While 2012 is still visible in the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look at a trio of books about willpower published, and/or publicized, in 2012. If you feel poor in willpower, you will get rich quick from perusing these three engaging and helpful books. Bulleted tips will help you decide which one(s) might be useful for your personal willpower challenge.

The phrase “willpower challenge” is from Dr. Kelly McGonigal. McGonigal, a fellow PT blogger, has written The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.  McGonigal teaches a 10-week course, “The Science of Willpower,” at Stanford University; her 10-chapter book mirrors that course, complete with willpower experiments and chapter summaries. McGonigal combines a deep grounding in the willpower research with a compassionate and light-hearted take on our struggles with ourselves as we strive to reach goals that matter. The three skills that, in her view, serve as the foundation of willpower are: (1) self-awareness; (2) self-care; and (3) remembering the goals or values that matter most to you.

Takeaway tips from The Willpower Instinct:

  • The “willpower instinct,” aka, “self-control,” evolved so that we could all cooperate, control our baser impulses, and refrain from shouting, “I hate you,” at an annoying colleague. So you DO have willpower!
  • It takes self-awareness to change a habit. Alcohol, sleep-deprivation, distraction, and stress are enemies of willpower because they make us less self-aware and more prone to impulsiveness.
  • To train the part of your brain that’s in charge of willpower, take care of yourself in healthy ways, such as exercising, taking brain breaks, talking to supportive people, eating better, and practicing mindfulness.  
  • Remind yourself that you are using your willpower to get something you want.
  • When you slip up, self-compassion will help more than self-criticism, shame, and guilt.

If you wish you could take a fun and helpful class about willpower, read this book. Wish granted!

Super-researcher Roy Baumeister, with science writer John Tierney, has co-authored Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  Baumeister’s research is the source of the much-discussed idea that willpower is a limited resource.  According to this theory, willpower is like a muscle which tires with over-use. Willpower, decision-making, and being nice when you don’t want to all drain the same cognitive pool in the short run.  But in the long run, practicing willpower, like exercising your muscles regularly, will strengthen it.

One practical benefit of this view of willpower is that it helps you set priorities. If you only have so much willpower energy on a given day, how do you want to spend that energy? Once you decide, you can budget your willpower and spend it where you need it the most.

Takeaway tips from Willpower:

  • Willpower and IQ are the two best predictors of success in life.  Since you can’t do much about IQ, strengthen your willpower.
  • Willpower is like a muscle.  Exercise it, and it will get stronger.  But be aware that, like a muscle, it will get fatigued if over-used.
  • Using willpower, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people all drain the same reservoir of self-control.  Avoid hard decisions when energy is low.
  • Arrange your life to minimize the need for willpower. Remove temptations. Save willpower for challenging situations.
  • The first step to self-control is to set a goal; the second step is to monitor your progress along the way. 
  • The best use of self-control is to form habits that you can eventually do automatically—without willpower.

Baumeister and Tierney’s willpower insights are embedded in riveting stories of personal transformation.  Unputdownable!

The Power of Habit,

by Charles Duhigg, is now a habitual resident on the New York Times best-seller list. Duhigg also stresses that the best way to strengthen willpower is to make it into a habit. To do this, know the habit loop—the cues that trigger your habit, your resulting habit routine, and the rewards you get from your habit.  Duhigg argues that you can change a habit successfully by keeping the cues and rewards the same, while changing the routine. This model seems too simple to me, in part because it ignores the "why" of a person's habit change, but Duhigg’s talent for story-telling makes his argument very persuasive. 

Takeaway tips from The Power of Habit:

  • If you change one critical habit pattern—a “keystone habit”—you may be able to transform other related habits. Example: The decision to exercise regularly may trigger positive changes in eating routines, spending patterns, and productivity
  • To save your willpower, create habits that allow your brain to work on automatic pilot. 
  • Fight a bad habit by replacing an old routine with a new one.  
  • Organizations and businesses can deliberately create routines that nourish good habits.  For example, Starbucks employees are trained to respond calmly to complaining customers, using a method dubbed, appropriately enough, the LATTE method: Listen to the customer; Acknowledge the complaint; Take action by solving the problem; Thank them; and Explain why the problem occurred.

I had never thought of recommending a job at Starbucks as an anger management technique, but after reading the success story of a young man in one of Duhigg’s anecdotes, I now will! 

I love books which are both worthwhile AND entertaining, and these three books all fit that bill admirably. I’ve bought them all for my “willpower collection," and I recommend them all to you.

Now, off to get--or give--a LATTE!

(c) Meg Selig

Meg Selig is the author of a classic willpower book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), and a habit change curriculum. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


McGonigal, K. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Avery, 2012).

Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Press, 2011).

Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012).

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