Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Short Review of the Book "Willpower"

I'm at the end of a weekend that went by as fast as the week preceding it was busy. I'm not really in a place for deep personal reflection, but what I can do is share a little about a book I read a short time ago titled Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Authored by psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times science columnist John Tierney, the book covers a wide range of topics related to willpower, including a chapter on weight loss.

For a thorough review, see this article in the New York Times. (hmm...) What I'll contribute are the three things I  remember a month after reading.

1. People are subject to "decision fatigue", which basically means that you have a finite supply of willpower, and every decision you make depletes it, even if those decisions are successful. And every decision draws on the same supply of willpower. So, if you resist donuts at the office in the morning, catch up on email at lunch instead of surfing the internet, and then turn down a colleague's offer to leave work early to go to a ballgame, those decisions all affect your ability to say no to a late night snack. Decision fatigue explains why I bought a second Kindle at a charity auction on a recent Friday night. It was the end of a long week and I knew I wanted to make a donation, so I followed the path of least resistance to the high bid on an object I didn't need, which is now selling on Amazon for half of what I paid for it. (Read more about decision fatigue in a recent New York Times Magazine article by co-author Tierney.)

2. "Bright lines" can help preserve willpower. These are unambiguous rules you follow that keep items from even being a decision in the first place. The book uses an example of an alcoholic establishing a bright line not to drink. The bright line alleviates the need for decision making, preserving your supply of willpower. This is the opposite of moderation, of course. And it's harder with food, which you cannot deny entirely, but I think the concept could be very helpful with weight loss. It reminds me of how easy it was to follow my "No Junk Food" plan - a bright line approach - but how difficult it is for me to limit late night snacking.

3. The brain needs glucose to aid decision making. Wow, here's a catch-22. The authors show how your brain function decreases without glucose in your bloodstream, lowering willpower. But, of course, glucose (sugar) can also lead to weight gain. So, you can't refuse food without eating, basically. No wonder dieting is so hard. Actually, that's the point brought forth by the authors. Rather than extreme dieting, they recommend enough healthy eating to keep your willpower from crashing, such as a fruit in the afternoon. Clearly, it's a delicate balance.

If you're looking for quick info on weight loss, you'd be better off spending your time reading blogs. But if you have curiosity into why people behave the way they do, and you want to understand your own decision making better - and maybe learn something that will help your weight loss efforts - Willpower is a good read.


Michele said...

I like that idea of the "bright light." That really works the best for me with weight loss. No decisions are easy. Just set a bright light.

Christina @ Just Running said...

That book sounds awesome! Thanks for sharing, Alan. #1 kind of reminds me of the all-or-nothing mentality always fails.

I hope all is well!

Mer and Mo said...

Always a welcome site to see what others are reading and that they share a bit of their own insight into a good read.

Staying MOtivated MO