Book Review
Title: "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength"
Author: Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
Publisher: Penguin, 2012; 304 pages; $16

When I sat down to read the latest book from research psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," I thought I’d read it in the context of what the rest of the world was thinking and saying on the subject.

In my own lifetime, I reflected, I had seen a vast spectrum of thought on the topic, from my dad’s U.S. Marine Corps-influenced tendency to set and reach goals with little more than willpower, to my generation’s Oprah-influenced tendency to believe that willpower might not even be a thing, so to speak.

So, as I’m wont to do with all essential and existential stalemates needing breaking, I Googled it. What is most telling is not so much what the research said, but what Google used to auto-fill my search. I typed the word "willpower" and Google suggested the following searches:

  • willpower doesn’t exist (~191,000,000 results).
  • willpower doesn’t work (~6,770,000 results).

Upon digging into "Willpower," it became crystal clear that the book’s authors were also aware of this debate; the Introduction actually tracks the history of willpower — aka self-control in the face of desire — from the Middle Ages through the Information Age.

The authors also started their inquiries into willpower somewhat dubious about its existence, but ended up as champions of what they deem the most pivotal, controllable element for making our lives happy after years of original research and analysis of source material ranging from Henry Stanley’s diaries of self-discipline in the heart of the jungles of 19th-century Africa (while his colleagues gave into a bizarre array of human lusts, from food to violence and all points in between) to Drew Carey’s ongoing — victorious! — battles with his office clutter and daily to-do lists.

"Willpower" relates their findings and synthesizes them into entertaining, entirely usable insights we can all use to drive our own "productivity," "fulfillment" and "happiness." This book is uber-educational, serious, funny and fascinating all at once. Baumeister and Tierney cover everything from how and why to be an effective, efficient goal-setter, dieter and self-scientist to how and why to raise children who have self-control, versus self-esteem.

But one of the most actionable, powerful sections of "Willpower" is the chapter that focuses on dozens of studies that have found that the "power" ingredient of willpower is largely glucose, which appears to fuel our brains’ ability to control our impulses. The chapter then translates these findings into a set of action items for boosting our own willpower, whether we’re trying to save money, spend less, eat less or otherwise exercise more self-discipline. Here are a few of those steps:

1. "Feed the beast." The upshot of this provocative-sounding mandate is this: Don’t make decisions, argue or try to solve major problems on an empty stomach. Calorie counting is also a setup for failure when you’re trying to change major habits, like quitting smoking. In fact, studies cited by the authors found that smokers trying to quit who took extra sugar along with other smoking cessation therapies had more success than their peers.

2. "Sugar works in the lab, not in your diet," so "go for the slow burn." In the lab, researchers give subjects actual tablets of sugar. In real life, though, eating junk foods and sugary things spikes your blood sugar and shortly leads to a feeling of depletion that actually make efforts to control yourself and your emotions much more difficult. Our bodies convert most foods into glucose, but things with a low glycemic index, like veggies, nuts, raw fruits, fish and olive oils, are very slow to be converted into glucose, so they fuel your body, your brain and your willpower for a longer, more sustained period of time than starchy carbohydrates and sweets.

3. "When you’re sick, save your glucose for your immune system." Baumeister and Tierney point to this stunning truth: "Driving a car with a bad cold has been found to be even more dangerous than driving when mildly intoxicated." Yikes! They then post this question: "[i]f you’re too glucose-deprived to do something as simple as driving a car, how much use are you going to be in the office (assuming you make it there safely)?"

In any event, the authors advise, when you’re under the weather, avoid making big decisions, trying to exert "peak performance" or putting your self-control to the test.

4. "When you’re tired, sleep." When we rest, the authors teach, our body’s flucose demands decline and our ability to use our blood glucose ticks up; as well, when we’re deprived of sleep, our glucose processing power declines and our self-control can decline, immediately.

If you’re buying a home (or anything else, for that matter), it might be best to make your final offer price decision after dinner and a nap!

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