control is a vital strength and a key to success in life."

- Willpower, page 13

The Big Idea

Influence Great Outcomes

"Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life."- Willpower, page 136

The authors provide extensive examples of how those who were able to develop skills to master self-control in one aspect of their lives (such as exercise), led to abilities in all other aspects (e.g., they smoked less, drank less, kept their homes cleaner, etc.). Building a strong foundation of strength in self-control gives us the ability to exert willpower in many aspects of our lives. This becomes particularly important if the goals you set require persistence and dedication, as it can be too easy to get off track.

Insight #1

Boost Willpower and Self-control

"To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make the body want to go and do that very thing."- Mark Twain, quoted in Willpower, page 234

Our minds can play physical tricks on us, as felt in the cravings for the very thing we are trying to eliminate from our life. The authors provide extensive evidence connecting our body’s sugar (glucose) levels to our ability to exert self-control. If your glucose levels are low, so is your willpower; plus, you deplete glucose by exerting willpower as well.

“Even just expecting to exert self-control makes the body hungry for sweets.”

So how to overcome what might seem like a losing battle? The authors recommend planning for a period that requires strong self-control, particularly in ensuring you manage the physical impact of willpower exertions.

Some of their tips include:

  • Small, frequent (healthy) meals to “feed the beast” with low glycemic foods (they mention vegetables, nuts, raw fruits (apples, blueberries, pears) cheese, fish, meats, olive oil and other “good fats” to regulate your blood sugar levels.
  • Ensure adequate sleep – “by resting, we reduce the body’s demand for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of glucose in the bloodstream.”
  • Try small physical self-control routines (like using proper posture, or always using “yes” instead of “yup”) which can strengthen your brain for bigger tasks, like dieting or quitting smoking.
  • Tackle only one change at a time. You don’t have enough willpower to handle multiple changes.
  • Defer the reward – tell yourself “not now, maybe later” is sometimes enough to trick your brain into avoiding it altogether.

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Insight #2

Routine and Good Habits

"...their willpower gradually got stronger, so it was less readily depleted. . . (a)s long as you were motivated to do some kind of exercise, your overall willpower could improve."- Willpower, page 137

The example above talks about exercise but it applies to any scenario where you need to exert self-control. Doing so can help build willpower that can apply to all aspects of your life. Good habits of exercise and moderate portion control, for example, can become routine and no longer requires exertion of willpower to maintain the habit.

“If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you’re still depleted because you struggled. Giving in does not replenish the willpower you have already expended.”

The authors cover key willpower drains such as procrastination and dieting, and many of the elements they cover are common stumbling blocks for anyone trying to make their resolutions or commitments stick.

The book focuses primarily on the individual’s perspective in conquering self-control, but it would be interesting to consider it from a marketing or manager’s perspective – what do you need to do to break down someone’s willpower (e.g., for impulse purchases) or motivate them to stick to tough tasks to reach significant goals?

So… find that New Year’s resolution or lifelong goal that you want to achieve, and get started! With Willpower, you have the framework, strategies and tools you need to accomplish any of those major goals on your list. Just make sure you only tackle one goal at a time. Oh, and bring a snack.

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John Tierney

John Tierney writes the “Findings” science column for the New York Times. His writing has won awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Physics. This is his third book.

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