How to Literally Exercise Self-Control

I have always thought that the world was divided into people with good self-control and the rest of us.  There are those who workout every day at 5:00am and the rest of us.  There are those who stay focused and ignore the office chitchat, and there’s the rest of us.  There are those who don’t watch the Real Housewives of Fill in the Blank City, and there’s the rest of us.

Self-control for me has always been like a flaky friend.  I am always hopeful it will show up, but I never count on it.  Even when it does come through, I can never be sure when I will see it again…

So I am always looking for ways to get that elusive self-control.  I am not a huge fan of self-help books, but I do like science and I can always appreciate research.  I recently read a great book called “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”.  It is written by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and NY Times science writer John Tierney.  They believe the key to self-control is willpower and that willpower is actually a muscle.  Like any other muscle, willpower needs glucose and willpower can strengthen with exercise.


I was initially very excited to hear about this glucose thing.  Could this be another excuse to eat and not feel bad about the extra calories, like when I was breastfeeding?  Yes and no.  Not surprisingly, the authors suggest maintaining a healthy diet as key to strengthening willpower.  Apparently, that old wisdom of eating a good breakfast before school has some science behind it.  The authors believe that we lose self-control when our glucose is low, and that’s when we make poor decisions.

The book gives real life examples of people (including some famous people) and their experiences with willpower (or lack of).   I found these stories fascinating, particularly the one about a former street performance artist.  There’s also an interesting section on Eric Clapton and his struggles with addiction.

Once again, a lot of what I read in this book seemed like common sense.  For example, some of this stuff sounds like “practice makes perfect”.  That’s nothing new, but what is interesting is that practicing in one area of your life may be making you better in more than one area because you’ve strengthened your willpower muscle.  The authors caution against trying to tackle more than one area for improvement at a time because when you’re trying to build the willpower muscle, you don’t want to strain it until it is stronger.  This is the same philosophy behind telling drug addicts to wait to quit smoking until they’ve kicked their drug habit.  I am using this guidance as an excuse to continue pursuing hobbies.  If being disciplined about doing Sudoku makes me a better Sudoku player, then maybe it will make me a better worker in general…

The authors also give examples of ways to exercise the willpower muscle that seem very easy and can be applicable to most people.

One of my resolutions last year was to read more non-fiction books, and I am glad that I read this one.  It’s a quick read.  I read it almost as fast as the first Hunger Games book.

Now I feel like I have the tools to get that self-control I have always been after.  Apparently, I just need to literally exercise it!

Published by Susan Van Sciver

Storyteller, communicator and lover of sarcasm

4 thoughts on “How to Literally Exercise Self-Control

  1. I haven’t read that book but I did read the hunger games trilogy and may I say…I loved them all! I too wanted to read more non fiction books but cant pull myself away from these young adult books. I just finished a similar book to the hunger games trilogy called Divergent by Veronica Roth. Is there something wrong with a 34 year old mother obsessing with young adult books? Shouldn’t I read books that are more age appropriate? Good to know that you read the hunger games so I know I’m not the only 30 something reading them.

  2. Sorry comment from James is actually from Laichun. My iPhone has a mind of its own sometimes. Love your posts. Keep them coming!!

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