Book Review: Willpower
Roy F. Baumeister self-control self-discipline warrior spirit willpower
The authors clearly have an agenda—to show people how to make use of the research to develop their own willpower to improve their lives—but the book doesn’t come off as self-help so much as a collection of interesting anecdotes.
The only weakness to this book is that it sort of beats you over the head with the basic findings. The general theme doesn’t change, but the authors have decided to make a separate chapter out of every conceivable application of willpower, probably to appeal to a wider audience. There’s one on diet, one on productivity, one on childrearing, and a few others.
A Short History of Willpower
Willpower, character-building, and self-control are all generally out of fashion in these times of quick fixes, sweet food, and cheap entertainment. In a lot of ways, our consumption-based economy only works because we have less self-control than we used to.
People during the Victorian-era placed a very high premium on self-control, and because much of our current morality is a reaction to that time of “uptight and repressed religiosity,” we tend to see self-control as an outmoded virtue: admirable, but quaint and unnecessary.
However, the thesis of Willpower, based on the research reviewed, is that self-control is more important than ever, and is a fundamental attribute of happy and successful people. In fact, self-control is more strongly correlated with success than intelligence. That’s right: if you have strong willpower, can exercise self-discipline, and have patience, you will probably be more successful in life than someone who is more intelligent. The study that proved this involved locking little kids in a room with a marshmallow and instructions not to eat it if they wanted to get more later. Guess which kids were found to be happier and more successful when they grew up?
The really great thing is that willpower can be developed, and self-control trained, while intelligence cannot be significantly improved.
One of the most interesting ideas in the book, and one I haven’t given enough consideration in my own life, is how willpower is a limited resource. In fact, it’s way more finite than we think. I know I am much more liable to stay up until 2:00 playing video games after a stressful argument, even when I know I should go to bed. Being hungry or frustrated, can deplete our willpower and our ability to make good judgements, often much more than we think. So can resisting temptation and making tough decisions. Because self-control is so important to happiness, it helps to be aware of this depletion and account for it. Don’t make long-term decisions after resisting a delicious apple pie. Seriously.
I know what you’re thinking. How can self-deprivation lead to happy people? Isn’t the whole point of self-control to keep yourself from doing the things you want to do that make you happy?
Disciplining Our Children
My favorite example from the book about how self-control benefits people is one we’re all familiar with: unruly children. Many American children are growing up in the self-esteem culture, which maintains that the best way to raise capable kids is to make them feel good about themselves. The result, as many of us know, is a generation of kids with no self-control and no ability to work hard for what they want. They aren’t happy—as evidenced by their constant tantrums—and their parents aren’t happy either.
The solution, as demonstrated on such reality TV shows as 911Nanny, has been simply to create and enforce rules, to institute consistent punishment, and to hold kids accountable for their actions. Reward kids for a job well done, not just anything. Force them (and show them how) to take care of their own needs. Once they gain useful skills, they feel a sense of accomplishment, develop personal confidence, and become more independent. Then, self-esteem grows naturally, and kids feel good about themselves. Children benefit from having their impulses curtailed. Surprise!
Externally Imposed Willpower
Because willpower is such an important human trait, Baumeister contends that many religious traditions and cultural rituals are designed for the express purpose of developing it in society. Seemingly arbitrary rituals regulate the behavior of the people who practice them, simply because these people force themselves to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Like exercising the body, this habit develops self-control that can then be carried over into other areas of life.
Prayer and meditation are cited as such examples. Of course, there are more spiritual interpretations for why these practices help people, but the authors, without discounting those, offer another: the requirement to pray or meditate consistently forces us to focus our attention for a period of time, an act of self-control. Having tried meditation, I know how much self-control it takes to sit motionless despite all the nagging aches that come with doing so, and I imagine prayer, with its insistence on full attention, has a similar effect.
The authors also cite other elements that contribute to self-control, which religion can foster, such as pre-commitment, monitoring, and measurement.
Some of the most interesting research examples in the book are about the carryovers of self-control. In one study, three groups of students each received help setting up a fitness program, a diet, or a budget, and the researchers noted an increase in fitness, healthy eating behavior and more responsible spending in all the groups, regardless of the specific goal set. Developing one habit based on self-control seemed to enable people to develop other good habits as well.
This effect is seen in much smaller habits as well. Anything that forces you to consciously regulate your behavior will work, including remembering to sit up straight. Forcing yourself to eat with your left hand if you are right-handed will do the trick.
Many of the great men and women in history have been odd in the way they cling to seemingly pointless rituals. Henry Morton Stanley was known to shave religiously, even while on the brink of starvation in the darkest African rainforests. Endurance artist David Blaine apparently develops nearly OCD habits before he attempts a stunt (like only stepping on particular parts of a sidewalk).
The Counterargument: Nature
One might argue that it is only our messed up societies that require us to regulate our behavior. In a natural state, our natural inclinations ought to lead us to happiness and success. Therefore, the problem is not with our own ability to control ourselves, but rather in a society that necessitates that we do.
I believe otherwise. My personal belief is that humans’ greatest potential is achieved through rigorous self-discipline and personal development.
If we think about the realities of living in a ‘natural state’ we can see just how much self-regulation it must have required. Hunter gatherers would have needed massive amounts of self-control, willpower, and patience just to survive, much less thrive, in their natural environment. Catching food would require weeks of tracking, extensive planning, attention to detail needed to craft hunting implements, and patience and persistence in the hunt itself. Just gathering plants for food requires many trials and much patience to be able to find and identify nontoxic species.
Agriculturalists had it no better either. Figuring out that a seed could be cultivated took a few seasons of watching it grow and paying attention to your surroundings. Domesticating the crop took several years at least, and several generations in many cases. Saving enough seed to plant next year would require some farmers to go hungry for the present season.
Anyone who has ever gone backpacking understands the importance of self-control in the wilderness. You can’t eat all our food on the first dinner. You can’t just stop and rest whenever you get tired, or else you’ll never get to your campsite. Living in nature forces you to be prepared to deal with bad weather and worst-case scenarios. If a storm is forecast for the evening, you cannot procrastinate setting up camp. Forgetting a small detail, or simply not wanting to bother, can be the difference between a cozy evening in your tent and death by hypothermia.
So according to current research and speculation on prehistoric lifestyles, humans seems to benefit a lot from the ability to limit their behavior. Instead of doing what we want, when we want to, we display character when we can put off rewards, regulate our emotions, and stick to long-term plans.
This is a book worth at least skimming, if only to get an idea of what kinds of strategies you can use to get yourself to do the things you want to do. I actually like that it isn’t a self-help book. As it is, the authors simply present what they have found and let you decide what you want to do with it. They provide plenty of resources if you want to follow up a particular method, and they give ample advice on how to incorporate the theories into your own life, but ultimately you get to pick how you develop and use your willpower.
Below is a little anecdote of my own application of some of the theories in the book:
In the past few months, I’ve had some issues with self-discipline. Okay, honestly, I’ve had issues since I started college. For some reason I was ridiculously disciplined in high school but not at all in college. My high school routine: as soon as I got home, I grabbed a snack and sat down to do my homework. Only once it was finished did I even think about video games or pleasure reading. I went to bed at 11:00 every night and woke up at exactly 6:30 every morning to meditate. I was a weird kid, but I did very well and went to the college of my choice.
Once I got there, however, things slacked off. A lot. And they have been pretty bad since then. I’ve had periods of success, usually correlated with increased writing frequency on this blog, but overall I’m a little disappointed with myself.
So, I decided to give it another shot. I picked one habit to work on: practicing Kenpo Karate every day, no matter what. Even if only for five minutes, I vowed to do something. I made a promise to myself, which in the past has been enough for me to stick to a goal, but I also made a commitment to my teacher.
Every morning, I woke up, stretched out a bit, and practiced Kenpo. After two weeks, I started spontaneously making my bed because I felt less rushed in the mornings. A week after that, I cleaned the entire house on a whim, and have since been very diligent about keeping everything tidy. Baumeister pointed out that people in tidy environments tend to exhibit more self-control, and having a tidy area helped me feel more focused to keep things clean and get some work done.
Since I’ve been trying to get up earlier for years, that was another thing I wanted to work on. Normally, every time I try, I fail, but I started setting my alarm for 7:00 and getting out of bed wasn’t as hard as before. I was still tired, but I could force myself to do it with less internal whining. I think it had a lot to do with my mind’s expectation of practicing Karate first thing upon waking. Going to bed on time, always a struggle, has also been a bit easier.
Basically, I just picked a habit, made a small commitment (15-20 minutes a day, or less), committed myself totally to meeting that goal, and focused all my energy on just that one thing. The other stuff just sort of fell into place on its own. And I feel amazingly focused, productive, and centered. It’s weird how something so trivial can have such a powerful effect, though it echoes earlier thoughts on my idea of an anchor habit.
The tricky part was not letting myself get carried away with other habits I wanted to develop. Right now, it isn’t a big deal if my room gets messy as long as I do my Kenpo. I’m not focused on the tidiness thing, just the Karate. That said, I never feel so lazy that I don’t want to clean my room anymore, and the prospect of a messy room is more appalling to me than relaxing a bit. By not focusing my energy on that, I save my limited willpower for the development of the Karate habit. Once that is ingrained and becomes automatic, I will move on to something else.