I generally find Roy Baumeister’s research topics interesting, including his willpower research. This book is written by a journalist and talks about Dr Baumeister in the 3rd person. I think it was a good choice to have a dedicated writer for the book, since many science books that are written by the head researcher are not that well-written, since researchers write in the style of presenting data, not making that data interesting or connecting it to real life applications that are useful to most people. I found the journalist’s (Dennis O’Hare) skill to be quite engaging and intelligent.
One of the biggest takeaways from the book is that willpower is an exhaustible and generalized resource, meaning that if we use it on one thing, we’ll have less of it for something else. To make this point, there is an entire chapter on how women have less willpower during their periods, because of the large amounts of energy that their bodies are using for their cycle. Baumeister is responsible for the famous studies about people having their willpower either depleted or reserved by allowing them to eat only radishes or only chocolate chip cookies, with both present. The participants in these studies worked on cognitively challenging tasks for less time if they had already depleted willpower by not eating cookies that were set in front of them.
Since reading this book, I’ve found myself more mindful about how I spend my willpower. If I have something that is important and difficult to do, I’ll tend to do it first, earlier in the day, knowing that later in the day I’ll be more likely to run out of stream and either postpone it or not do a very good job at it. Whereas saving less challenging and difficult tasks for later in the day won’t necessarily prevent them from getting done.
A second important topic treated in the book was on how willpower can be increased through practice. This has been shown in studies of physical exercise increasing one’s willpower capacity.
In other words, the use of willpower decreases it in the short term, but increases our overall capacity for it in the long term.
This book is predominantly a review of willpower science. However, it’s not only intellectually interesting, but holds some practical insights that I think can inform people in their management and capacity of their willpower, which is the fuel that allows us to focus on what is important and improve our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, contexts, and lives. It’s a book I will revisit in the future because it’s well-written, enjoyable, and has some important implications for understanding “the greatest human strength”, willpower.