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.

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