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Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength (a book review)

January 20, 2013

*While reading this review, please sit by a bowl of m&ms (don’t eat them) and try not to think of a white tiger.*

This is a research book.  Solidly written, compelling, and extremely fact-based.  It doesn’t try to shock, and if you’ve been keeping up with the research in the field then there will likely be few revelations.  That’s not to say it’s bad… it’s an extremely compelling book, laid out logically in a way that will guide you gently into the world that the researcher occupies while masterfully mixing anecdote and data.

So if you’re at all interested in the science of willpower or how to make it seem like you have a lot more (more on that wording later), go read it now.  The rest of this piece is short summaries followed by reactions and observations.  Discuss in the comments.

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The basic theory is that you have a certain reservoir of willpower, like an energy bar in a video game.  Each time you exercise your willpower, some of that energy is used up in the process.  When that willpower is gone, you start to get cranky, everything seems dramatic, and you make bad decisions.

What sort of bad decisions?  The underlying theme is short-term thinking.  Whether it’s forgoing a large sum of money in the future in order to gain a small one now or simply just chowing down on sugary food, people who are out of willpower tend to not think about the future.  This may explain a portion of the cycle of poverty, since poor living conditions wear down willpower, and most wealth-building strategies involve sacrificing in the short-term to gain in the long-term.

Poor willpower, as it turns out, is part of many downward spirals.  For example, one way to boost your willpower is to get glucose into your bloodstream.  The quickest way to do that (and, ironically, the method used by many researchers) is to eat sugary foods.  These provide a quick boost in willpower so you can push through that last part of the workday or finally pay those bills, but in just an hour or two they crash your bloodsugar, resulting in worse willpower than when you started.

Healthy food like meat or vegetables release sugar into the blood stream over a more controlled manner, resulting in better willpower replenishment over time.  What causes you to make good food choices?  Willpower.

Fortunately, there are techniques to improving willpower that don’t require a huge initial investment.  They can basically be divided into two categories:

1.  Training

2.  Automation

Training works like training a muscle.  Give it a moderately difficulty task to perform and then after recovery it’s a little bit stronger.  However, unlike muscles, it would seem (this is speculation based on my experience and the text in the book) willpower can’t by this technique alone multiply its strength by 10x.  It may *seem* like that to an uninformed observer, but most of the observed increase in willpower is really do to automation.

Automation is when you make a choice without thinking about it.  You pre-make the choice, and once it becomes second nature there is almost no willpower expended in making the choice each time.

For example, I am mildly allergic to gluten (a protein mostly found in wheat).  I won’t die if I eat it, but I can tell the next morning if I eat it.  When I found out about my allergy, I premade the choice to not eat gluten, so when someone offers me bread, I just say no.  It’s an automatic response that requires no effort on my part.  It’s like there is code in my brain that says “If this item has gluten AND I’m not starving to literal death… I don’t eat it.”  These rules are pretty easy to make if you have a reason, and once they’re in place they’re remarkably easy to keep.

Another way to think of automation is as habits, or a set of if-then rules.

IF I go to bed, THEN I will brush my teeth first

IF I see gluten, THEN I will not eat it

IF I open facebook, THEN I will close the tab.

Habitual reactions to events that you can hard-code into your brain.  Notice what doesn’t fit this formula:

IF it is january 1, THEN I will lose weight

IF I try hard enough, THEN I will be a better student

These are not real triggers, and they are not real actions.

Some other things that *almost* fit the formula, but still don’t work:

IF I see m&ms, then I will USUALLY not eat them.

IF I open facebook, then I will close it UNLESS I see something interesting.

Fuzzy lines are not automatic, and you still have to make a decision each time.  The hard and fast rules that ease your mind are called Bright Lines.

Another way of making your decisions automatic is externalizing your control over that decision.  Hide the m&mss, join Alchoholics Anonymous, or even start believing in an all-powerful deity who is personally offended by the action you want to avoid.  They are all ways of pre-making decisions, just like the bright lines, although the tactics used (physical location, social pressure, the fear of god) are different.

As a matter of fact, as I write this, I begin to suspect that all the techniques in this book can be lumped under cognitive behavioral therapy.  I will investigate.  In the meantime, enjoy the random observations


* A higher power can help you improve willpower.  Can something impersonal like ‘the force’ or ‘the universe’ be used in place of a higher power?

*Why do David Blaine and the crazy musician girl show such oscillating highs and lows of willpower?  Extreme willpower for some periods and extreme lack at others.  The muscle is not tired for that long.

* “Increasing” self-control seems to be mostly a skill of invoking external control or using other techniques, not as a way to actually increase your pool of self-control.  I’m actually not convinced that that reservoir can be significantly increased like the authors claim… you simply learn techniques to avoid having it go down.

* The willpower reserve is especially interesting.  Exhausted students performed poorly unless offered a monetary reward for high marks.  They were holding back their reserves of willpower in case of emergency, then expending them to get the money.  After that test, they had none left and bombed later tests of willpower.

* Steve Jobs had a habit of setting up bright lines:  for example, the only-carrots diet he went on for a time.  This is just something he did, and it seemed to carry over into his professional life where he was famous for his no-compromise approach with clear standards.

* The nothing alternative is a striking example of external control and bright lines:  during this time period, you will either do activity X or you will do nothing (you can stretch, stare out a window, lie down, and other simple unproductive things).  Simple choice, and doing nothing wins a low amount of the time because many people feel compelled to do *something* in order to escape boredom (if you doubt this, try to meditate).  This is contrasted with the incredibly productive writer who forced himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes for 2.5 hours, 4 times a week.  Here the lines are just as bright but are significantly more constrictive.

* Positive procrastination means you procrastinate on your most important item by doing the second most important thing.  You have “good” things to procrastinate with instead of “bad” ones like internet surfing.  This is an effective technique, to be sure, but it doesn’t align perfectly with my understanding of previous methods of self control like bright lines.  It’s decidedly fuzzy, and how exactly does it let the brain take a rest from deciding?

* Thinking “I can indulge later” induces less stress than saying you can never do it.  You expend less willpower, and you end up doing less of the activity once you finally get around to it.

* Technique:  Think that you haven’t failed, you just haven’t succeeded yet.  Used in video games, but also for me in programming.  A mindset.  Combine with frequent small rewards and infrequent big rewards for the biggest motivator.  Used extensively in video games, but with a little effort it can work in real life.

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