Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (Book Summary)
willpower roy baumeister book summary

Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (Book Summary)

Willpower matters. A LOT.

In fact, it’s the #1 greatest predictor of happiness, health, wealth, and general well-being. That’s true. Nothing predicts your future success and well-being better than your willpower.

Best of all, there are some simple and proven ways to grow your willpower strength and become more self-disciplined.

And that’s where Willpower comes into the picture. This book, written by Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers in this field, will show you exactly how self-control works and how to get better at it.

Who Is Willpower For?

  • Anyone interested in personal growth and self-development
  • Especially anyone interested in the subject of self-discipline
  • Anyone struggling with self-discipline, e.g. with resisting cravings

1. Two Qualities That Predict Success

„However you define success – a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health, financial security, the freedom to pursue your passions – it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities. When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict ‘positive outcomes’ in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control.”

IQ and willpower are the two prime predictors of success in life. The former remains fixed over our lifetime. The latter, however, is very much subject to change.

What does this mean? If you want greater success in life, the lever to work on is self-control. Improve your willpower, improve your chances of success in life. Simple as that.

2. Improving Willpower Is the Surest Way to a Better Life

“Improving willpower is the surest way to a better life.”

“They’ve come to realize that most major problems, personal and social, center on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger. Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.”

You may not realize it, but most of your problems result directly from a lack of willpower. Health issues? Overweight? Addictions? Poor diet? Lack of exercise? Bad relationships? Finances going awry? So many seemingly different problems, but only one major cause. Can you imagine how your life changes when you fix that cause?

That’s the power of self-control. Baumeister goes on to mention how people with greater willpower are healthier, happier, and more satisfied in their relationships. They are further ahead in their careers and make more money. They’re better able to deal with conflict, manage stress, and overcome adversity. They even live longer than their less disciplined peers.

More impressive yet, willpower is a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, more important for marital satisfaction than empathy, and a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence. In fact, it’s 2x better at predicting academic success than IQ. Think about that for a moment.

Bottom line: If you want to improve your life, self-control is where to start.

3. Desire Is the Norm

“Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception. About half the time, people were feeling some desire at the moment their beepers went off, and another quarter said a desire had just been felt in the past few minutes. Many of these desires were ones they were trying to resist. The researchers concluded that people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires – between three and four hours per day.”

We tend to think of willpower as some magical force to be summoned in emergency situations only. That’s not true.

In one study, Baumeister and his colleagues monitored a group of more than two hundred people. The participants wore beepers that went off at random intervals seven times a day, prompting them to report whether they were currently experiencing some sort of desire or had just recently felt such a desire. In total, more than ten thousand momentary reports were recorded.

The results are described in the quote above. We may not be aware of it, but we’re fighting urges all throughout the day. Some of the more common ones are the urges to eat, sleep, nap, take a break, watch TV, play video games, have sex, check email, or hop on social media.

This makes it really obvious why willpower is so important. If you don’t have the self-discipline to resist these urges, you’ll find yourself in trouble very quickly.

4. How Willpower Works

“That’s more or less what researchers discovered after studying thousands of people inside and outside the laboratory. The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons:

  • You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  • You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

The first lesson – commonly referred to as ego depletion – is beautifully illustrated with a classic study called the radish experiment. Baumeister and his team presented hungry college students with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of chocolates.

Both bowls were placed in front of each student. Half of them were told to eat chocolates, but no radishes. The other half to eat radishes, but no chocolates. The researchers expected the radish-eaters to use up a significant amount of willpower. To find out if that was the case, the researchers gave each student a difficult — in fact, unsolvable — puzzle to solve. What interested the researchers was how long students would work on it before giving up.

Lo and behold, the radish-eaters gave up much faster than the chocolate-eaters did. They had used up a lot of willpower resisting the chocolates and were left exhausted when trying to solve the puzzle.

This experiment has been replicated countless times, and the results are always the same. If you’ve just finished doing something that requires a lot of willpower, you’ve spent a lot of your overall willpower strength as well. There’s only so much willpower available in your tank. Once you’ve used it all up, you lose your ability to self-regulate on upcoming tasks. You probably experience this in your life all the time. When you come home after a stressful day at work, what are you more likely to do: the easy thing or the hard thing? Watch TV or exercise?

The second lesson is that we use the same reservoir of willpower for pretty much everything. There’s no separate source for work, another for exercise, another for dieting, or another for being nice to your kids. No matter where you exert self-control, it draws on the same source of energy – you use the same supply to deal with tempting food, annoying colleagues, frustrating traffic, or demanding bosses.

5. Practice Makes Perfect

“Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life. They smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol. They kept their homes cleaner. They washed dishes instead of leaving them stacked in the sink, and did their laundry more often. They procrastinated less. They did their work and chores instead of watching television or hanging out with friends first. They ate less junk food, replacing their bad eating habits with healthier ones.”

Willpower is a skill like any other. If you want to get better at it, you need to practice. What does that mean? It means you need to exert self-control in daily life.

One of the first studies demonstrating this idea asked volunteers to follow a two-week regimen to track their food intake, improve their posture, or track their moods. Compared to a control group, the participants who had exerted willpower by performing these small exercises were less vulnerable to self-control depletion in follow-up lab tests.

Over and over again, research shows that engaging in activities that require self-control helps build your overall self-control strength.

Baumeister mentions a few strategies for giving your willpower a regular workout in your day-to-day life:

  • Adjust your posture. Every time you realize you’re slouching, sit up straight. This doesn’t come natural, so it requires and builds willpower.
  • Use the opposite hand. Try opening all doors with your opposite hand. Since our brains are wired to use the dominant hand for everything, this requires and builds willpower.
  • Stop using swear words. Since it takes effort to go against your inclination of using swear works, this requires and builds willpower.
  • Track your spending. Again, this isn’t something we normally do, so it requires and builds willpower.

6. The Incredible Importance of Energy on Self-Control

“No glucose, no willpower.”

Using willpower requires energy. Every time you’re forced to exert self-control – by resisting a cookie, suppressing an emotion, or resisting the urge to procrastinate –, you use a little bit of energy. Run out of energy and you run out of willpower.

The major energetic component for willpower seems to be blood glucose (blood sugar). When people perform a self-control task, their blood sugar levels tend to drop. And the more a person’s blood sugar drops, the worse they perform on the next task. If you give willpower-drained individuals a glass of lemonade, the resulting boost in blood sugar temporarily restores willpower.

According to Baumeister, blood sugar issues (which translate into low and unstable energy levels) predict a wide range of willpower failures. Whether it’s diabetics or hypoglycemics, both of them struggle with self-control. Here he uses hypolglycemis as example:

“The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycemia, the tendency to have low blood sugar. Researchers noted that hypoglycemics were more likely than the average person to have trouble concentrating and controlling their negative emotions when provoked. Overall, they tended to be more anxious and less happy than average. Hypoglycemia was also reported to be unusually prevalent among criminals and other violent persons, and some creative defense attorneys brought the low-blood-sugar research into court.”

He mentions a study showing below-average glucose levels in 90 percent (!) of juvenile delinquents taken into custody.

The point is, willpower requires energy. It doesn’t matter where your lack of energy comes from – diabetes, hypoglycemia, crappy diet, lack of sleep. If you don’t have energy, you can’t control yourself.

If you ask me, that’s phenomenal news! It means that any improvement in energy levels directly translates into improvements in willpower. More energy = more willpower. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so obsessed with eating healthy, optimizing sleep, exercising regularly, and incorporating any of the bio-hacks by people such as Dave Asprey or Ben Greenfield recommend into my days.

7. Beware of Decision Fatigue

“The link between willpower and decision making works both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions.”

If you haven’t noticed yet, making decisions is hard work. You have to consider pros and cons, take responsibility, think about moralities, and so on. It’s an energy-intensive process.

Unfortunately, making decisions uses up the same energy that we need for self-control. The more decisions you make, the less willpower you’re left with.

The good news is you can reduce the amount of decisions you make on a daily basis, thereby saving some of your precious willpower. Some ways of doing that include planning your day the night before, creating pre-commitments, eating the same meals over and over again, or minimizing your wardrobe (guess why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same grey t-shirt day in day out).

8. Tidy Up!

“Another simple old-fashioned way to boost your willpower is to expend a little of it on neatness. As we described in chapter 7, people exert less self-control after seeing a messy desk than after seeing a clean desk, or when using a sloppy rather than a neat and well organized Web site. You may not care about whether your bed is made and your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. Order seems to be contagious.”

Studies show that your environment has a massive influence on your self-control. Orderly, clean, and well-designed websites? More willpower. Sloppy websites with spelling errors and other problems? Less willpower. Tidy and neat lab rooms? More willpower. Messy lab rooms? Less willpower.

You can either create a willpower-supporting or a willpower-depleting environment around you. If you wish to do the latter, start by cleaning up and keeping things tidy. Oh, and for reasons mentioned in this article, get rid of unnecessary clutter while you’re at it.

9. Play Offense, Not Defense

“People with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work. The results of these habits and routines were demonstrated in yet another recent set of studies, in the United States, showing that people with high self-control consistently report less stress in their lives. They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them. They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets. They play offense instead of defense.”

The most successful people play offense, not defense with their willpower. They use self-control to build and establish patterns of healthy behavior – habits, systems, and pre-commitments that set them up for success.

They eat healthy, exercise regularly, keep to a consistent sleep schedule, and abstain from bad habits like smoking, late-night snacking, or heavy drinking. Installing these patterns takes willpower initially. But once things become habitual, their lives can proceed smoothly and they find themselves doing the right things more or less automatically.

As an additional bonus, their habits (due to their automatic nature) help them conserve willpower, so that if emergency strikes, they have enough reserves to overcome them.

10. Use Pre-Commitment Strategies

“The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path. Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens. His men used a different form of precommitment by plugging their ears so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ songs. They prevented themselves from being tempted at all, which is generally the safer of the two approaches. If you want to be sure you don’t gamble at a casino, you’re better off staying out of it rather than strolling past the tables and counting on your friends to stop you from placing a bet. Better yet is to put your name on the list of people (maintained by casinos in some states) who are not allowed to collect any money if they place winning bets.”

Pre-committing yourself means locking yourself into a virtuous path. You decide in advance what you will or won’t do in a specific situation. And if possible, you make it so that not doing the right thing literally becomes impossible.

Pre-committing basically means that you use willpower now so you don’t have to use it in a future situation. That’s playing offense instead of defense.

So, what are some pre-commitment strategies? Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Don’t bring any crappy food into your home
  • Don’t buy cigarettes, alcohol, or whatever drug you’re trying to resist
  • Pay or sign-up in advance (e.g. for a membership)
  • Block distracting websites (more on this here)
  • Create a commitment contract (more on this here)

Further Reading

If you enjoyed Willpower, then you'll likely enjoy the following books as well:

  • The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. If you want to learn more about self-control and how to get better at it, this is my favorite book on the topic.
  • The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel. A book about willpower from Peter Mischel, the researcher who conducted the original marshmallow studies.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen. Not technically a willpower book, but setting up a GTD system is one of the best ways to get more self-discipline.

And if you want access to 2,000+ book summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books, check out Blinkist.

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Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.