“I can resist everything except temptation.” –Oscar Wilde

Willpower (or “self-control”) is what people use to restrain their desires and impulses. More precisely, Roy F. Baumeister andJohn Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, define willpower as “the capacity to override one response (and substitute another).”

You may think of willpower as an extraordinary force to be summoned to deal with emergencies, but studies show that desires – specifically, those you are trying to resist – are often the norm, not the exception. When Dr. Baumeister monitored a group of more than 200 men and women in Germany, he was surprised to find that people spent between 3-4 hours per day resisting desires, the most common of which were urges to eat, drink and sleep.

Lesson: Much of the average day is spent trying to control one’s wants and needs.

Building on our last post on habits, we’ll use what researchers know about temptation and willpower to help us identify strategies to control our unhealthy food habits – most specifically relating to (a) resisting the call of sugar and sweets, and (b) resisting the call of the pantry or freezer after dinner.

How Rich Is Your Willpower Bank?

According to Baumeister andTierney, your willpower “bank” is limited, and begins to deplete after just a few minutes of exerting self-control.  A 2010 meta-analysis confirmed the idea that willpower is an exhaustible resource, and that if it is used up, your ability to self-control is impaired. In addition, many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if you’ve been under stress – and consumption of alcohol makes things even worse.

An important fact: all self-control tasks draw on the same reserve of willpower. Holding back a biting retort, saying “no thank you” to your co-worker’s cookies, forcing yourself to be calm when your kids are deliberately disobeying, “holding it” until you find a cleaner bathroom, or resisting the urge to check Facebook before diving into your work project all tap into your willpower reserve – and leave you with less willpower to handle the next challenge.

Lesson: If you encounter too many temptations during the day (which depletes your willpower “bank”), your ability to resist raiding the pantry at night is compromised*.

*This is further compounded by hormonal dysregulation, specifically cortisol and leptin.

The good news, however, is that it you can actively work on strengthening your willpower. Baumeister says to think of willpower like a muscle; the more you use it, the more it becomes fatigued – but it can also be strengthened over the long term through “exercise.”

Three Tales of Willpower

So how do we apply these concepts to our own bad habits – specifically, those related to food? Let’s see what we can learn from kids, marshmallows, Facebook and goal setting.

One group of researchers studied how four-year-old children learned to resist immediate gratification. They would bring the children one at a time into a room, show them a marshmallow, and offer them a deal before leaving them alone in the room. The children could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow to eat along with it.  Some children gobbled the marshmallow right away; others tried resisting but couldn’t hold out; but some managed to resist the whole 15 minutes for the bigger reward.

Lesson: The creative kids who discovered techniques* to avoid temptation (and succeeded) strengthened their willpower muscles.

*We outline their genius strategies for you below.

Let’s look at another experiment. In the same German study reference above, researchers identified how successful participants were in resisting each of their urges. How successful were they?

Not very.

They reported being able to resist only 2 out of every 5 desires related to temptations like eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex. In particular, media-related desires (resisting the urge to watch TV, surf the web, check email, or jump on a social network) and work-related desires (resisting the urge to do anything but work) were particularly hard to resist, with a higher-than-average failure rate.

Lesson: Resisting all of these modern day temptations – and failing almost half the time – may consume a considerable portion of your willpower throughout your day.

Finally, one last research project (this time, from Baumeister’s Social Psychology and Human Nature) brings us to the concept of “goal shielding.” Everyone has multiple goals they are working on at any given time. Did you make a long list of New Year’s Resolutions? If so, this is about to sound familiar.

Baumeister argues these different goals compete inside your mind for time and attention. A process called “goal shielding” happens automatically, as a way to preserve your efforts towards the goal you are working on at any given time. The more committed you are to this goal, the more the mind shields you from considering other goals. Which means setting multiple goals of equal “importance” in your mind, and attempting to work on them all at once, pretty much guarantees that none will be accomplished effectively. Which will probably make you feel quite discouraged, and will tempt you to give up on your goal(s) altogether.

Lesson: As willpower is also depleted during times when you feel discouraged and want to quit, taking on too many goals at once is a recipe for willpower failure.

Putting The Willpower Pieces Together

What do these seemingly unrelated concepts mean for our efforts to improve the one bad habit we identified two weeks ago? Allow us to pull this all together for you, in reverse order.

  1. We asked you to set one goal for a reason. If you’re currently working on fixing 7 bad habits at once, stop immediately, choose your top priority, and let the rest go until another day.
  2. Creating a scenario in which you are exposed to the least amount of other temptations sets you up to have stronger willpower when it comes to resisting your one bad habit.
  3. There are proven techniques to help you fight the craving for your one bad habit, even when your willpower is weak. (If four-year-olds can resist marshmallows, so can you.)

Two weeks ago, we asked you to identify some of the cues that precede your craving. We hope that exercise has helped you to identify some of the circumstances around your habits. (Awareness is golden here, people.) This week, we’ll ask you to work on strengthening your willpower, so you can use these exercises and the cues you’ve already identified to be better prepared to resist temptation.

So, what’s our action plan?

A wide variety of acts tap into the same willpower “bank.” Media-related desires are harder to resist than other forms of temptation. So, reduce your temptations.

  • Deliberately go out of your way to avoid tempting foods or beverages. If you still have that crap in your house, get rid of it. Go throw it out right now. We’ll wait.
  • Avoid co-workers who are junk food pushers, friends who attempt to sabotage your healthy food habits, and places where you know you’ll be tempted. (Heading to the bar after work, when you’re tired, cranky and hungry, may be a bad idea. Just sayin’.)
  • Knowing that media-related temptations are even harder to resist than others (and sap tons of your willpower “bank” throughout the day), unplug as much as you can. Don’t pull the Facebook window up. Put your phone on airplane mode. Tell your email program to stop binging at you every 30 seconds. The same willpower you use to resist the call of Twitter is the same stuff that you need to stay out of the cookie jar at 9 PM, so conserve it as if it were a precious resource. Because it is.

If you can accomplish this, your willpower stores will be higher when cues for your One Bad Habit pop up – and you’ll be more ready to resist. But just for good measure, let’s throw in one more tool. Remember the marshmallows? We’re talking about distraction. That’s right, the four-year-olds in the marshmallow study avoided the temptation by removing or obscuring the treat, placing it out of sight and pretending like it wasn’t there. (Some actually covered their eyes until the researchers returned. Brilliant in it’s simplicity, no?)

When those cravings come up, do what the 4-year-olds did: distract yourself until the craving passes.

  • Physically remove or obscuring the temptation in question, placing it out of sight or ignoring it. If you can’t remove the temptation, physically remove yourself from the temptation.
  • Make a list of five distraction techniques you can use the next time your craving hits. Really, make a list. Keep it handy. When your cue(s) pop up, refer to your list, and then do one of those things.
  • Your list might include: going for a 5 minute walk, calling a friend, reading 10 pages in your book, writing a thank you card, filing your nails, eating something healthy, chatting with a co-worker, cleaning something, organizing something, or planning tonight’s dinner.

Got it? We use the cues we learned from our two-week experiment to help us predict when our One Bad Habit is going to pop up. We arrange our environment so we’re tapping into our willpower “bank” as little as possible throughout the course of the day. And then, when the cravings to give into our One Bad Habit do pop up – we pretend they’re marshmallows, and we distract until the craving passes.

The good news is that according to a variety of studies on drug, cigarette and alcohol addiction, the average craving lasts only 3-5 minutes.

We can keep ourselves busy for that long, can’t we?

What’s Next?

What’s next for you is that you practice this stuff, in an effort to continue to rid yourself to your One Bad Habit. What’s next for us is more writing and researching. The next article in our habit series is coming soon – we’ll identify the back end of your One Bad Habit (the reward you get from acting on that behavior). The key to finding a new routine to satisfy that reward is knowing that sometimes, what you think you want and what you actually get are two different things.

To read other posts in our Coming Clean series, related to addiction, eating disorders and food-related compulsions, click here.


References

Baumeister Roy F, Tierney John. “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”  New York: Pengiun Press, 2011

Hagger, M.S., Wood, C., Stiff, C.,  Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136:495–525

Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R.F., Foerster, G. Vohs, K.D. (in press). Seven thousand desires: Desire, conflict, and control in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Mischel, W., Baker, N. (1975). Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2):254-261

Baumeister, R. F. “Self-Control: The Moral Muscle.” The Psychologist, thepsychologist.org.uk. February 2012.

Baumeister Roy F, Bushman Brad J. “Social Psychology and Human Nature.” Independence: Wadsworth, 2010.