Stress.  Lack of sleep.  Having to make a bunch of seemingly small decisions.  Veering from your usual routine.  Trying to eat a healthy diet.  What do these things have in common?

They all deplete your willpower.

According to the authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, everyone has a finite amount of willpower, and you use it up on all sorts of tasks you don’t necessarily associate with requiring willpower.  In this fascinating review of science, psychology, and common sense you’ll find out what depletes willpower, what restores it, and what that means for your attempt to set and achieve your goals.

The whole book was interesting, but a couple of points I found most intriguing were the discussions of the importance of habits and the contradiction between the suggestions for kicking addictions versus keeping to a diet.

Habit formation is something I’ve read a lot about in literature about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, and it’s always instructive to see how the concept of good habits is validated in research.  In the context of willpower, habits help you to make a good choice without depleting your limited reserves.  So, to use a simplistic example, if you make it a habit to eat at a salad place every day for lunch, you spare yourself the daily willpower depletion of debating whether to eat salad or a burger and fries.  The habit/willpower connection extends to more subtle areas of behavior and lifestyle as well.

The authors also (perhaps unwittingly) touched on a fascinating contrast I first saw articulated on Gretchen Rubin’s blog – the question of whether you are an abstainer or a moderator.  The willpower book suggests that the best way to quit a habit like smoking or the like is to make yourself a bright line policy.  That is, to say “I will not ever have another cigarette.”  The bright line policy helps to reduce the amount of time you have to spend dithering over whether this is a good time or a bad time for a smoke, or if you have smoked too much that day, or if you should cut down more, etc.  On the other hand, the authors take more of a moderator approach to diet and suggest that it’s more effective to tell yourself you can have small amounts of everything than to say you’ll never eat sugar again.  For a moderator, that would work well.  For an abstainer, it’s a recipe for disaster (Jen Fox, I put that in just for you!) because you’ll spend so much time and energy and willpower debating about when it’s all right to eat the cookie.  For me, since I’m an abstainer, it’s much, much easier to say “I don’t eat cookies.”  Because once I fall off the wagon, I’m off in a big way.

Whatever you think about the moderator versus abstainer distinction (and I’d love to know what you think of it!) and whether or not you are interested in diet or just all around interested in goal setting and getting things done, I’d really recommend Willpower.

In the book, the authors talk about how being depleted in one area, such as having decision fatigue or not getting enough sleep, can make it harder to have willpower in other areas such as being pleasant to your family or eating healthy foods.  They argue that the state of depletion makes all of your emotions heightened and cravings stronger.  Do you find this is true?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

6 thoughts on “Willpower

  1. 🙂 No kidding, re: time, energy, willpower spent on debating about when it’s all right to eat the cookie! The waste of personal resources that go into playing around with stuff like that is huge when you’re better as an abstainer. (I also have to laugh because I am baking cookies for a bake sale later this week. I was wondering when to make them. Now I know – right before they’re leaving the house, as per policy…)

    I like the verbiage “bright line policy” – nice visual to go with the concept. I’d never considered that making many other decisions in a day would wear down one’s willpower reserves, but it makes sense. I know that stress, low energy, headaches, etc. definitely affect my decision making on things like making healthy eating choices. And cultivating habits has a definite positive influence for me. I also hadn’t considered the amount of stress that “bright line policies” help me to avoid. Skipping the dithering is a good thing…! This was a great topic for a Monday – good time to think about what habits I might cultivate to help me accomplish some goals!

  2. Aha! This is a concept I’ve been wrestling with and didn’t know how to describe it. Instead of willpower I’ve been saying “emotional energy”. I’ll have to check the book out…… I’ve noticed that rigidly sticking to a food budget this year is very draining — rather than “emotional energy” I think what I’m using is willpower and it can get wearing.

  3. This is fascinating to me. Going to add this book to my to read list. Right now I feel so drained because I have a toddler and a 7 month old who for no reason I can figure is waking me up every 1-2hrs at night. Maybe that’s why snacking is such a temptation for me right now! By the way, are you on Goodreads? I would love to see your book lists if you are since I find myself adding so many of the books you review to my to read list. 🙂

    1. Hi Alison, I’m not on Goodreads, although I have considered it. For now, it feels like I don’t really have time for one more social media thing to keep track of and I note all of the books I read on my blog. But who knows, maybe I will change my mind!

  4. Sounds fascinating! I’m definitely going to add this one to my reading pile. Come to think of it, maybe I should first summon the willpower to finish all the books already on my pile…. 😉

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