How To Reach Goals: Avoiding Temptation Better Than Boosting Willpower
Trying to improve yourself isn’t an easy road.
You may be trying to get to the gym more, eat less fast food, spend more time with family, or quit smoking.
These are all worthy goals, and they have a big impact with your health and life in general. It also needs healthy dose of willpower to make those changes.
Or does it?
Some experts, along with research studies to back them up, say that boosting your willpower may not be the best solution to reaching your goals. But another important tactic – avoiding temptation – may be the better alternative.
Where Willpower Fails
Willpower, and our lack of it, has been a hot topic ever since the famous marshmallow test that was used to tempt young children. Since then, experts have shown that willpower is an important part of positive life outcomes. Higher grades, better job prospects, and healthier lives.
We all know people who seem to never miss hitting the gym or always avoid fast food for a salad alternative. You may think that an iron will is the only way to a toned body. Or to reach any long-term goal where we have to forego or short term wants.
But researchers say there’s something else going on, and will be publishing a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. They found that the reason why people successfully reach their goals had nothing to do with their iron-like willpower.
Instead, it was their ability to avoid temptation in the first place.
A lot of research on willpower is conducted in the lab. But the researchers decided to take a more real life approach by checking up on participants and the decisions they were making out in the world.
Before the study started, personality tests, self-control measures, and personal goals were all gathered from participants.
The next step involved having participants report their experiences at five random times for a full week. Were participants experiencing temptations? Did those temptations affect personal goals? Did they have to exercise willpower at those times? And how mentally exhausted did they feel?
In addition to this, the researchers also had subjects complete a diary at the end of each day. And at the end of the semester they also followed up to see how well personal goals had progressed.
This gave the researchers clearer, less-biased data and a more real world look at willpower in the lives of people.
A Different Perspective On Willpower
What the data revealed about willpower was a bit of a surprise. It also might give us a better picture about willpower and how effectively we use it to pursue our goals.
The researchers sum it up best by saying this:
Against popular and scientific wisdom, effortful self-control did not appear to play a role in goal-pursuit, suggesting that the immediate positive consequences of exerting willpower do not translate into long-term goal success.
That’s a pretty sobering look at willpower. You may have read things in the media or been told personally that willpower is the key to a better life. Trying to reach goals through pure willpower, though, may not be your best bet.
At it’s worst, believing you failed because you simply don’t have enough willpower could make you feel worse about yourself. That you don’t have what it takes to make a change. And this can make it harder to reach your goals when you feel inadequate.
More Tempting Evidence
This recent study doesn’t stand alone. In fact, another very similar experiment came to the same conclusion back in 2012. In fact, one of the biggest proponents of willpower and the concept of ego-depletion – Roy Baumeister – was involved with the research.
Once again it was an “experience sampling” study, meaning it was was conducted in real life. The researchers gave participants Blackberrys and randomly had them report on their desires and temptations throughout the day.
While many of us think that people with strong willpower are just better at resisting temptations. But here was the interesting bit. Those participants who reported having strong willpower? They actually had fewest temptations throughout the day, when compared to others.
Willpower in the Wild
It seems the book on willpower hasn’t quite been written yet. At the very least it’s incomplete.
Recently, one of the reigning theories about willpower has had problems showing that it can be reproduced in labs across the globe. A scientific process known as replication.
But the theory that’s having problems showing consistent results is called ego-depletion, and it states that we have a finite amount of willpower. Imagine a gas tank that gets used up every time we do something that requires self-control.
Other researchers have found numerous holes with the theory. Leading experts to believe there’s other factors at play. Things like our beliefs about willpower can affect our level of effort. So we are finding that the topic of willpower is more complex and nuanced than what we first believed.
Avoiding Temptation is More Effective
So which is the more effective method. Trying to boost your willpower, or avoiding situations where you may have to use willpower in the first place. It could be that raw willpower isn’t the answer.
In reality, those people you see succeeding in reaching their goals, eating salads, and hitting the gym, may be using the same secret that’s used by addicts who are trying to quit addictive substances. They are avoiding temptations that cause them to stray from their longer term goals.
It’s not to say that willpower still isn’t important. You can’t avoid any situation where you may be tempted to eat that chocolate cake or break room donuts. But it helps to realize that we humans aren’t perfect. We all have a tendency to slip up. Sometimes, if you really want to change your behavior, it’s best to plan ahead and figure out how to change your situation or environment so you aren’t tempted in the first place.
Here’s the advice of the researchers involved in the study:
Our results suggest that the path to better self-regulation lies not in increasing self-control, but in removing the temptations available in our environments.
For those people on the path to change, or trying to adopt healthier behavior, we shouldn’t be putting willpower on an ivory pedestal.
The more effective method could actually be teaching people the skills they need to better make the changes in their life that they want.