The Best Quotes From ‘Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength’

I just finished reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, and it is an absolutely OUTSTANDING book. Admittedly, I was looking forward to reading it and even asked the publisher for a media copy, but the product was even better than I expected. This book is going to be one that I anticipate still recommending to people decades from now. After you read just some of the quotes from the book, you’ll start to understand why.

The researchers concluded that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desires — at least four hours per day. — P.3

The shift in people’s characters was noticed by a psychoanalyst named Allen Wheelis, who in the later 1950s revealed what he considered a dirty little secret of his profession: Freudian therapies no longer worked the way they were supposed to. In his landmark book, The Quest for Identity, Wheelis described a change in character structure since Freud’s day. The Victorian middle-class citizens who formed the bulk of Freud’s patients had intensely strong wills, making it difficult for therapists to break through their ironclad defenses and their sense of what was right and wrong. Freud’s therapies had concentrated on ways to break through and let them see why they were neurotic and miserable, because once those people achieved insight, they could change rather easily. By midcentury, though, people’s character armor was different. Wheelis and his colleagues found that people achieved insight more quickly than in Freud’s day, but then the therapy often stalled and failed. Lacking the sturdy character of the Victorians, people didn’t have the strength to follow up on the insight and change their lives. — P.7

When researchers compared students’ grades with nearly three dozen personality traits, self-control turned out to be the only trait that predicted a college student grade-point average better than chance. Self-control also proved to be a better predictor of college grades than the student’s IQ or SAT score. — P.11

We like to think we control our thoughts, but we don’t. First-time meditators are typically shocked at how their minds wander over and over, despite earnest attempts to focus and concentrate. At best, we have partial control over our streams of thought… — P.25

Freud’s ideas, as usual, turned out to be both remarkably prescient and utterly wrong. — P.27

So if you’d like some advance warning of trouble (controlling your willpower), look not for a single symptom, but rather for a change in the overall intensity of your feelings. If you find yourself especially bothered by frustrating events, or saddened by unpleasant thoughts, of even happier about some good news — then maybe it’s because your brain’s circuits aren’t controlling emotion as well as usual. — P.31

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 manner of tasks. — P.35

Above all, don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight. If you’re a smoker, don’t try quitting while you’re also on a diet. In fact, to quit you might even consider adding some calories, because part of what seems to be a craving for a cigarette may actually be a craving for food once you’re no longer suppressing your appetite with nicotine. — P.57

When you’re tired, sleep. …Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control… — P.59

So it turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finished the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders. — P.83-84

Psychologists distinguish two main types of mental processes, automatic and controlled. Automatic processes, like multiplying 4 times 7, can be done without exertion. If someone says “4 times 7,” 28 probably pops into your head whether you want it to or not — that’s why the process is called automatic. In contrast, computing 26 times 30 requires mental effort as you go through the steps of multiplying to come up with 780. Difficult mathematical calculations, like other logical reasoning, require willpower as you follow a set of systematic rules to get from one set of information to something new. — P.93

On average, each judge approved parole for only about one every three prisoners, but there was a striking pattern to the decisions of all the judges, as the researchers found. The prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 65 percent of the time. Those who appeared late in the day won parole less than 10 percent of the time. — P.97

The researchers — Gunter Hitsch and Ali Hortacsu of the University of Chicago, and Dan Ariely of Duke — found that online customers typically go out with fewer than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they check out. Romance seekers have much better luck at speed-dating events, which are generally limited to a dozen or two dozen people. ….The average participant makes a match with at least one in ten of the people they meet, and some studies have found the ratio to be two or three in ten. Faced with fewer options in mates and an immediate deadline, the speed daters quickly pick out potential partners. But because the online seekers have so many choices, they just go on browsing. — P.101

Once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. — P.104

For contentment, apparently, it pays to look at how far you’ve come. To stoke motivation and ambition, focus instead on the road ahead. — P.120

Public information has more impact than private information. People care more about what other people know about them than what they know about themselves. A failure, a slipup, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you’re the only one who knows about it. But if other people know about it, it’s harder to dismiss. — P.121

Stanley was describing what the economist George Loewenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation….Turn up the heat, and the unthinkable becomes surprisingly thinkable. — P.148-150

But the act of writing it was part of a strategy to conserve willpower that he used over and over with great success: precommitment. The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible — or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful — to leave the path. — P.151

Charity and generosity have been linked to self-control, partly because self-control is needed to overcome our natural animal selfishness, and partly because, as we’ll see later, thinking about others can increase our own self-discipline. — P.156-157

Paramedics distract patients from their pain by talking to them about anything except their condition, and midwives try to keep women in labor from closing their eyes (which would enable them to focus on the pain). They recognize the benefits of what Stanley called ‘self-forgetfulness.’ — P.161

Contrary to popular stereotype, alcohol doesn’t increase your impulse to do stupid or destructive things; instead, it simply removes restraints. It lessens self-control in two ways: by lowering blood glucose and by reducing self-awareness. Therefore, it mainly affects behaviors marked by inner conflict, as when part of you wants to do something and part of you does not, like having sex with the wrong person, spending too much money, getting into a fight — or ordering another drink, and then another. — P.169

Social support is a peculiar force and can operate in two different ways. Plenty of research suggests that being alone in the world is stressful. Loners and lonely people tend to have more of just about every kind of mental and physical illness than people who live in rich social networks. Some of that is because people with mental and physical problems make fewer friends, and indeed, some potential friends may shy away from someone who seems maladjusted. But simply being alone or lonely leads to problems also. A lack of friends tends to contribute to alcohol and drug abuse. — P.176

If you’re in a religious congregation and ask God for longer life, you are likely to get it. It doesn’t even seem to matter which god you ask. Any sort of religious activity increases your longevity, according to the psychologist Michael McCullough (who isn’t religiously devout himself). He looked at more than three dozen studies that had asked people about their religious devotion and kept track of them over time. It turned out that the nonreligious people died off sooner, and that at any given point, a religiously active person was 25 percent more likely than a nonreligious person to remain alive. That’s a pretty hefty difference, especially when the measure is being alive versus being dead…. — P.179

That’s the result of hyperbolic discounting: We can ignore temptations when they’re not immediately available, but once they’re right in front of us we lose perspective and forget our distant goals. — P.184

If I’m going to get drunk anyway tomorrow evening, what difference does it make if I stop for a drink now? Carpe Diem! Bottoms up! For him to resist a drink tonight, he needs to be confident that he won’t yield to temptation tomorrow. He needs the help of “bright lines,” a term that Ainsile borrows from lawyers. These are clear, simple, unambiguous rules. You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. — P.185-186

For lab rats to learn from their mistakes, the punishment generally has to occur almost immediately, preferably within a second of the misbehavior. Punishment doesn’t have to be that quick with children, but the longer the delay, the more chance that they’ll have forgotten the infraction and the mental processes that led to it. — P.199-200

Even after researchers control for socioeconomic factors and other variables, it turns out that children from two-parent homes get better grades in school. They’re healthier and better adjusted emotionally. They have more satisfying social lives and engage in less antisocial behavior. They’re more likely to attend an elite university and less likely to go to prison. — P.208

A lack of adult supervision during the teenage years turned out to be one of the strongest predictors of criminal behavior. –P.209

Dieters have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some unexpected reason, such as being given a pair of large milkshakes in an experiment, they regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure, regardless of what else happens. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. So they think, “What the hell, I might as well enjoy myself today — and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight that the original lapse. — P.221

There is no magical solution to the dieter’s catch-22. No matter how much willpower you start off with, if you’re a dieter and spend time sitting near the dessert buffet telling yourself no, eventually no will probably change to yes. You need to avoid the dessert cart… -P.227

If you conscientiously keep a record of all the food you eat, you’ll probably consume fewer calories. In one study, those who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who used other techniques. — P.232.

We’ve been further confused by the warnings of nutritionists and the tricks of the food companies, who use a label like “low fat” or “organic’ to create what researchers call a “health halo.”…Other studies have shown that both laypeople and nutritional experts consistently underestimate the calories in food labeled ‘low fat,’ and consequently take bigger helpings. — P.233

You can also make it easier to monitor your eating by not clearing the table too quickly. In an experiment at a sports bar, people ate far fewer chicken wings when the waiters left the discarded bones on their plates. — P.234

The researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did. …An explanation emerged: These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts. They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations. — P.239

Remember Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Set a firm time limit for tedious tasks. — P.248

Another simple old-fashioned way to boost your willpower is to expend a little of it on neatness. As we described in chapter 7, people exert less self-control after seeing a messy desk than after seeing a clean desk or when using a sloppy rather than a neat and well organized Web site. — P.252

In the nineteenth century, the typical worker had barely an hour of free time per day and didn’t even think about retiring. Today we spend only about a fifth of our adult waking hours on the job. The remaining time is an astonishing gift — an unprecedented blessing in human history — but it takes an unprecedented type of self-control to enjoy it. Too many of us tend to procrastinate even when it comes to pleasure because we succumb to the planning fallacy when we estimate “resource slack,” as behavioral economists term it. We assume we’ll magically have more free time in the future than we do today. — P.259

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