Giving in to temptation

How to sustain resolutions and increase self-control

Many of us use the turn of the year to make changes in our lives. This usually entails doing less of what we believe we shouldn’t do, and more of what we should. Common examples are eating healthier, fitness plans, reducing debt, and drinking or smoking less. For most, initial short-term success leads to falling back into our old ways.

What explains this failure to permanently change? Is it simply a case of being a ‘weak’ person, unable to delay self-gratification? This article attempts to explain the nature of willpower, and how it can be cultivated.

Willpower

The scientific term for self-control, or willpower, is self-regulation. It refers to one’s ability to replace impulsive (or habitual) thoughts, emotions and behaviours, with more helpful ones.

The benefits of developing this skill are extensive and profound; students experience greater enjoyment and motivation, leading to better grades; self-regulators persist for longer when faced with a challenge, procrastinate less, are better able to control both their thoughts and emotions, and experience less stress. The implications for work and personal relationships are self-evident.

How does it work?

Self-regulation has been likened to a muscle. That is to say, we have a finite pool of self-regulatory strength which when used, is depleted. After a period of rest this pool becomes deeper.

It seems that the size of the ‘pool’ each of us is blessed with is, to some degree, genetic. Hence the argument that some of us are naturally weaker or stronger than others, when it comes to self-control, has some validity.

However, indulging yourself in your next cigarette, and blaming it on your parents would be a premature response because it is possible to deepen the pool, as we will see. To understand what you need to do, it helps to understand under what conditions things tend to go wrong.

Poor self-regulation in action

Do any of the following resonate with you?

1) You have eaten healthily, exercised, and on your way home from work pop into the supermarket to buy dinner only to find yourself unable to resist the temptation of chocolate/cookies/any other indulgence?

2) After a period of successfully giving up smoking you go out for an evening with friends to a pub. Your friends smoke, and so you find yourself smoking again.

3) You have successfully been carrying out your resolutions only to find that a stressful life event has led you to slip back into your old ways?

These examples demonstrate some important features of self-regulation and point to ways that we can manage it effectively.

The first is that throughout our day we are constantly making small decisions that deplete our ‘pool’. This leaves us less able to resist temptation when confronted by an event that is highly demanding of self-control.

The second example highlights that environmental ‘cues’ prompt us to behave in a certain way. If you are giving up smoking, do not put yourself in situations that are likely to tempt you.

A pub is a particularly unwise place to hang out if you are giving up smoking because alcohol inhibits our ability to exert self-control (more on this later).

Stress is another factor that is likely to weaken our self-control, because it draws upon the same pool of ‘brain resource’ as do the skills of self-regulation. Consequently, under stress we are far more likely to behave in ways we later regret or to use unhelpful ways of expressing our emotions.

Key action points to maximise self-regulatory skills

Understand your hidden motives

Everything we do is driven by a motive. Understanding the core factors (usually these are beliefs) underpinning our behaviour is key to changing a tendency to succumb to temptation.

Giving in to temptation is always driven by a need to feel better in the moment. This immediate goal then supersedes longer-term goals. Often this may serve a purpose of protecting us from unconscious pain. Students who procrastinate may be driven by a need to protect their ego, for fear of the implications of failure. Only by addressing these competing motives will you achieve sustainable change.

Become aware

Monitoring how we think, feel and behave is central to self-regulation training. It may seem trivial, but raising our awareness of our actions helps us to exert control over them. As has been mentioned, when we are drunk we tend to give in to temptation. Part of the reason for this is we no longer focus attention on ourselves (just observe high-street behaviour on weekend evenings).

Rest

Sufficient sleep is another vital factor. Tiredness and fatigue inhibits good decision-making skills.

Take control of stress

If you are prone to feeling stressed, it is likely you do not self-regulate effectively. You may ruminate, experience negative thoughts and express emotions in a harmful way. All of which makes exerting self-control increasingly challenging.

There are various techniques that can help us to respond in healthier, more useful ways to stress. Unless you are the type of person who reads self-help books and carries out the advice therein to the letter (I know no-one who does this), finding a coach who specialises in stress-reduction is your best bet.

Reading my white paper on resilience may also be helpful. Click here for the link.

Practice

As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you become. Practice exerting self-control and allow yourself to rest during periods when your resource pool is low.

Create healthy habits

We are all creatures of habit. Effective self-regulation is about creating new healthy habits, which reflect an awareness of your vulnerabilities. If you always have a piece of chocolate cake when in a coffee shop, make sure you have eaten prior to going for a coffee or take an alternative with you. The goal is to ensure your pool of self-control resource is big enough when you need it most.

Always have a plan B

Self-regulators are flexible in their thinking and planning. Even with the best will in the world, life is unpredictable and we have limited control over our environment.

This makes it vital that you give consideration for how things might go wrong and what your backup plan is if it does. If you arrive too late for your intended fitness class, do you just go home, or have you planned for exercise you can do in its place?

Make use of a performance psychologist

You may consider this overkill, but changing ingrained ways of thinking and behaving is far from easy. It demands systematic and consistent effort, which can be beyond the best intentioned of us. Consequently, few of us change over our lives.

Many international sportsmen and women work with performance psychologists to improve their ability to focus, remain positive and motivated and to persist through tough times. These are exactly the abilities required in order to develop self-control. If it’s good enough for them, why not you?