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Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Economist Review

"Willpower", a new book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, approaches the topic from a more practical angle. The authors—a research psychologist and New York Times science columnist, respectively—set out to interpret and explore the consequences of Mr Baumeister's influential research on willpower, and their findings both confirm and confound common sense. We extracted five of the book's most potent morsels.

On our common problem

Researchers surveying more than 1m people around the world asked subjects to rank their greatest personal strengths from a list of two dozen virtues, among them honesty, kindness, bravery, self-control, and modesty. Self-control came in last. ("Conversely," the authors note, "when people were asked about their failings, a lack of self-control was at the top of the list.")

On willpower as a muscle

Humans, it turns out, have a finite amount of willpower, which becomes depleted over the course of a day. Refusing a tempting breakfast donut, in other words, will make it slightly harder to turn down an afternoon croissant. Declining the donut will also make it harder to tolerate an irritating coworker, go for an evening jog, or decline a cigarette: we draw on the same stock of willpower for all tasks, not just related tasks.

On New Year’s resolutions

Don't bother composing a laundry list of resolutions when New Year’s rolls around. Pledging to lose weight, spend less, recycle more, and earn a promotion all at once practically guarantees that none will come to pass. "Because you only have one supply of willpower, the different New Year's resolutions all compete with one another," say the authors. "Each time you try to follow one, you reduce your capacity for all the others." It is better to make a single resolution and stick to it.

On sugar in the blood

As we deplete our inner stores of willpower, the body uses up glucose, resulting in a familiar situation: stressed and overburdened, we find ourselves seeking cookies and chocolates. A lack of glucose imperils our ability to exercise willpower, and adults - like fussy toddlers - risk losing emotional control when unfed. "Don't get into an argument with your boss four hours after lunch," the authors caution. "Don't thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner. When you're on a romantic trip across Europe, don't drive into a walled medieval town at seven P.M. and try to navigate to your hotel on an empty stomach."

On the Catch-22 of dieting

"Even people with excellent self-control can have a hard time consistently controlling their weight," the authors write, describing a phenomenon they've termed the "Oprah Paradox". If Oprah Winfrey - a woman clearly possessed of extraordinary self-discipline - can't stay slim, what hope do the rest of us have? It boils down to a seemingly unsolvable quandary: in order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. Yet in order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat (see above). The solution? Forget diets altogether. Shedding pounds is best accomplished by making tiny, gradual changes. Over time, those changes will congeal into habits that require no willpower to maintain allowing you to spend the surplus elsewhere.

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