Review: Willpower

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

WillpowerOne of the biggest keys to personal success is found in the title of this book. Willpower. Do you have the ability to consistently take the less easy path in an effort to achieve a goal?

Willpower is a struggle for most everyone, including me. It’s hard to consistently make the right choice for a greater good, particularly when there is a lot of appeal in the easier choice. It can be hard to not buy an item you want. It can be hard to not take another drink. It can be hard to devote your evenings to building a business. I’ve been there.

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney have put together a fascinating book on the topic of willpower here and since it’s a topic that runs through The Simple Dollar, I felt a review of it might be worthwhile.

Is Willpower More Than a Metaphor?
Willpower definitely exists. It’s observable in the sense that people will choose not to make the choice that would bring short-term comfort and will make the choice that brings longer-term benefits. The authors draw on the example of Amanda Palmer, who worked as a “living statue” through some pretty horrible situations. She made herself stand still in order to do the job and to build a reputation as someone who could handle this through whatever might happen. The key? In Amanda’s words, focus on one project at a time. Be so single-minded that nothing else really matters.

Where Does the Power in Willpower Come From?
In other words, how do people find the ability to “power through”? Usually, the basis for willpower comes from a backbone of something enjoyable or something you value or something you physically need. The authors discuss all of these things, including the need for adequate sleep and adequate nutrition to have adequate willpower as well as less basic desires such as family and friendship and human interaction. All of these things create the “power” we need to push through and achieve great things.

A Brief History of the To-Do List
To-do lists typically don’t work because they’re usually loaded with things that drag you in different directions. One thing might involve a commitment to your family, while another things points you to your office and yet another involves a promise made to a friend. One’s at home, one’s at the office, and one’s somewhere else. It’s incredibly hard to follow through on such a list if there’s no consistency. The authors actually take a look at the GTD time management philosophy as an approach to solving this challenge.

Decision Fatigue
Sometimes, our willpower breaks because we’re faced with too many decisions in a given day, which results in “decision fatigue.” We’re tired of making decisions and just don’t want to think. What’s the solution here? You should create a situation where the “easy” path is the one that matches your goal through advance work. Create situations for yourself so that it becomes very easy to continue to press toward your goal.

Where Have All the Dollars Gone?
Another area where willpower shines is money, something that readers of The Simple Dollar may have picked up on over the years. You have to have willpower to not spring money leaks all over the place. What’s the solution to this? Quantifying. Keep track of every penny you spend so that you know exactly where every dime is going. This works in other areas, too, such as food consumption and exercise.

Can Willpower Be Strengthened?
Just like almost anything else, willpower is strengthened through practice. If you find yoursel able to push through to achieve one goal through consistent willpower, other goals that require such willpower become easier. This ties in well with the single-minded nature of willpower, which is itself something to practice. When you focus in on a goal over and over again and show yourself that you can do it, doing it again becomes just that much easier.

Outsmarting Yourself in the Heart of Darkness
How do you keep going in particularly trying times? The authors use the example of Henry Morton Stanley’s exploration of Africa to show how one effective method for mastering willpower works: cutting off your route back to the place where you were at. Tempted by food? Throw out all of the junk food and you’ve made it much harder to eat that junk food.

Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr Stop Drinking?
Here, the authors look at Alcoholics Anonymous. Does belief in God cause people to stop drinking? The authors seem to say that faith in a higher power can be a powerful self-motivator in terms of willpower. When it becomes difficult, people can look to their faith. They don’t go deeply into theology here, but I think there’s some very interesting possibilities in terms of looking at faith’s connection to willpower and the idea of free will.

Raising Strong Children
How do you raise children to have willpower? The key is to not focus on the end goal of the things they’re doing. Instead, focus on the process. Focus on making those individual hard choices along the way that produces a goal. Don’t praise the “A” on the report card. Instead, praise the hard work that it took to get that “A.” I fully intend to tell my children someday that I’m not really proud of the good grade, but that I’m proud of the work that went into it and the improvement as a person that came out of that work.

The Perfect Storm of Dieting
The book winds down by tying together many of these threads into one common application of willpower in the modern world: dieting. Most of the tactics and ideas in this book show up in dieting, from making the small decisions to cutting off the escape route, and it ties deeply into self-esteem issues for many. One big tactic: focus on the day-to-day achievements, not the numbers on the scale.

Is Willpower Worth Reading?
Willpower addresses a fundamental human challenge with good humor, great ideas, and science backing it up. It’s loaded with thoughtful approaches backed up by research and intriguing stories all over the place.

I view the challenge of willpower as a fundamental human challenge, and this book is a brilliant analysis of that condition. I’d recommend it to anyone and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I am absolutely going to re-read this book, and soon. I can’t pay a higher compliment to a book than that.

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