The Importance of Willpower: How Much Does It Really Matter?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Focus" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How important is willpower? What difference does it actually make in our lives?

Daniel Goleman emphasizes the importance of willpower in his book Focus. However, some disagree that it’s a major factor in our lives.

Read more to learn both sides of this debate.

The Importance of Willpower 

Goleman stresses that our willpower may be the most significant factor in determining the quality of our lives. To back up his position on the importance of willpower, Goleman cites several influential studies that show robust self-control in children predicts positive life outcomes, including in school, health, and financial stability.

(Shortform note: Goleman’s claim about the enormously positive influence of willpower in our lives may be outdated. For a long time, experts touted this idea, backed up by major studies such as the well-known Dunedin study conducted in the 1970s, which Goleman leans on heavily to support the claim. There has, however, been pushback from researchers taking a closer look. Methods for testing self-control have improved since the ‘70s when several of the major willpower studies were conducted, and the new science suggests that it’s not those who are able to exert more self-control who achieve more in life but those who experience less temptation in the first place.)

Willpower is the ability to control your impulses and resist instant gratification in favor of long-term, delayed happiness. This inner resource is primarily about how you control your attention and is mostly driven by a top-down process where your conscious cognition overcomes your subconscious urges. People who can resist the strong pull of instant gratification do so with three techniques: 

  1. They shift their focus away from the object of their desire.
  2. They focus on something else to keep their attention off the desired object (for example, they might mull over a conversation they had that morning—anything to keep their thoughts averted).
  3. They keep their longer-term goal in mind.

These techniques are a part of what Goleman calls executive control, which includes the selective attention skills of shifting your focus and keeping it locked in on something new. According to Goleman, the executive control skills that drive your willpower are tied to genetic factors. However, like most things, executive control is influenced by our environments and experiences, and they can be developed and strengthened through tactics.

Is the Power of Willpower a Myth?

Goleman uses the term executive control but doesn’t define it explicitly. It’s a mental process that helps you do more than just instinctively react to things happening around you; it lets you choose how to act.

Recent research on self-control is casting doubt on the simplistic idea that our innate executive control abilities determine our ability to break our focus away from temptations, focus on other things, or keep our long-term goals in mind. Instead, other factors may be driving self-controlled behavior, like routine and habit. People who exhibit self-control structure their lives in a way that minimizes the need for self-control decisions in the first place. This is not due to an increased amount of willpower but rather because routines and habits make it easier to stick to goals.
The Importance of Willpower: How Much Does It Really Matter?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Daniel Goleman's "Focus" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Focus summary:

  • How to understand, strengthen, and use your attention to lead a more fulfilling life
  • The three directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward
  • How spending time in nature restores your attention

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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