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Willpower

This is one of the most informative nonfiction books I’ve ever read:

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

In this book John Tierney documents the results of years of research by Roy Baumeister on the subject of willpower. He gives tons of great anecdotes about experiments and observations. But this post will cover only my major takeaways.

1) You willpower is finite and becomes depleted each time you use it.

2) You use the same reserve of willpower for everything you do (see p. 35).

3) Sleep and glucose replenish the reserve.

I’ll unpack those points briefly. Like a car has a gas tank, the authors argue, you have a willpower tank. And it only has a certain capacity. Once you empty the tank any given day, you’re running on empty until you get food and sleep.

How do you empty the tank? Every time you do something that takes an act of willpower, you lose some from the tank. Acts that take willpower include anything that requires you controlling your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance.

The authors make a big deal of the fact that people tend to be more prone to pop off on spouses and children after an especially hard day at work. The willpower tank is empty at the end of the day. That’s when you need to be careful.

In order to refill the tank you need glucose and sleep. A glass of lemonade, or preferably a good meal, can do wonders. So can a good night’s rest.

I’ve started thinking about willpower in terms of a bucket. You need to know when your willpower bucket is getting low. Remember that every time you perform some act of self control (even if you fail at that act), you’re taking a ladle-full (or more) of willpower out of the bucket. When the bucket gets low, it’s not a good time to go grocery shopping. Or to have a disciplinary meeting with a child. Or to have a serious discussion with your spouse or boss. Sleep on it first. Or at least have a good meal.

The authors recommend a few things to help us in battles of willpower:

  • Watch for symptoms (p. 245): Keep your mind on the bucket. If you recognizing that you’re close to flying off the handle, or binge eating, or whatever you may do when your willpower is depleted, take note. And get yourself out of the situation.
  • Pick your battles (p. 248): Don’t try to do a lot of willpower depleting activities at once. If you’re trying to quit smoking (and that’s going to be a huge act of will), that’s probably not a good time to also go on a major diet.
  • Develop steady habits: Once something becomes a habit, it no longer takes willpower.

One of the more interesting points (at least for me) the authors make is that repeat dieters often struggle because the body that has once experienced the depletion needed for a major diet will fight harder and harder to keep you from putting it through it again. The authors call dieting a major catch 22. Why? Because dieting takes willpower. And willpower needs glucose. And dieting restricts glucose.

Finally, the book gave me a new appreciation of Christ’s experience in his temptation with Satan. It’s not mentioned in the book, but I couldn’t help but think of it. Satan came to him while he was on an extended fast. When his willpower was at his lowest. But he had a food that Satan didn’t understand:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). That was his ultimate source of willpower. We need that type of communion with God to keep our buckets full as well.

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