Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister

How This Book Benefits Modern Parents

Got a child who seems to give up on hard tasks easily or who just isn’t interested in anything that seems worthwhile? This book – written by the original willpower researcher – gives the Modern Parent the background needed to see that willpower is actually a “muscle” that can be strengthened if used properly. 

Do I recommend this book? YES!

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My Notes/Thoughts About The Book

This is my book summary of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.


  • Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework.


  • “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over “the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”


  • “And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit. “Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic,” Angela Duckworth, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers told me.
    “Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.”


  • “the second marshmallow. Years later, they tracked down many of the study’s participants. By now, they were in high school. The researchers asked about their grades and SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and their capacity to “cope with important problems.” They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs. If you knew how to avoid the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler, it seemed, you also knew how to get yourself to class on time and finish your homework once you got older, as well as how to make friends and resist peer pressure.”


  • “Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks—such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation—helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.” But funding for these inquiries was scarce. The topic of willpower wasn’t in vogue.”


  • “On average, the radish eaters worked for only about eight minutes, 60 percent less time than the cookie eaters, before quitting.”


  • “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”


  • “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”


  • “inflection points—something similar to the Scottish patients’ booklets: a routine for employees to follow when their willpower muscles went limp”


  • Here is an example of how Starbucks does this:
    One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”


  • “Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than the student’s IQ or SAT score. Although raw intelligence was obviously an advantage, the study showed that self-control was more important because it helped the students show up more reliably for classes, start their homework earlier, and s”


  • “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time,” they concluded, pointing to the accumulating evidence of its contribution to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime, and a host of other problems.”


  • “People with good self-control seemed exceptionally good at forming and maintaining secure, satisfying attachments to other people. 


  • “The children with high self-control grew up into adults who had better physical health, including lower rates of obesity, fewer sexually transmitted diseases, and even healthier teeth. (Apparently, good self-control includes brushing and flossing.)”


  • “The children with good self-control were much more likely to wind up in a stable marriage and raise children in a two-parent home. Last, but certainly not least, the children with poor self-control were more likely to end up in prison”


  • “In a follow-up study, the same researchers looked at brothers and sisters from the same families so that they could compare children who grew up in similar homes. Again, over and over, the sibling with the lower self-control during childhood fared worse during adulthood”


  • “The wires attached to their skulls revealed notably sluggish activity in the conflict-monitoring system of the brain: The alarm signals for mismatches were weaker. The results showed that ego depletion causes a slowdown in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain area that’s crucial to self-control. As the brain slows down and its error-detection ability deteriorates, people have trouble controlling their reactions”


  • “But now it turns out that there are signals of ego depletion, thanks to some new experiments by Baumeister”


  • “What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions.”


  • “No glucose, no willpower:”


  • “the drinks with sugar restored the willpower of the dogs who’d had to obey the commands.”


  • “Heatherton reported that the glucose reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion—a finding, he said, that thoroughly surprised him.”


  • “Apparently ego depletion shifts activity from one part of the brain to another. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. That may help explain why depleted people feel things more intensely than normal: Certain parts of the brain go into high gear just as others taper off.


  • As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat—which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands for self-control in their daily lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It’s not a simple matter of wanting all food more—they seem to be specifically hungry for sweets.”


  • “Eat Your Way to Willpower


  • Now that we’ve surveyed the problems caused by lack of glucose, we can turn to solutions and to cheerier topics, like good meals and long naps. Here are some lessons and strategies for putting glucose to work for you: Feed the beast.”


  • “Sugar works in the lab, not in your diet. It’s a bit ironic that self-control researchers are so fond of giving sugar to experimental subjects, given how many of those people wish for the willpower to resist sweets. But the scientists are doing it just for short-term convenience. A sugar-filled drink provides a quick rise in energy that enables experimenters to observe the effects of glucose in a short period of time. Neither the researchers nor their experimental subjects want to wait around an hour for the body to digest something more complex, like protein.”


  • “But a sugar spike is promptly followed by a crash that leaves you feeling more depleted, so it’s not a good long-term strategy.”


  • “To maintain steady self-control, you’re better off eating”


  • “foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good” fats. (These low-glycemic foods may also help keep you slim.)”


  • “When you’re tired, sleep. We shouldn’t need to be told something so obvious, but cranky toddlers aren’t the only ones who resist much needed naps. Adults routinely shortchange themselves on sleep, and the result is less self-control. By resting, we reduce the body’s demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream. Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control—and, over the long term, a higher risk of diabetes.”


  • “A recent study found that workers who were not getting enough sleep were more prone than others to engage in unethical conduct on the job, as rated by their supervisors and others. For example, they were more likely than others to take credit for work done by somebody else. In a laboratory experiment offering test takers the chance to win cash, students who had not slept enough were more likely than others to take advantage of an opportunity to cheat”


  • The Bahia routine takes the fatigue of decision making away from the child. 


  • “They don’t realize that decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at their colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket, and can’t resist the car dealer’s offer to rustproof their new sedan.”


  • “It turned out that the deciders gave up significantly sooner than the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and the effect showed up again in other decision-making exercises.”


  • “Compared with the nondeciders, who’d spent just as much time evaluating the same kind of information without making choices, the deciders gave up sooner on the puzzles. Instead of using their time to practice for the math test, they goofed off by reading magazines and playing video games.”


  • “Self-awareness evolved because it helps self-regulation.”


  • “If the people could see themselves in the mirror, they were more likely to follow their own inner values instead of following someone else’s orders.”


  • “In an experiment one Halloween, some of the trick-or-treaters who visited the home of a psychologist were asked their names, directed to a side room, and told to take one—and only one—piece of candy. The room had a table with several bowls of attractive candies, and the children could easily violate the instructions without any consequences—which many of them did when the mirror in the room was turned backward against the wall. But if the mirror was facing frontward and they could see themselves, they were much more likely to resist the temptation. Even when they were looking at themselves disguised by a Halloween costume, they felt self-conscious enough to do the right thing.


  • The link between self-awareness and self-control was also demonstrated in experiments involving adults and alcohol. Researchers found that one of the chief effects of drinking was to reduce people’s ability to monitor their own behavior. As drinkers’ self-awareness declines, they lose self-control, so they get into more fights, smoke more, eat more, make more sexual blunders, and wake up the next day with many more regrets. One of the hardest parts of a hangover is the return of self-awareness, because that’s when we resume.


  • “Changing personal behavior to meet standards requires willpower, but willpower without self-awareness is as useless as a cannon commanded by a blind man”


  • “A personal goal can seem more real once you speak it out loud, particularly if you know the audience will be monitoring you. A recent study of people undergoing cognitive therapy found that resolutions were more likely to be kept if they were made in the presence of other people, especially a romantic partner.”

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