The Challenge: We’re tempted daily, and we often give in to our desire and regret it later.
The Science: Research shows there is not just one but five ways to strengthen willpower.
The Solution: Learn these five tricks and master temptation for good!
I can resist everything except temptation. – Oscar Wilde
Just say no. Crush mind with mind. Resist temptation. We think of self-control challenges as battles:
• on the one side is your better self that chooses what is good for you in the long term and is in line with your values and standards
• on the other side, your tempted self is attracted to immediate rewards and instant gratification.
The fight is on, and it is merely a question of firepower. I mean willpower.
Or is it?
Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues at Yale and Stanford see self-regulation as a sequential process. In other words, self-regulation begins way before you need to make use of your willpower resources, which are limited. If you find yourself face-to-face with your temptation, it means many things went wrong before that.
The 5 steps of the process model of self-control
Think of yourself as a citadel. At your core are your resolutions and your goals: eating healthy, finishing a project, or learning a new skill. Around your core, there is a multi-layered system of defenses. Outside, laying siege to your citadel, are the alluring temptations and the sneaky distractors: candies, chips, TV shows, social media, partying, you name it.
1) Choose your environment
Your first line of defense, and the most effective, is situation selection. That simply means choosing situations where you know there is only a small chance of specific temptations arising. For example, if you are trying to eat healthy, hang out with friends who are healthy eaters. If you do not want to eat chips when watching TV, create a chips-free environment in your home: do not buy them at the store! If you want to focus on your studies, go to the library.
2) Change your environment
Fallback position #1: situation modification. Somehow, step one did not happen. The temptation (say, some candy) or the distractor (say, Facebook) are in close proximity. But you can still engineer the situation to make the temptation less accessible while making the desired behavior easier to perform. If you need to focus on your writing, turn off Wi-Fi and your smartphone. If you want to go running early in the morning, disable the snooze button on your alarm clock and place your running outfit next to the bed the night before. If you are at a restaurant, do not ask for the dessert menu.
Researchers found that when a bowl of candies is placed on someone’s desk instead of two meters away, office workers will eat 1.8 more candies per day, which amounts to 9 more candies per workweek and 468 more candies over one year!
3) Distract yourself
Fallback position #2: selective attention. OK, the cheesecake is on the table. Someone else ordered it. Not all is lost — you can still choose what you focus on. You could get more engaged in the conversation or purposefully start noticing details of what your dinner party companions are wearing. For schoolchildren, this strategy can take the form of choosing to track the teacher instead of goofy classmates; for adults, choosing to track the activity rather than the distractors. Find something to say yes to instead of focusing on saying no to the temptation.
4) Change your thinking
Fallback position #3. Despite your best efforts, the temptation is getting your attention. Time to fall back to the next-to-last line of defense, using cognitive change. That simply means getting into Jedi mode and using some mind tricks on yourself. Think of the cheesecake as a blob of fat — yours. Gain psychological distance: look at the situation from a third-party perspective: how would an external observer see the situation? What would they think of your present challenge? You can also achieve psychological distance by looking at the situation in an abstract way: what is the purpose of eating? What is food if not a bundle of chemicals? Or you can think of your goal of healthy eating and all the benefits you would get by sticking to it.
5) Change your reaction
Fallback position #4: response modulation. This is it. This is the time to crush mind with mind. All else failed. Someone just put a gigantic piece of cheesecake on your plate. Or you got an email alert on your phone, and you are tempted to see what’s up. Or your husband started watching that movie you wanted to check out right there in front of you. This is when willpower comes in handy. And you can still have some good tricks up your sleeve if you’ve prepared yourself. You might have trained your self-control muscle using challenges specifically designed to strengthen it; or you could have learned simple breathing techniques to master your impulses.
The take-home message
Self-control does not need to be a willpower struggle. If we are smart, we can make choices that will successfully enable our pursuit of long-term goals without directly confronting temptations along the way. We can then have more willpower and firepower for when there is no other option, and it matters the most.