Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. The path of least resistance leads to a pile of debt, a fat body, and an enormous cable bill; strenuous daily efforts are required to avoid that fate. The result is a negative feedback loop: we have more than ever, and therefore need more self-control than ever, but the abundance we’ve created destroys our ability to resist. It is a setup that Sisyphus might have actually envied.
One possible solution is to double-down on the self-control, and train ourselves to better resist temptation and stick with the program. But, as even Baumeister and Tierney admit, there are good reasons to suspect that relying on willpower alone will not work in an environment designed to destroy it. For, as Baumeister and Tierney make clear, self-control is highly fallible at the best of times. A German study found that using willpower to resist a specific temptation failed half the time. (And those were Germans!) Humans have tested and tried self-control in the face of temptation, and it has repeatedly been found wanting. After decades of dieting and good nutrition, Americans are fatter than ever. And the authors of Willpower make the reason clear: we have created conditions that exhaust our willpower, more or less guaranteeing failure.
And yet the alternative to increasing our willpower is to make structural changes in our lives — which itself requires a different kind of willpower. In the end, the only real alternative to the exercise of some form of willpower is to designate proxies to make better decisions than we feel we can make ourselves. “We live in freedom by necessity,” Auden wrote; “Not if we can help it,” comes the reply.