Book Review: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney is a fascinating book about one of the most important traits in a successful person: self-discipline. The authors present a blend of research and practical how-to tips.

Their most famous claim (based on Baumeister’s noted research) has to do with the relationship between your glucose level and your willpower; if you buy the claim that they’re connected, you should have a strategy around glucose intake when you’re planning to make tough decisions or avoid procrastination or otherwise exert willpower.

Here are some detailed notes from LessWrong. Here are Derek Sivers’ notes. Both are thorough summaries. I’ve included some additional highlights below.


The old advice that things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion. A rested will is a stronger will.

“We simply ask our managers and other workers to set their top goals for the week,” Patzer says. “You can’t have more than three goals, and it’s fine if you have less than three. Each week we go over what we did last week and whether we met those goals or not, and then each person sets the top three goals for this week. If you only get goals one and two done, but not three, that’s fine, but you can’t go off working on other goals until you’ve done the top three. That’s it—that’s how we manage. It’s simple, but it forces you to prioritize, and it’s rigorous.”

Netherlands analyzed dozens of studies of people with high self-control, they found that these self-disciplined people did slightly better than average at controlling their weight, but the difference wasn’t as marked as in other areas of their lives.

The less-inspiring explanation is “warehousing,” to borrow a term used by some skeptical sociologists to explain what high school does. They see school as a kind of warehouse that stores kids during the day, keeping them out of trouble, so that its benefits come less from what happens in the classroom than from what doesn’t happen elsewhere.

George Loewenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation.

5 Responses to Book Review: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

  1. Eric says:

    Ben – your blog is awesome – long-time reader but have never commented before. I got a lot out of this book, and thought one great thing to implement was Raymond Chandler’s ‘Nothing Alternative':

    “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.” This Nothing Alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task.

    I have thought of this technique a few times and found it to be helpful. Especially if I am at my computer, it is awkward to sit in front of it and ‘do nothing’, so then it becomes easier to work on that one key thing I have been putting off.

  2. Charlie says:

    I think I missed what “warehousing” has to do with willpower, although Eric’s comment may be the answer I am looking for…

  3. Dan Black says:

    This sounds like a good book. Self-discipline is essential to success and moving forward. Thanks for reviewing the book. I look forward to reading your blog and connecting with you.

  4. Sounds like exuberant badness achieving popularity.

    Admittedly, I have a distaste for pop-sci books, especially those written by the high priests of social psychology, so I won’t be reading this book.

    I gather the “popular” part comes in the pages about Drew Carey’s disorganized personal life and his personal organizer guru, and the extensive case histories of the struggles of Eric Clapton with alcoholism and of Oprah Winfrey with weight loss.

    Regarding Dorikka’s note: “The general model of willpower (as a finite resource consumed with use) used in this book does not seem to represent a scientific consensus…”.

    Yes, it seems strange to discuss the vague construct “willpower’ as if it were an actual thing that can be measured, like glucose levels themselves. It is even vaguer than “mind”, and treating it that way is fraught with the same hazards.

    I agree with the commenter that theorizing about willpower as energy (whether renewable or not) is an analogy taken too far. As he says, for physical work we have muscles that burn calories– and mental work does “tire”us, but we should not conclude that we have some analogical mental muscles that burn mana points.

    One can use up a good bit of his waking life reading this stuff and not gain any mana points at all for it.;-)

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