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You Can Not Do It!

New clinical research backs up age-old ideas about the benefits of self-control

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Revered by the Victorians, willpower is staging a comeback: It’s the topic of several new books, most recently Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney.

According to Willpower’s co-authors, Americans jettisoned this bedrock virtue in their post-WWII rush toward instant gratification. Now, as a partial corrective, Baumeister and Tierney have penned this lively screed on the benefits of mastering your urges. It’s a book that shuns Old School moralizing — no “sermons against bare ankles” here, they promise — in favor of data collected during experiments conducted by Baumeister and other researchers from the 1980s on.

Intriguingly, those findings support a couple of 19th-century notions once dismissed as unscientific: that self-control is vital to success of many stripes, and that willpower hinges on a sort of “mental energy” that can be drawn down — but also replenished, and even fortified, through exercise.

“We want to tell you what’s been learned about human behavior,” Baumeister and Tierney declare, “and how you can use it to change yourself for the better.” If that makes Willpower a self-help manual, credit the book with being more carefully documented — and much better written — than most such guides. It should be noted, however, that the authors share with their less-credentialed self-improvement peers a tendency to make the same points time and again, as well as some fuzziness on the terminology front. The words willpower and self-control are used virtually interchangeably throughout; if they are indeed synonyms, a paragraph noting same would have been welcome. And though the clinical research they illuminate is frequently provocative, the actions they propose for strengthening willpower often seem obvious in the extreme.

It is fascinating, for example, to learn that exerting willpower — eating healthful radishes instead of the tasty cookies on the same table, say — leads to a slowdown in the part of the brain that fosters self-control. This “ego depletion,” as Baumeister calls it, means that if one demand on your willpower is followed immediately by another, you’re much more likely to give up and give in.

It is even more absorbing to read the authors’ claim that this failure may have its source in physiology: They point to several experiments indicating that the exercise of self-control lowers the body’s levels of glucose, the sugar that fuels brain activity.

But it is far less beguiling to be told that the key to sustained self-control is proper nutrition (to supply the glucose you need) and plenty of rest (because sleep deprivation impairs glucose processing). This is basically a scientific rewording of the timeworn advice not to shop when you’re hungry, or not to make important choices when you’re tired: “It takes willpower to make decisions” is the less-than-earth-shattering conclusion the authors draw from one series of experiments.

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