Willpower: How to get it and lead a more joyful life

A book review by Alice Friedemann of “Willpower.  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, 2011.

Self-control is ultimately about enjoying your time on earth and sharing joy with those you love.


Warning Signs Your Willpower is Slipping

You react more strongly – in experiments, subjects were more sad, happy, frightened, or upset watching movies, felt ice water to be more painful, and stronger desires (to eat a cookie for example).  Look for an overall intensity of feelings, because this means your brain’s circuits aren’t controlling your emotions as well as usual.

The feeling of depletion isn’t obvious, the signs are subtle.

  • Easily bothered or more so than usual?  Frustrated?
  • Volume turned up so you feel more strongly (i.e. husband harsh tone sets you off)
  • Reluctant to make a decision
  • Exert yourself mentally or physically
  • Can’t concentrate, wonder why it’s taking you so long to do something

It’s important to monitor yourself or

  • You’ll say something you regret and damage relationships
  • Succumb to impulses to overeat, drink, spend
  • Make bad or no decisions

The 4 ways You Use Up Willpower

1)      Thought control, which you overcome by focusing, or never changing your beliefs about the world, filtering out what you don’t want to hear.  Yet another reason why fanatics on the left, right, and woo-woo are so inflexible.

2)      Controlling emotions, i.e. escaping from bad moods, unpleasant thoughts, anger. Often done by distraction – TV shows, alcohol, meditation, etc. (37).

3)      Impulse control, what most of think of willpower, resisting chocolates, alcohol, etc.

4)      Performance control – getting things done, balancing being fast as well as accurate, not quitting a task, etc.

You Have Limited Willpower

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that gets used up every time you use it
  2. This willpower is used for all tasks, there aren’t separate reservoirs for work, dieting, exercise, being nice (35)

Finding Your Perfect Mate

Why can’t all the millions of beautiful, successful, singles in big cities find mates?  Author Tierney sampled personal ads from Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.  Pickiest were New Yorkers, with 5.7 essential criteria, followed by Chicago 4.1, and the others 2.  One NYC ad insisted the man be handsome, successful, over five foot nine, and between 21 and 35.

Another study of tens of thousands of people who filled out detailed profiles confirmed this.  When there’s too much information and choice people get ridiculously choosy.  Better to do speed0-dating, limited to less than 25 people.  What happens with too many choices is that people look for perfection and won’t settle for someone who isn’t of the ideal height, age, and dozens of other parameters.


Bottom line: if you won’t settle for less than perfection, you end up with no one.




Depleted willpower is one of the reasons couples fight – when they get home after a long day it’s hard to not be annoyed by your partner or kids, to be kind.  All day long willpower gets deleted from resisting food, being nice to unpleasant coworkers, etc.   Solution: leave work while still some energy, don’t use up all your willpower on your job or your home will suffer (p 24).


When people deprived of willpower and asked to do a difficult task, people didn’t do as well.  They were wired for EEG and scientists could see that the brain area that’s crucial to self-control, their anterior cingulate cortex, was slowed down, making error-detection as it deteriorates more difficult (p 29).


Democrats have more Anterior cingulate cortex, the home of self-control


Interestingly, studies of the difference between Democrat and Republican brains in the United States have revealed that “liberals generally had a larger volume of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with coping with uncertainty and handling conflicting information (Smithsonian 2012).


Another study in Plos One by Schreiber et al  “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” says that “Liberals and conservatives exhibit different cognitive styles and converging lines of evidence suggest that biology influences differences in their political attitudes and beliefs. A recent study suggests that liberals and conservatives have significantly different brain structure, with liberals showing increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, and conservatives showing increased gray matter volume in the in the amygdala.  The results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.


Or as Chris Mooney describes it in his book “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality”, the anterior cingulate is the area that makes corrective responses which can override the automatic emotional system 1 and bring in system 2 reasoning (see Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” for details on system 1 and 2).


Does this mean that Democrats have more self-control than Republicans?


No glucose, no willpower


In some very cleverly and elegantly designed experiments, it was clear that people who were short on glucose had less willpower.  This was true of another social animal as well – dogs – just like people they spent less time on tasks unless fortified with sugary drinks.


Self-control, glucose, and dieting


No wonder it’s so hard to lose weight.  Exerting self-control uses up glucose, which makes you hungry, especially for sweets, since your body knows they’ll be effective right away (though any food will work).  People under stress especially crave sweets.  This is why dieting is the one area that even people with greater than average self-control don’t do much better than the rest of us.


Over and over in experiments the unexpected finding was that dieters who blew their diet overate the rest of the day, as if there was no point, what researchers call the “What the Hell” effect.  Sometimes dieters didn’t know they’d eaten too much because they weren’t self-aware enough to notice the signals from their body that they were full (Dr. Lustig might say our hormones are so out-of-whack from junk food we aren’t even getting those signals anymore).


External clues are the wrong way to go, yet that’s what diets are: external rules, a plan, rather than inner feelings and cravings.  Dieting means being hungry a lot of the time despite what diet gurus say.  To succeed you have to learn to eat only when you’re hungry, because it’s hard to stick to rules, and when you fail, there’s nothing left to guide you.


Buying a car or any expensive product – Decision Fatigue


Customers buying a car were observed as they made choices on 56 colors of interior fabrics, gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of tires & rims, 25 kinds of engine/gearbox, etc.  It wasn’t long before people got tired and took the path of resistance by taking the default option.  He doesn’t outright accuse car salesmen of this, but it sounds like they’d be smart to fatigue people with choices that didn’t cost much so that they’d go for the more expensive default options later.


Self-awareness helps with self-control


If you don’t drink alcohol, can see yourself in a mirror, etc., you’re less likely to transgress.  In smaller tribes, where we evolved, you’d be in big trouble if you didn’t live up to community standards, that’s why we developed self-awareness.


Why do religious people live 25% longer?


1)      Less likely to develop bad habits (drunk, risky sex, drugs, smoking)

2)      More likely to wear seat belts, visit the dentist

3)      Better social support

4)      Their faith helps them cope with misfortune

5)      Better self-control, perhaps from Sunday school, meditation, praying, interrupting daily routine to pray/meditate (180-181)

6)      Like the mirror in the self-awareness above, feeling God is watching you helps with self-control, and also by their congregation

7)      Participating requires discipline, you’ve got to get up and go to services, follow rules.


You can’t fake it, if you’re an agnostic/atheist who goes to religious services to meet people or business connections won’t have the level of self-control as true believers.


Agnostics need to find their own “sacred” values, such as saving the environment, a reverence for the wonderment of nature. Bible substitutes seem to be the 7 Habits and other self-help books for secular people as well.


Addiction and willpower


Cravings are very strong during withdrawal, and other feelings are more intense as well.  This is because so much willpower is being used to stop taking drugs that willpower is depleted, which makes the addict want drugs even more.  Even the slightest stress becomes magnified because of willpower depletion, making the temptation to take up drugs again even harder to resist.  No wonder so many relapse (p 31).


Finish this sentence: “After awakening, Bill began to tink about his future.  In general he expected to…”


I finished it with “retire and travel around the world”.  It turns out that the wealthier you are, the more likely Bill will do something in a few years, or a high aspiration.  But if you’re an addict Bill is going to do something ordinary within the next 9 days, like go to the dentist.  Addicts have short-term perspectives, which can make you more likely to become addicted, and then addiction further shrinks your horizons because all you want are quick rewards, a reinforcing loop.


So if you’re preparing and thinking about the next financial crash or energy crisis and your friends think you’re crazy, maybe they just have short-term ostrich-like horizons…


Students:  During exam time students behave badly


They smoke, drink too much coffee, more alcohol, eat junk food, don’t wash dishes, clean floors, comb their hair, floss their teeth, go on shopping sprees, spend too much time with friends, and so on.  They’re grumpier and irritable.  Why? They’ve destroyed so much of their willpower to study hard that other aspects of their life slide.



Glucose imbalances might lead some people to commit crimes

The most famous example is the “Twinkie” defense, here are some other interesting cases:

  • 90% of juvenile delinquents just taken into custody had below-average glucose levels (45)
  • People with hypoglycemia more likely to offend in: traffic violations, shoplifting, embezzlement, arson, etc
  • In Finland researchers could predict with 80% accuracy who would go on to commit violent crimes just by looking at glucose levels, since glucoe tolerance means your body isn’t good at converting food into usable energy which eventually leads to diabetes. Most diabetics aren’t criminals, but they do tend to be more impulsive, have more tantrums,  distracted working on long tasks, more issues with alcohol, anxiety, and depression, etc., probably because it’s harder to cope with stress since their bodies aren’t giving their brains enough fuel (p 46)


Your brain doesn’t stop working when glucose runs low, it just slows down in some areas and speeds up in others.




  • Ear worms happen because you didn’t get to hear the entire song (p 81)
  • Judges more likely to release prisoners right after meals.  In all situations, if depleted willpower, easier to make no decision (98-99)
  • To Do Lists suffer if there are too many items, and often the goals on the list conflict (i.e. work versus family, etc.).  When goals clash, you worry, get less done, and your physical and mental health suffers.   You brood too much.


  • Focus on one project at a time (38)
  • Only take on 1 self-improvement at a time, forget New Year resolutions, you’re setting yourself up for failure
  • Enough glucose helps your self-control, so eat a good breakfast, and be well-fed before an important meeting, and avoid arguments late afternoon at work or when you get home – if you have a bone to pick with your partner, wait until you’ve both eaten (p 57).
  • Avoid food that has a high glycemic index like white bread, white rice, potatoes because the sugar vanishes all too quickly.  Instead, eat vegetables, nuts, raw fruit, fish, and whole grains. (p 58).
  • When you have the flu, stay home so your immune system gets the glucose.  Besides, driving a car with a cold is more dangerous than mild intoxication.
  • When you’re tired, SLEEP. Don’t short-change yourself.  Sleep deprivation can even lead to diabetes.
  • Make monthly, not daily plans.  Daily have an advantage of what to do today, but it uses up time in the long run to make 30 daily plans, and they aren’t flexible, so when you have to change plans you feel demoralized.
  • If a task will take less than 2 minutes, do it now
  • Eat before any kind of shopping (i.e. for a car) so your willpower will last longer
  • Share your data – pedometers help, but competing with someone else or letting them know how you’re doing works across the board – weight, alcohol, etc.  This is perhaps the main reason AA works – the people – positive peer pressure.  Though also the “warehousing” – if you’re at an AA meeting, you’re not at a bar.
  • To improve willpower, whenever you think of your posture, sit up straight, walk tall, switch to your left hand, speak only in complete sentences avoiding abbreviations, no cursing – all of these build up your willpower.  When you increase willpower in one area it often extends to other areas, i.e. when you work out, you might also drink less, etc.
  • If you can use self-control to develop good habits, then these good habits become more natural, automatic, established
  • Students who partied/studied or professors hoping to get tenure who worked in bursts were less likely to succeed than those who studied and wrote a bit every day, kept up.  Make writing a daily habit and you’ll produce more with less effort.
  • If you crave a sweet snack or wine, tell yourself you can have it later, and then eat a piece of fruit or something healthy to quell hunger.  Also, I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now and satisfies the craving a bit, sometimes this is more effective than eating the treat.  The suppression can even persist to the next day.
  • Brush your teeth right after dinner, this helps with willpower because it’s a hassle to brush a second time later
  • Trying to lose more than 10% of your weight is NOT REALISTIC.  You’ll probably just bounce back again, even higher.   Set a goal of 5 to 10%.
  • Have a plan before you go to a party: I won’t eat potato chips, or at a buffet “I’ll only eat vegetables and lean meat”.  This can become an automatic process in the future and help you deal with other temptations.
  • Weigh yourself every day
  • Plan meals a week ahead of time
  • Keep track of what you eat, purchase, weigh, whatever you’re trying to control and use that to plan better in your to do list and goals
  • Reward yourself for reaching a goal, or with little successes
  • Avoid temptations, avoid situations where you’ll be tempted
  • Don’t procrastinate – change the oil, and avoid more hassles later
  • Don’t procrastinate – use the airline miles, go to the Exploratorium, African zoo in Sonoma county, Sacramento, plan for that trip to Iguaçu falls, etc
  • Once a year, perhaps your birthday, reflect on how well you spent the past year and see what progress you’ve made, which goals met, which remain, which hopeless
  • Have a vague 5-year objective and intermediate goals, and monthly plans
  • Set a firm time limit for tedious tasks or you’ll never reorganize or clean out your closet because you won’t even start knowing it’ll take a day
  • Set your goals for the week – no more than 3 goals, perhaps the ones you’ve procrastinated the longest on that are also important
  • No matter what your goal, don’t stop getting enough sleep, eating well, bathing, dieting, neatness because all of these boost your willpower, especially neatness and not looking slovenly
  • Change your routine to break bad habits – i.e. watching same TV show in same chair, going past the ice cream shop.  Break habit by diff route to work, stroll in a new area, only can have chocolates if you do exercise in front of TV, or break a habit on vacation far from usual routines
  • If your goal is to write, set aside time when you will write or DO NOTHING – a clear boundary that reduces demand on willpower
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