Skip to main content

WILLPOWER Setting & Reaching Goals- Book Review by Sutton


Rediscovering the Greatest   
Human Strength

By Roy Baumeister
& John Tierney

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

I go to a gym, which is crowded in January. Regulars know the early Happy-New-Year commitments to fitness will weaken sometime in February.

Roy Baumeister has spent a good part of his career studying self-control. His book, Willpower written with Tierney, entertains and informs us with an organized set of findings explaining factors that influence self-control.

Two critical factors weaken our judgments: food and sleep. We need glucose and sleep to be at our best when it comes to making wise decisions and marking progress toward our goals.

A pretty woman can loosen a man’s grip on his career--we hear these news stories from time to time as one political group takes aim at each other's leaders--men who failed at sexual self-control and sadly blame women for their lack of self-control.

Fat shaming happens. The vulnerable people who become targets are miserable, even depressed. We can almost hear their tears and feel their anger. Anger at self as well as the those who cast verbal stones. The perpetrators are merciless bullies hurling foul insults. The presumption is, we are in full control of our physical appearance, including body shape and weight.

The Willpower authors give us nine chapters worth of self-control information before indulging that common nemesis, dieting.

Baumeister and his colleagues inform us that willpower is like a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened through exercise. And after sustained use, we need a rest and refreshment because our capacity to exert additional willpower has been depleted.

In Baumeister's psychology lab, volunteers were divided into two groups. One group received chocolate-chip cookies. A second group was asked to avoid the cookies and eat radishes. Following the snacks, both groups were asked to work on geometry puzzles that were unsolvable. Which group worked longer? The cookie-eaters lasted 20 minutes but those fighting temptation only lasted 8 minutes--less than half as long. The point of many such studies is that willpower is a limited resource.

After exerting willpower to resist temptation, 
people are worn down.

In other studies, Baumeister and his colleagues found that the same energy needed to employ self-control was important to decision-making. We use willpower everyday. We work to suppress certain thoughts and feelings. We attempt to accomplish difficult tasks. In some settings we work hard to stay focused and resist the temptation to attend to distractions.


Dieting is the most popular New Year’s resolution.

Control of eating —dieting—is tricky because our resolve weakens when we cut back on foods containing glucose! And glucose seems to be a key to helping us resist temptation. Glucose is brain food.

The authors give us three counterintuitive recommendations (p. 352):

   1. Never go on a diet.

   2. Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food.

    3. Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, 
        never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.

Baumeister and Tierney summarize Oprah’s weight control story and observe how difficult it is to manage weight even when experts are employed.

Dieting is difficult because we are designed to survive. Famine is a serious threat to survival. Calorie restriction leads to compensation once a diet has ended. Eventually, diets fail after a few cycles.

What can be done?


1. Set small, reasonable goals. Avoid the unnatural images of the select few on magazine covers.

2. Monitoring food intake is important but hard to do.

3. When craving sweets, allow yourself permission to have a small sweet later.

4. Reduce temptation by controlling your environment—keep the high calorie foods out of sight and out of reach. Just putting candy in a drawer reduced eating by one-third in one study.

5. Avoid evening snacks by brushing teeth early in the evening.

6. Make a commitment with a penalty- but this won’t work if your goal is unrealistic.

7. Realistic weight-loss goals are 5% to 10%.

8. Use the same system of rewards and penalties to maintain weight once it has been lost.

9. Use the implementation intention strategy— make a plan of what to do in common temptation settings. Automatic behavior works better than trying to resist temptation on the spot. For example, decide what you will choose before going to a buffet.

10. Choose events where socializing does not include unhealthy foods—obviously, this can be a problem as no one wants to lose good friends. However, we are social beings who are influenced by our friends.

(Ideas from chapter 10)

There’s More

There’s more to the book than dealing with weight loss. The good news is that aside from dieting, improvements in one aspect of self-control helps with control in another area of life.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, January 1). Setting & Reaching Goals. [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Baumeister, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press    ON AMAZON

Sutton, G. W. (2015). [Review of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 34, 189-190. ResearchGate Link Academia Link 


Please check out my books on AMAZON

Twitter  @GeoffWSutton  


Popular posts from this blog

Denial of Death and the Meaningful Life- Book Review

  The Denial of Death   by Ernest Becker A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. The main thesis of this book is that it does much more than that: the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.  — Ernest Becker, xvii I completed a recent reading of this old classic yesterday (13 December, 2015) because I was interested in Becker’s contribution to Terror Management Theory, which I find so helpful in understanding the ways U.S. leaders are publicly responding to terrorist activities. Becker’s ideas are more than forty years old and many have not withstood the test of time. However, his basic premise that we deny the reality of death in many ways remains valid

A Christmas Carol offers lessons in Psychology and Faith A Book Review

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton My copy of A Christmas Carol was a gift on Christmas day, 1963. Two Christmases before I had walked the cold, fog-laden, smog drenched streets of Old London with my dad whilst my mother visited with her family. It was a grey day and a grey week. We took turns warming parts of our body by fireplaces here and there. After five years in the U.S. we had returned home to London on the occasion of my maternal grandmother’s death.  Dickens’ story paints a familiar tale textured by my early memories and enriched today by having watched my favourite rendition of A Christmas Carol ( 1984 ) with my wife on Christmas eve. My interest in reviewing the book is not just for a pleasant walk about the old streets of London but I'm motivated by a sense of appreciation for the poetic and colourful artistry with which Dickens plumbs the hopes and fears of humanity. So, follow