Willpower - Rediscovering our greatest strength, Baumeister & Tierney
HOWEVER you define success, it
tends to be accompanied by a set of qualities which most commonly
identifies your intelligence and self-control.
To date researchers
have failed to identify how to permanently increase intelligence, but
they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve
Victorians used the word
“willpower” for self-control because of the folk notion that some kind
of force was involved – some unique equivalent of the steam that powered
the industrial revolution. The author uses the
term “willpower” for the same reason – he has scientifically identified
the power behind self-control.
Most of our major problems - personal, social and business - can be ascribed to a failure of
self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence,
underachievement, procrastination at work, alcohol and
drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive
anger and more.
A lack of self-control can
cost you the US Open, as Serena Williams’ tantrum in 2009 demonstrated;
it can destroy your career, as adulterous American politicians keep
It contributed to the epidemic of
risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system and to the terrifying prospects for so many people who failed to set aside
enough money for their old age.
Ask people to name their
greatest personal strength and self-control comes in dead last, as shown
by a study of more than 1 million people around the world. Conversely,
when asked about their failings, lack of self-control
was at the top of the list.
Baumeister, head of the
psychology programme at Florida State University, observed willpower in
the laboratory: how it gives people the strength to persevere, how they
lose control as their willpower is depleted. Willpower,
like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse, but can also be
strengthened, over the long term, through exercise.
If all the book did was to
assert that willpower exists, most of us would yawn – “Yes, that’s what
my grandmother always said.” Progress, however, doesn’t come from
theories, but from someone finding a clever way to
test the theory.
1960s Walter Mischel studied how children learn to resist immediate
gratification through an experiment involving giving them a marshmallow
and offering them a deal before leaving them alone in the room: you
can eat the marshmallow whenever you want to, but if you hold off
until I return you will get a second marshmallow.
Follow-on studies revealed
that the four-year-olds who had managed to hold out for the
entire 15 minutes went on to score 210 points higher on
their SAT scores then the ones who had caved in.
As young adults they were more popular with their peers and teachers. They went on to earn higher salaries.
They had lower a
lower body mass index and were less likely to have had problems with drug
use. These were stunning results, because it is rare for anything
measured in early childhood to predict anything in adulthood
at a statistically significant level.
The strongest evidence
yet for willpower’s long-term benefit was published in 2010. An
international team of researchers tracked 1 000 children in New Zealand
from birth to the age of 32. The children with high self-control were
shown to have grown into adults with better physical
health, higher incomes and a lot more.
In the workplace, managers
scoring high on self-control were rated more favourably by
their subordinates as well as by the peers. They were shown to be
better at empathising with others and in considering things from
So what do we know about
willpower and how to develop it? Using experimental research and larger
than life examples, Baumeister provides practical insights and guidance.
Amanda Palmer, an edgier Lady
Gaga named the high priestess of Brechtian punk cabaret, could hardly be
associated with the words “Victorian” or "suppressed".
undisciplined artist could never have written so much
music or sold out so many concerts around the world, or made it to
Radio City Music Hall without practising. It has taken self-control to
create her “uncontrolled” persona.
She credits her success in
large part to what she calls the ultimate training ground - posing as a
living statue. The challenge in being a living statue is in the
non-reactivity it requires.
You cannot move your
eyes or engage with people. You cannot laugh or wipe your nose, scratch
your ear or swat a mosquito on your cheek. Amanda Palmer would typically
work for 90 minutes, take a break, and get back
on the box for another 90 minutes, then call it a day. “I would get
home barely alive, barely able to move my body,” she said.
Why? She hadn’t been
expending muscular energy. She hadn't been breathing harder, nor had her
heart been beating faster. What was so hard about doing nothing?
She had been exercising willpower to resist temptation.
Where does the “power”
in willpower come from? The answer is no glucose, no willpower. As
researchers tested more and more people in more and more situations the
pattern was confirmed time and again. Glucose depletion
can turn the most charming colleague into a monster.
Don't get into an argument
with your boss a few hours before lunch or thrash out serious problems
with your partner just before dinner. When you eat, go for the slow
burning foods, those with a low glycaemic index, to
maintain steady self-control.
When you are tired, sleep.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose,
which produces immediate consequences for self-control.
conclusions were that a person has a finite amount of willpower that
becomes depleted as it is used.Those who try to quit smoking while
restricting their eating and cutting back on alcohol tend
to fail at all three.
He also concluded that you use the same amount of
willpower for all manner of tasks – resisting chocolate, working
on a budgetary problem, or working as a living statue.
The bulk of the
book Willpower - Rediscovering our greatest strength discusses strategies for improving performance at work
and home through techniques for improving self-control.
While the book is a veritable
tour de force of this fascinating topic, the chapter I liked
most relates to the strengthening of will power and the question as to
whether it can in fact be strengthened.
Baumeister uses the extreme
example of David Blaine, the endurance artist famous for performing feats
involving willpower of gargantuan proportions.
Blaine stood for 35
hours more than 80 feet above New York's Bryant
Park, without a safety harness, on top of a round pillar just 22 inches
wide. He spent 63 sleepless hours in Times Square encased in a giant
block of ice. He provides superb material for studying willpower.
Blaine believes that his
achievements are a function of exercises of willpower he has being doing
since age five. Exercise does help in an important way, but not all
The solution seems to be to
focus on a very few, very specific activities that are essential to the
achievement of a larger goal, such as following an exercise regime for
general fitness, maintaining very specific
hours for reading to keep yourself professionally up to date, and so on.
Baumeister’s studies revealed
that people gained a wide array of benefits in areas of their lives
that had nothing to do with the specific willpower exercises they were
The reason was
that their willpower gradually got stronger and so was less readily
depleted. And his work proved that you don't need to have exceptional
self-control to begin with. As long as you are motivated to do
some kind of willpower exercise, your overall self-control will improve.
With improving willpower the
surest way to a better life in general, and greater business success in
particular, this book is a most worthwhile read.
Readability: Light ---+- Serious
Insights: High -+--- Low
Practical: High ---+- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.