Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and The New York Times science writer, John Tierney are the coauthors of the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). Together they have crafted a remarkable collection of research findings on how humans control (or don’t) their thoughts, impulses and actions. Their conclusions are surprising, often debunking popular beliefs. What the reader comes away with is an appreciation for the biology behind our everyday mental struggles and some realistic strategies to work within our innate limits. I found so much valuable information–with numerous implications for each of us–that I’ve decided to devote several separate blog entries to the book.
To start, the authors report that more than one million people surveyed about their own character strengths most often rank “self-control” at the bottom of the list. Yet psychologists also know that self-control is vital for personal success. So why is it so elusive and can and how do we strengthen it?
If we wake up well rested and manage to have a decent breakfast, we each begin the day with a healthy amount of willpower at our disposal. However, an inevitable decline occurs as we make decisions and control our impulses throughout the course of a normal day. Baumeister and Tierney use the term ego-depletion to describe the effect of using up our self-control. Most of us are left with a diminished capacity to regulate ourselves toward the end of the day. (Think skipping your afternoon workout, yelling at your children, or the late-night snack.) Willpower should be thought of as a muscle that can be fatigued.
This is just a short summary of what humans are up against as we try to harness our willpower. If you’ve already decided this as a losing battle, it’s not! The book goes on to apply these findings to dieting, goal setting, self-esteem, and I’ll explore all of these and more in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, the authors suggest focusing your efforts on one project at a time. You’re only setting yourself up for failure by taking on too much or dividing up your resources among many goals. New Year’s resolutions are a good example. Stick with one reasonable goal, and you’re much better equipped to meet the challenge.
Stay tuned for more on Willpower!
Baumeister, R. F. and J. Tierney (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York. Penguin Books.