If you’ve been looking for the best books about willpower, you might be frustrated.
Not only is the market overloaded with humdrum selections. A lot of them don’t actually talk about willpower as such. And that’s because we use the word in different ways to discuss different things.
For example, there’s a difference between systems for better performance and the goals we want these systems to help us achieve. Yet, we use “goals” all the time without distinguishing them from the processes we need to help us establish them.
So with that in mind, in this post, I’m sharing the top 11 books that not only help you understand willpower. These books also help you benefit from developing it in nuanced ways that will truly help you play the long game.
What Is Willpower?
According to bestselling author, Benjamin Hardy, willpower is often defined as “the power to exert your free will against internal or external obstacles.” But as Hardy points out, this definition doesn’t make much sense because our external environment defines our internal psychology.
I would add that “free will” is also problematic. As I talk about in The Victorious Mind: How to Master Memory, Meditation and Mental Well-Being, free will can’t actually exist precisely because we don’t choose most of our external circumstances. Perhaps later in life we can “select” better options if they appear to us, but we can’t choose our genes, where we were born or many other things that define the obstacles we face in life.
That said, you can change your life. This is where “acts of will” come into play. And that is perhaps the best way to define willpower. It is taking the initiative to act in a way that consistently transforms you towards your goals.
In order to be consistent, systems are needed. The willpower books you’re about to discover all help in these areas.
The 11 Best Books About Willpower
Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success
In this book, Benjamin Hardy talks more about environmental decisions than anything else. He also talks a lot about removing obstacles and anything that gets in your way.
Hardy’s focus on improving your environment is very useful and he gives many key tips, ranging from eliminating foods to people. Some of these decisions will take you out of your comfort zone, but that’s always where the riches are to be found.
One of the most impactful ideas in the book involves “forcing functions” These basically remove the pressure of having to make many decisions in the first place. It’s like an if-this-then-that system you create for yourself.
The book is well-structured with good scientific references, short chapters and summaries.
The Luck Factor
Richard Wiseman is a unique scientist. He runs experiments with test subjects and then helps you replicate the best parts of the research on yourself.
As Wiseman demonstrates in The Luck Factor, you can manufacture situations that will improve your luck. A lot of it has to do with developing pattern recognition for elements in your environment that will lead to positive outcomes.
As with the “forcing functions” in Willpower Doesn’t Work, you are given tools for setting intentions and developing processes that make it much easier to experience good fortune.
The book also gives tips for preventing bad luck in the future. This feature is a great bonus of the book. The stories and numerous self-directed quizzes are a great feature too.
The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership
It’s a shame that this book wasn’t addressed to a wider market because you don’t have to be a leader or manager to benefit from it.
Co-authors Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson show you the science behind the lizard brain that holds so many people back. You’ll learn why you think you have low willpower and how to increase it.
One of the best concepts in the book teaches you how to test your gut instincts. For example, if you’re procrastinating on something you need to make a decision, you can drum up more willpower to finalize a course of action by asking a simple question:
Does the answer I come up with make me feel restricted or expansive?
Feeling tighter and smaller is an obvious cause to reflect further. Your brain is trying to tell you that something is off. But if you feel bigger or the possibilities seem endless, then signs are good that your unconscious mind agrees you should make the decision.
Of course, there are potential problems with this kind of exercise, so that’s why the next book should be on your reading list.
Chip and Dan Heath provide a simple heuristic that packs a punch in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices In Life And Work.
One of their main criticisms is that trusting your gut instinct can and often will go wrong. I don’t think that’s any reason not to run the exercises suggested in The Wise Advocate, but I readily see their point. That’s why I map the two strategies together.
In Decisive, the authors call it W.R.A.P.
- Widen your options
- Reality test
- Attain distance
- Prepare to fail
In the case of The Wise Advocate, you’re already doing the first two just by running the exercise.
Decisive is packed with stories that illustrate the concepts, but it’s the device itself that makes it worth the read.
Awaken the Giant Within
Tony Robbins is all about “taking immediate control” in this book. Yet, so much of the book is about developing your willpower by asking more questions. A key thesis is that people simply haven’t understood their “why” well enough to “take massive action,” and so you get many ways to explore and beef up in this department.
The book is very good in terms of helping you develop these tools of questioning, and the only real criticism one could level is that not everyone wants to be a “giant.” I’m not convinced you need to have a big hairy goal in order to “awaken.”
Still, I really like this book, revisit it every so often and recommend everyone read it.
The Brain: The Story of You
David Eagleman makes it fun and easy to understand that three pounds of cellular matter between your ears.
Will this help you develop willpower in any direct way? Probably not.
But I’ve included it because knowing at least a bit about neuroscience can help you understand the puzzle of human experience we’re all caught up in. The chapters on decision making and how the brain creates the sense of self are especially useful.
In Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout And Thrive With The New Science of Success, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness talk a lot about framing.
This helps directly with willpower and its development because creativity requires limits. Although we think about the action of creation as being free from rules, it’s actually the opposite. You’ll learn a lot about performing at your best by adding some rules.
The Art of Learning
Josh Waitzkin is well known for his accomplishments in chess. In The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, he also takes you into the world of martial arts.
The book is great for a few reasons. It will help you:
- Avoid perfectionism
- Remove inner conflicts
- Embrace complexity
- Separate the real from the mythical
- Focus on the endgame
Although “endgame” is a term from chess, we all need to keep the closing moments of our lives in sight. Without some planning for how things our going to be in the future, no amount of willpower will help us act in the best possible ways later on in life. The time to develop our skills and practice them is now.
Maps of Meaning
Better known for 12 Rules for Life, I believe Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief is the better Jordan Peterson book.
The reason is simple:
It explains why the human brain forgets so much useful knowledge. True, the book is quite technical and uses a lot of terms from memory science. But if you’ve ever felt that you lacked willpower, this book shows you why so many of us lack it. It’s also packed with many compelling ideas for getting wisdom back into your life so that you can draw upon your will in more impactful ways when necessary.
Nir Eyal is a fantastic writer and shows you how to remove the need to make so many decisions in Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
As this book suggests, it’s not really that people are spineless and can’t make proper decisions for themselves. It’s that our environments are draining us of energy. You can have all the willpower in the world, but if you’re exhausted, you won’t be able to use it.
I love the print version of this book because it comes with a special device.
Scott H. Young is no stranger to learning. In Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career he shows you the secrets involved in becoming an autodidact.
The book combines research with stories and helps you develop your own heuristics for taking consistent action over the long haul.
An especially intriguing part of the book has to do with giving speeches. Since many people fear public speaking, it provides an especially interesting case study for developing the willpower needed to get in front of an audience.
Books On Willpower Are A Dime A Dozen
There are many more books on willpower out there, but I’ve chosen these because they all help you develop personal systems or give you heuristics that help you get ahead.
At the end of the day, “willpower” is not really the right word. It’s more about making the most of what you’ve got so that you can propel yourself towards what you really want.
And that’s why you always have to take everything you read with a grain of salt. It’s all too easy to vicariously adopt the vision of the author while you’re reading. Tony Robbins is particularly persuasive in that regard.
But you don’t have to have elaborate goals in order to benefit from developing powerful systems. As I learned from Happiness Beyond Thought, it can be as simple as learning to stop thinking.
Be the architect of your success by making sure you choose goals based on your existing competence. Do that, create an environment and inner mental landscape that is free from barriers and willpower won’t be nearly the issue it used to be.