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Reading "Willpower"
August 7, 2012 - 9:00pm

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Publication Date: September, 2011

Willpower deserves a much bigger cultural footprint than it has so far enjoyed. Some books end up making appearances in all sorts of conversations, spoken about by a diverse range of smart colleagues and friends. Willpower was not one of those books. It deserves to be.

Baumeister's research is eminently practical.  It all boils down to the observation that two things in life determine our success, our intelligence and our willpower. Here, willpower is synonymous with self-control.

You might want to challenge this conclusion with the observation that the playing field is not level, and that those born with economic advantages are likely to go further (however wanting they are in the self-control department). True enough. So hold socioeconomic status constant in your thinking about willpower.

What Baumeister has discovered in his research is that willpower acts less like a fixed character trait and more like a muscle. We can strengthen our willpower through the diligent exercising of self-control. But willpower can also be depleted, and once our self-control reserves are low we will make bad decisions.

One of my key takeaways from Willpower is a better understanding of how taxing decision making can be. The need to make judgments, often with incomplete information, takes a great deal of mental energy. And we only have one tank of stored willpower. Our brains do not have separate energy reserves for work decisions and family decisions. Even being faced with choices without the requirement to make immediate judgments will deplete our willpower energy reserves.

These findings may seem a bit too obvious. Everyone knows not to debate your boss at the end of the day, and not to go into a negotiation without a good store of glucose. We know that we will not give our family our best selves at the end of a long workday.  

But Baumeister's contribution is to expose both the degree to which our willpower can be depleted, and the importance for many outcomes of strong or weak self-control. We vastly overestimate our ability to make good choices in the face of diminished energy. And we too often fail to grasp that the problems that we face, both professionally and personally, can be either greatly exacerbated or ameliorated by the degree of self-control that we bring to our tasks.

Willpower is a good book to read if you are interested in increasing your own performance, or in helping those around you (kids, partners, colleagues, direct reports) increase their effectiveness and productivity.

What are you reading?


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