I’ve had this Google Doc open on my laptop for the past hour. The blinking cursor mocking me, taunting me to get started writing my review of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. I text Rachel to let her know that I’m struggling to get to work. She responds, “#irony.” I could start typing. Or I could text my friend Tony about this new wrestling documentary. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. My review of Willpower can wait.
Decision: Watch Professional Wrestling Documentary
Two hours later:
I can tell you that I know more about the history of mid-2000’s WWE than I did two hours ago, but the amount of writing I’ve put together for Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney‘s seminal text is non-existent. I know sometimes I struggle to get into a rhythm, but this review has been staring me down since I put it on my content calendar two months ago.
For February, I wanted to continue my 12-month reading challenge and hopefully gain as much knowledge as I had previously with The Hard Thing About Hard Things. After some searching and a recommendation from Rachel, I had chosen my next novel. 24 days later, a much darker realization occurred: I needed to write a Willpower review.
The Willpower Book Review
I’ll admit it, I had difficulty continuing to pick up Willpower. Of course, willpower is all about restraining impulses, so there’s something ironic about struggling to finish a book about the subject.
To make sure I finished the novel, I started reading the book in the car ride to work while Rachel drove. I’m shocked that I made it to the half-way point of the trip before falling asleep. Whereas Horowitz focused his lessons through personal narrative, Baumeister and Tierney collect a series of stories and bundle them up together so readers can walk away with numerous tips and tricks about the magic of willpower. Unfortunately, this narrative style just didn’t work for me.
The book shines in the stories that Baumeister and Tierney choose to tell: how Amanda Palmer learned about willpower through street performance, Drew Carey‘s struggle with an over-inflated inbox, and the numerous studies referenced throughout. Plus a butt-load of information about the craziness that is David Blaine. These narratives are engaging, but the personal attachment to the narrative is missing. The book is just very dry.
That being said, there is a lot to like about this book: Willpower’s language is simple and easy to understand, the lessons are straight-forward, and the use of celebrities is well done. But if the writing isn’t captivating, then it isn’t captivating, and there’s not much you can do about that.
Lesson One: You Have Finite Willpower
Baumeister and Tierney introduce two crucial lessons about willpower early on in the book:
- You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
- You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.
Imagine willpower like an energy bar over your head, the same way it’d look in any video game. By looking at a series of studies, both men recognized that the experiments demonstrated those two lessons over and over. Completing tasks you might not be interested in will diminish your willpower over a day. “You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities… drew on the same source of energy.” Every choice you make during the course of a day is taken from the same well of willpower, so it’s important to recognize that you do not have an unlimited amount.
The authors believe that there are four primary uses of willpower: control of thoughts, control of emotions, impulse control, and performance control. Willpower seems to be a lot about understanding yourself and your limitations as a human being.
As an educator, I’d wake up at 5:15 A.M., walk my dog, and go to work. I’d be home by 3:30 P.M. and nap until Rachel got home. I used all of my emotional willpower hiding the fact that I was unhappy or depressed, so by the time I got back, I had little to no energy left. I’ve noticed that since I’ve started Dudefluencer, I’ve had a lot more energy that flows throughout the day rather than relying on coffee or tea to get me through the morning classes.
Because of that extra willpower, I’ve started cooking at home more often, taking fewer naps, and finding myself writing better. The next time you’re in a situation where you feel like you’re struggling with energy, try and think about where you are using your willpower and whether or not you can change the situation.
Lesson Two: Make Monthly To-Do Lists
A former colleague of mine was a big list person. She loved lists. The first thing she did every morning was pull out the tiny notebook out of her nightstand, write down her list of to-do’s, and then throughout the day cross off each item. You know, like a reasonable list person.
I won’t ever forget her telling me that the most satisfying part of her day was the moment she took her pencil and crossed the last item off of her list. As a teacher, to-do lists were a part of everyday life. We were required to post simplified versions of our lesson plans on the chalkboard, so like most educators, that was the schedule to my day. But for my personal life, I could never seem to get into the habit of creating to-do lists. Instead, I struggle to memorize what needs to be taken care of day-by-day, which leads to me forgetting tasks.
Baumeister and Tierney open their section on to-do lists with research around a group of students who practiced daily planning versus those who planned monthly. The results showed that those students who planned monthly were more successful overall than those that scheduled tasks daily. One of the issues is that daily planning requires folks to list out your day-by-day continually, and that can get tiring after a while.
If you plan by month, you’re more flexible in case of delays. Think about it in similar terms to the 30-day challenges; a skipped daily task can feel like an impossible failure. But for a month, you can make up for the delay.
For Dudefluencer, I’ve spent more time focusing on our site’s monthly planner rather than the weekly organization that I conducted throughout the first couple of months at the site. An immediate benefit is knowing what keywords I was writing for, and the ability to plan out larger topic drill-downs.
Even a couple of times this month, Morpus sent us pieces about switching between the iPhone and Android, as well as Tips for Hiking Beginners. Because our month’s schedule was flexible, moving articles from one week to the next was easy.
Lesson Three: Understand Decision Fatigue
My biggest takeaway from Willpower was their discussion on decision fatigue. While designing this website, there were billions of choices to make: WordPress or Squarespace, Shared or Self-Hosting, Divi or Elementor. And don’t even get me started on our color palette.
There was a moment where I spent every weekend just designing and redesigning the website. Playing around with different themes, or switching the colors around for blog layouts. All of these decisions were pushing me away from what was most important: content.
As an upstart men’s magazine, Dudefluencer could be the most beautifully designed website on the planet, and it will still mean nothing if the content and writing isn’t up to par. And because I spent so much time on the design aspects of the site, we only published once a week.
Quite frankly, that just wasn’t enough. I quit my job as a teacher because I wanted to be a writer, and I focused all of my time on anything else but that.
So I took one last Sunday afternoon to tweak the website and promised not to do any significant redesigning until the summer. From now on, I’d be focused on publishing twice a week.
James Clear offers an excellent explanation for decision fatigue: “As it turns out, your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.” The more decisions you are faced with throughout the day, the more likely you will be to make poor decisions.
But to gain control of your willpower, Clear offers a few solutions. The one that spoke to me the most was to “stop making decisions and start making commitments.” By scheduling specific tasks over a week, those are fewer decisions you’ll have to make.
For example, I have a set posting schedule: Monday and Wednesday. I don’t need to make a decision when to post so I can use my choice, making willpower for something else.
One of the benefits of being a teacher is that a lot of decisions are made for you: your grading system, your schedule, and your unit plans. I always felt more depressed over the summer, and thanks to this book, I might finally understand part of the problem.
I need structure. Waking up whenever, doing whatever doesn’t quite work for me. I am a planner, I need something concrete. I love organization. Without a set schedule, I’m left to make choices and the more choices I am forced to make, the more tired I become.
Because of Willpower, I have a better understanding as to why monthly organizing is so important to my mental health.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is all about training the muscles in your brain to make better decisions for your career, your body, and your relationships. Before picking up this book, I’d check out James Clear’s website for a lot of the same information in a more concise manner.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer: