Summary: Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

1.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.

2. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”

3. The researchers concluded that people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires—between three and four hours per day.

4. To ward off temptation, people reported using various strategies. The most popular was to look for a distraction or to undertake a new activity, although sometimes they tried suppressing it directly or simply toughing their way through it.

5. Overall, they succumbed to about a sixth of the temptations. They were relatively good at avoiding naps, sex, and the urge to spend money, but only mediocre at passing up food and soft drinks.

6. When they tried resisting the lure of television the Web, and other media sirens, they failed nearly half the time.

7. When researchers compared students’ grades with nearly three dozen personality traits, self-control turned out to be the only trait that predicted a college student’s grade-point average better than chance. Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than the student’s IQ or SAT score.

8. Although raw intelligence was obviously an advantage, the study showed that self-control was more important because it helped the students show up more reliably for classes, start their homework earlier, and spend more time working and less time watching television.

9. Thus was born “ego depletion,” Baumeister’s term for describing people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

10. People can sometimes overcome mental fatigue, but Baumeister found that if they had used up energy by exerting willpower (or by making decisions, another form of ego depletion that we’ll discuss later), they would eventually succumb.

11. The results showed that ego depletion causes a slowdown in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain area that’s crucial to self-control. As the brain slows down and its error-detection ability deteriorates, people have trouble controlling their reactions. They must struggle to accomplish tasks that would get done much more easily if the ego weren’t depleted.

12. In these experiments, while depleted persons (once again) didn’t show any single telltale emotion, they did react more strongly to all kinds of things. A sad movie made them extra sad. Joyous pictures made them happier, and disturbing pictures made them more frightened and upset. Ice-cold water felt more painful to them than it did to people who were not ego-depleted. Desires intensified along with feelings. After eating a cookie, the people reported a stronger craving to eat another cookie—and they did in fact eat more cookies when given a chance.

13. So if you’d like some advance warning of trouble, look not for a single symptom but rather for a change in the overall intensity of your feelings.

14. Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: Your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever. The problem can be particularly acute for people struggling with addiction. Researchers have long noticed that cravings are especially strong during withdrawal.

15. What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions.

16. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

17. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

18. You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities—resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles—drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over.

19. Ego depletion affects even your heartbeat. When people in laboratory experiments exercise mental self-control, their pulse becomes more erratic; conversely, people whose normal pulse is relatively variable seem to have more inner energy available for self-control, because they do better on laboratory tests of perseverance than do people with steadier heartbeats.

20. Focus on one project at a time. If you set more than one self-improvement goal, you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through, but that just leaves you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later.

21. 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.

22. No glucose, no willpower: The pattern showed up time and again as researchers tested more people in more situations.

23. When you’re tired, sleep. Adults routinely shortchange themselves on sleep, and the result is less self-control. By resting, we reduce the body’s demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream.

24. For decades, psychologists have been debating the merits of proximal goals (which are short-term objectives) versus distal goals (which are long-term objectives).

25. The group with the proximal goals outperformed everyone else when the program was over and competence was tested. They succeeded, apparently, because meeting these daily goals gradually built their confidence and self-efficacy. With their focus on a specific goal for each session, they learned better and faster than the others. Even though they spent less time per session, they got more done, thus progressing through all the material faster.

26. It turned out that the distal goals were no better than having no goals at all. Only the proximal goals produced improvements in learning, self-efficacy, and performance.

27. Psychologists distinguish two main types of mental processes, automatic and controlled. Automatic processes, processes, like multiplying 4 times 7, can be done without exertion. If someone says “4 times 7,” 28 probably pops into your head whether you want it to or not—that’s why the process is called automatic. In contrast, computing 26 times 30 requires mental effort as you go through the steps of multiplying to come up with 780.

28. Once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option.

29. A quick dose of glucose can counteract this short-term thinking, as researchers demonstrated by giving people a soft drink just before asking them to make choices between quick-but-small versus larger-but-later rewards.

30. Advertising agencies figured out long ago that men are more likely to splurge on a luxury product if it’s shown next to a beautiful woman.

31. I have never known a man who was too idle to attend to his affairs & accounts, who did not get into difficulties; & he who habitually is in money difficulties, very rarely keeps scrupulously honourable, & God forbid that this should ever be your fate. —Charles Darwin, in a letter to his son accompanying a check to pay off the young man’s debts

32. Those who focused on what they had already done did not seem eager to move on to more difficult and challenging tasks. They were reasonably content with where they were and what they were currently doing. For contentment, apparently, it pays to look at how far you’ve come. To stoke motivation and ambition, focus instead on the road ahead.

33. Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.

34. We’ve said that willpower is humans’ greatest strength, but the best strategy is not to rely on it in all situations. Save it for emergencies. As Stanley discovered, there are mental tricks that enable you to conserve willpower for those moments when it’s indispensable.

35. Precommitment. 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.

36. What began as a precommitment turned into something permanent and more valuable: a habit.

37. The behaviors they had coded as automatic tended to be linked to habits, whereas the more controlled sorts of behaviors tended to be unusual or one-time-only actions. Self-control turned out to be most effective when people used it to establish good habits and break bad ones.

38. Some would collect information until they were ready and then write a manuscript in a burst of intense energy, over perhaps a week or two, possibly including some long days and very late nights. Others plodded along at a steadier pace, trying to write a page or two every day. Others were in between. When Boice followed up on the group some years later, he found that their paths had diverged sharply. The page-a-day folks had done well and generally gotten tenure. The so-called “binge writers” fared far less well, and many had had their careers cut short. The clear implication was that the best advice for young writers and aspiring professors is: Write every day. Use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run.

39. We know that self-control starts with setting standards or goals, and we can see that AA helps people set a clear and attainable goal: Do not have a drink today. (AA’s mantra is “One day at a time.”)

40. Self-control depends on monitoring, and AA offers help there, too. Members get chips for remaining sober for certain numbers of consecutive days, and when they get up to speak, they often start by saying how many days they have been sober. Members also choose a sponsor, with whom they are supposed to remain in regular, even daily, contact—and that, too, is a powerful boost for monitoring.

41. “bright lines,” a term that Ainslie borrows from lawyers. These are clear, simple, unambiguous rules. You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line.

42. Zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime. It’s not practical for all self-control problems—a dieter cannot stop eating all food—but it works well in many situations. Once you’re committed to following a bright-line rule, your present self can feel confident that your future self will observe it, too.

43. Mischel found some support for the ethnic stereotypes, but in the process he stumbled on a much bigger and more meaningful effect. Children who had a father in the home were far more willing than others to choose the delayed reward. Most of the racial and ethnic variation could be explained by this difference, because the Indian children generally lived with both parents, whereas a fair number of the African children lived with a single mother. The value of fatherhood was also evident when Mischel analyzed just the African homes: About half of the children living with fathers chose the delayed reward, but none of the children in fatherless homes were willing to wait. Similarly, none of the Indian children living without a father were willing to wait.

44. Even after researchers control for socioeconomic factors and other variables, it turns out that children from two-parent homes get better grades in school. They’re healthier and better-adjusted emotionally. They have more satisfying social lives and engage in less antisocial behavior. They’re more likely to attend an elite university and less likely to go to prison.

45. Lack of adult supervision during the teenage years turned out to be one of the strongest predictors of criminal behavior.

46. A simple commitment strategy for avoiding late-night snacking is to brush your teeth early in the evening, while you’re still full from dinner and before the late-night-snacking temptation sets in. Although it won’t physically prevent you from eating, brushing your teeth is such an ingrained pre-bedtime habit that it unconsciously cues you not to eat anymore.

47. You can also try a strategy that psychologists call an “implementation intention,” which is a way to reduce the amount of time and effort you spend controlling your thoughts. Instead of making general plans to reduce calories, you make highly specific plans for automatic behavior in certain situations, like what to do when you’re tempted by fattening food at a party. An implementation intention takes the form of if-then: If x happens, I will do y. The more you use this technique to transfer the control of your behavior to automatic processes, the less effort you will expend.

48. Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy, as Baumeister and his colleagues have observed recently on both sides of the Atlantic.

49. The researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did.

50. These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations.

51. Baumeister, showing that 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.

52. “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one,” Benchley wrote. “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” 

53. Benchley recognized a phenomenon that Baumeister and Tice also documented in their term-paper study: Procrastinators typically avoid one task by doing something else, and rarely do they sit there doing nothing at all. But there’s a better way to exploit that tendency, as Raymond Chandler recognized.