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Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success

By Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
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Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Willpower brings the concept of self-control back into mainstream discussions on achievement. It takes contemporary scientific studies and breaks them down, demonstrating that, despite the previously held views of many experts, willpower can indeed be harnessed and strengthened to make the changes in your life you’ve always wanted to make.

Key idea 1 of 9

Willpower is like a muscle that tires with use.

Imagine that you’ve just left the gym after a hard workout. Your legs wobble on the way to your car, and your arms are so exhausted that even tugging the door handle feels like a feat of strength. Your willpower works much the same way.

The more willpower you exercise without interruption, the less you’ll have available immediately after.

Essentially, we have a limited “supply” of willpower to use in our day-to-day – from choosing broccoli over cookies to being nice to our in-laws. Any of these tasks can contribute to willpower depletion.

This was verified in one of the author’s own studies, in which participants were placed in a room that smelled of delicious cookies and then divided into groups: one group got to eat cookies, while the other was asked to eat radishes instead.

In the second half of the experiment, participants had to solve geometry puzzles. Surprisingly, those who forwent the delicious cookies and instead ate radishes spent significantly less time trying to complete these puzzles than those who simply ate the cookies: 12 minutes less, in fact.

In other words, using their willpower to resist the cookies left them with less stamina available to tackle difficult tasks later.

In addition, our willpower and decision making are intimately tied together – each has drastic effects on the other. For example, many “deciders” – e.g., prime ministers, mayors and other people in positions of power – seem to more easily succumb to carnal temptations and get involved in sex scandals.

This is likely due to decision fatigue. Having to make so many important decisions on a regular basis exhausts their available willpower, and thus makes it difficult to resist temptations.

In the same vein, we tend to make worse decisions when we suffer from mental fatigue. For many this plays out daily, when people come home exhausted from work and find themselves bickering with their spouse instead of finding compromises.

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