By: Roy F. Baumeister



Willpower is an elusive thing. Somedays you feel like you have it, and other days you simply can’t resist the urges to eat that second piece of chocolate cake. Don’t worry, you are in good company.

Magician and endurance stunt madman David Blaine is able to will himself through feats that would literally kill most people, like living in a glass box and not eating for 44 days straight. But between stunts, he seemingly can’t get his life together and gains more than 40 pounds with remarkable mix of bad food and alcohol.

Many scientists believe that there are only two things worth studying so that mankind could improve its collective well-being: intelligence and willpower. But until recently, it was believed that there was nothing you could do to improve either one. However, in this remarkable book, this myth is exploded. If you are able to apply the principles you learn here, you might literally be able to transform the trajectory of your life.

But only if you have enough willpower to pay close attention for the next 12 minutes. So buckle up, and get ready for a tour-de-force on what science knows about willpower, and what you can do to use it.

Deepest, Darkest, Africa

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

Our search for willpower brings us to the African jungle where Henry Morton Stanley uttered this now famous greeting after finding the Scottish missionary after a long and arduous journey.

This was Stanley’s first taste of the deepest, darkest Africa and the toll it can exact on the human body, and psyche. Malaria, bouts of fever, and nasty run-ins with the locals are par for the course.

A little later in his journeys, he routinely did something that most people would shrug off as the quirk of a remarkable man (some would argue a dispicable empiralist): he took a shave. Imagine yourself in the middle of the African jungle, leading a small group of men with no food, water or supplies.

Day by day, more of your men die of disease or starvation. You wake up each morning knowing that your turn might be next. While others around you are literally losing the will to live, you reach for your razor and pretend you are being cast for the latest Gillette commercial.

This seemingly insignificant act was a window into the psyche of a man who had mastered willpower, and would do whatever it took to survive under some of the harshest conditions ever experienced by somebody who lived to talk about it.

What Is Willpower? 

Through hundreds of studies and thousands of research subjects, scientists have discovered 2 remarkable things:

1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
2. You use the same stock of willpower for all the tasks you are doing.

In fact, your willpower can be likened to a muscle. Although you have a finite amount of strength today, you can increase your strength over time if you do the right exercises. Similarly, scientists have shown that you can also increase your stock of willpower over time. This is exactly what Stanley was doing every morning – a small exercise in willpower that gave him the strength to survive the more difficult challenges of his will.

How You Use Your Willpower 

You use your willpower for 4 broad things:

Control of your thoughts. Any time you try and regulate your thoughts, you are using up some of your precious willpower.

Control of your emotions. Most often we’ll use our willpower when we are trying to remain positive in negative situations. However, there are also situations where we are trying to avoid appearing happy in a negative situation like a funeral.

Impulse control. This is the category that most people associate with willpower. It’s resisting the temptations of alcohol, cigarettes, or whatever your vice of choice happens to be.

Performance control. This is focussing your energy on the task at hand, managing time and persevering when you feel the urge to quit.

Feed Your Mind 

When you use your willpower, scientists would say that you are depleting your ego. In fact, any kind of stress will deplete your ego. When you are in an ego depleted state, your ability to control your emotions, make decisions and curb your impulses decreases dramatically. Why this happens used to be a mystery, until 2 remarkable studies gave us the answer.

In one study, researchers gave a set of tasks to three groups of people – one got a milkshake before the task, the other a non-appetising glop of dairy, and the last group nothing at all. The hypothesis was that the group who got the milkshake would perform best because they believed that willpower was replenished through an act of self-satisfaction. However, the results showed that the dairy glop helped the test subjects just as much as the delicious milkshake did. This was puzzling to them, to say the least.

In the other study, they looked at the parole decisions of judges in the Israeli prison system. On the whole, they approved parole for about one in three prisoners. But on closer examination, something incredible was happening. Those who appeared early in the morning were granted parole 65% of the time, and those later in the day less than 10% of the time.

Looking even closer, they found the same pattern right before and after lunch – before lunch you were out of luck, right after lunch and your chances were higher than 60%. People in for the same crimes and same behaviour record were being treated differently based on the time of day their cases were heard.

What was happening here? For the judges, denying parole was the same as making no decision at all, because they knew that these prisoners would be up for parole again soon, but that making the tough call about whether or not to let them out had serious consequences. Their willpower had been depleted, and only a break (along with some food) put them back into a state where they could make proper decisions.

So, there are two things that you should take from these studies. The first is that your willpower is regulated in some way by the amount of glucose in your system. You’ve heard numerous times that you should have small, frequent meals throughout the day in order to remain healthy and lose weight. Now, in my mind, there’s an even stronger argument. In a knowledge economy where your brain is your tool, your will to do the things you need to do in order to succeed literally depends on your brain getting the glucose it needs.

Second, you need to get your rest. Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to process glucose and get it to your brain. So, get as much sleep as you need in order to function properly. You might think you are cheating the laws of nature by sleeping less than you need, but the only person you are cheating is yourself.

Lastly, because we don’t have a willpowerometer (yet), the only way you’ll be able to know whether or not you are in a state of ego depletion is to look for clues. Look for a change in the overall intensity of your feelings. If your reaction to events – good or bad – are not in line with your usual reactions – you are likely in a state of ego depletion and need a break.

Willpower Strategy #1: Pick Your Battles 

David Blaine is world-famous for his acts of willpower. He has suspended himself in a glass case above London where he ate absolutely nothing for 44 days. He holds the record for holding his breath under water, a feat that requires an enormous amount of self-control. He stood on top of a pillar that was less than 22 inches wide, without a harness, 85 feet above Bryant Park in NYC for more than 36 hours. And you think you have trouble concentrating?

Yet, incredibly, he finds it nearly impossible to keep himself together in between these fits of self-control. His “performance” weight is around 180 pounds, and he typically balloons up to 230 pounds shortly after. His apartment is a mess. And he’s missed having his name in the Guiness Book of World Records because he was literally too lazy to fill out the paper work.
So what’s going on here?

Because you only have a limited supply of willpower, you need to be aware of how much you commit yourself to. So, pick your battles and don’t try to transform your life in one day. Doing so only sets yourself up for failure.

If you need to do tedious tasks throughout your day (which deplete the ego), make sure to limit them to a specific amount of time.

Willpower Strategy #2: Make a to-do list

The king of todo lists is David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done. You’ve heard it all before, but now you have some scientific proof to back it up – todo lists actually help your performance.

When you try to ignore a task that you have to complete, or simply forget to write it down in a place you’ll be sure to find it, your unconscious continues to worry about it for you. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, and there’s simply no way around it. You can’t get rid of it by procrastinating or willing yourself to forget it.

Of course, every moment you spend worrying about the task depletes your willpower. So it has the double effect of distracting you from the task at hand, and also making you less effective at that same task.

Willpower Strategy #3: Positive Procrastination 

Procrastination is usually a bad thing, as we’ve just discussed. However, when you are trying to avoid things you know you shouldn’t be doing – like eating that chocolate cake or smoking that cigarette – procrastination is a good thing. Simply telling yourself that you’ll “have it later” is much more effective than trying to deny yourself completely.

Another form a procrastination is a little more subversive, but equally effective. Most people who procrastinate don’t just sit around doing nothing – they substitute other tasks instead. So instead of typing your term paper in college, you probably cleaned your room for the tenth time in a week.

As Robert Benchley – the famous contributor to the New Yorker – once said: “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment”.

So, when you find yourself struggling to get your work done, you could invent a new task that was even more important to stand in its place. Then, you’ll find yourself procrastinating by getting that thing done.

Willpower Strategy #4: Keep track of yourself

One of the biggest tricks in improving your willpower is to be self-aware. Even though self-awareness is one of the traits that makes us uniquely human, most of us don’t leverage this self awareness to its fullest potential.

In another remarkable study, it was found that people were much less likely to steal halloween candy from an empty room when there was a mirror present. Why? Because consciously or unconsciously, those test subjects became aware of themselves and the act they were about to commit.

Self-awareness helps in self-regulation against a set of standards that we set for ourselves. So, if you wanted to take this to the extreme, you would be acutely aware of where you stood in relation to everything you felt was important to you on a daily basis. You would have scores for almost everything – your weight, your bank account, your happiness level, and the list goes on.

Benjamin Franklin was famous for many things, and one of them were his 13 virtues – the virtues by which he decided he would live his life. A man ahead of his time, he knew that he simply couldn’t immediately take on a transformation on such a grand scale. So, he would practice one of these virtues every week, but would also give himself a grade on each of the virtues daily.

His theory was that eventually he would master each one and his daily “score” would be perfect. Although he was never able to attain perfection, he admitted that his daily reflection on these things brought him much of his success in life.

You can do this by monitoring your finances with a service like Mint, monitor how many steps you take during the day with device like Fitbit, and even monitor the quality of your sleep. The key here is that you’ll be constantly monitoring yourself to a standard that you choose, and you will automatically find yourself altering your behaviour along the way.

Onwards and upwards.