WillPower: The Book

The single best nonfiction book I have read this year, and maybe the best one I have read in three or more years, was Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, and  John Tierney published by The Penguin Press in 2011.  I will save you the trouble and provide you the Amazon link here.  According to Wikipedia Roy Baumeister is the internationally known “Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.”  You can also visit his faculty web site.

This book offers remarkable insight into the obstacles we face when losing weight, exercising, and otherwise trying to lead an organized, healthy, fulfilling, and productive lifestyle.

I always highlight, and write notes when I read, if the book is intriguing. I then go back and take notes.  I have not done that yet, but below is a list of the most memorable, and useful items, that I remember from my first visit. In no particular order:

  • although we can increase our capacity for using willpower, it is also something that can be depleted.  When it is depleted you make bad choices you regret later.
  • making too many decisions too fast can deplete willpower. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue and is related to the next item:
  • willpower requires energy (our brain is 2% of our body but consumes a whooping 20% of the total calories we burn).  If our energy is depleted our willpower, along with other functions, decreases.
  • we can have too many goals.  It is not a good idea to have a large  laundry list of goals (and goals are not to be confused with tasks).  Finishing a degree, writing that novel, and remodeling the house, while you are trying to lose weight is probably not a good idea.
  • organization is the friend of willpower.  The more organized you are the less stress, and cognitive energy, goes into finding things, doing things at the last minute or missing deadlines, and worrying about what has not been done.  Unfinished business, commitments, and obligations creates an “open loop.” This leads to yet one more item:
  • I personally think that it is essential to have some kind of organizing system like the Getting Things Done (GTD) system of David Allen which postulates the aforementioned “open loop” problem.  Tame your tasks. Unfinished business creates an open loop and we often have lots of little, and big, unfinished tasks, commitments, and promises. We are into something else, or maybe two other things, and suddenly remember another thing we forgot to do because we have no system of keeping track of what needs to be done, and what has already been accomplished.  That is known as a todo list my friend.  Get one, and love it.   The GTD system is specifically mentioned in the book and I have had fantastic results with it so far and I am just in the early stages of learning it.  I will be reviewing that book next since I am still reading it.
  • avoid having to make too many decisions and especially trivial ones.  Make a decision, and unless it is a disaster or obviously the wrong one stick with it.   Either have yogurt or egg whites for breakfast and stop worrying about it. They are both good choice.  Wear the gray or black socks.  Does it Preplanning meals, workouts, and activities is a best practice.  You can be flexible but don’t fret too much about first world problems or matters that well, don’t matter.
  • habits are your friend.  If something is habitual you don’t have a chance to think about it.

I also think that reducing clutter (in all areas of your life), and practicing some degree of minimization is helpful.  Everything is connected.

The book is not the complete instruction manual for building willpower I was hoping for.  It was also written in 2011, and I am sure there has been a lot of good research since then.  But, it is entertaining, and filled with lots of great information that you can apply.  I will be investigating the phenomenon of what we call willpower from the psychological and neuroscience perspective to try to see what best practices are being developed.  It is a fascinating and useful field.

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