We all need willpower to succeed in school, business, our relationships, our careers, life. I’ve written a lot over the years about the need for resilience and robustness. Willpower is also fundamental to these, so you don’t give up at the first signs of trouble.

There are two very recent books on willpower that are definitely worth reading and that should be in your library if you’re serious about self-development. The first isWillpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s written by the researcher who was instrumental in putting the science of willpower on a sound footing through experimentation, Roy F. Baumeister, and science journalist John Tierney. The book reads well and is in the style of many of the new popular science books, with a combination of hard scientific fact, anecdote, and the occasional first-person account.

The main thing I learned is that willpower is something we can control, but not by exercising more willpower. Instead, the authors focus on different areas of endeavour to show that willpower is largely a function of circumstances, physiological functioning, habits, and skills. In other words, there really IS a science of willpower, and it offers insights to improve how we function in all aspects of our lives. I was particularly interested in the authors’ discussion of ways to get more organized. They show how David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to time and work management is so successful because he has apparently stumbled on to a series of skills that work with our human nature, rather than trying to go against it.

It is also an approach that eschews senseless moralizing, and that is a fundamental theme in the other book on willpower, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. McGonigal teaches a continuing education course on self-control and willpower at Stanford University, and it is apparently one of their most successful courses open to the public.

There is a considerable overlap in the scientific information presented in this book as compared to the first one I’ve mentioned. However, this book is much more practical, and I would think also more interesting to the average reader. The author has structured the book to follow her course. She has included exercises to develop self-control and willpower and that have proven effective for most of her students in her course. She has also been able to include a large number of relevant examples from some of her students. This makes the information that much more interesting and shows that the reader’s self-control goals are quite attainable.

As mentioned above, the author states that willpower is definitely NOT about morality. In fact, McGonigal has a whole chapter devoted to that fact. She shows that couching things in terms of good and bad are not useful to developing self-control. In fact, they can be counter-productive as they can produce perverse results and unintended consequences. I also learned that willpower is like a muscle. It can be developed and honed over time, but you need to have the right tools to do so. This book gives much of the same information as Willpower, but the exercises are focused on skill building, not just generalities about gaining willpower or applying the scientific findings of the research. An interesting point about those exercises is that most focus on developing self-awareness. If you know the science and can then watch yourself in action, you will be able to apply the self-control techniques to achieve your willpower goals.

Overall I foundThe Willpower Instinct a better and more useful book. However,Willpower rounds out some of the scientific information and provides insight into the historical development of the field, as one of its authors was one of its founders.

Here’s some willpower advice. Exercise self-control; get both, and you won’t have any regrets.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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