Forget Willpower — Try Avoiding Temptation Instead

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Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Kids, unlike adults, are not impressed by your moral struggles. Overcame your demons, mustered up all your self-control, forced yourself to take the high road? That’s all fine, but they’d prefer you didn’t have to work quite so hard. The true victory, to a kid, is finding it easy to do the right thing in the first place.

And as it turns out, those judgmental little purists may be on to something. As Christian Jarrett recently wrote in BPS Research Digest, a forthcoming study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that exercising your willpower isn’t the best strategy to achieve your goals — avoiding temptation is.

For the study, a team of Canadian researchers recruited 159 undergraduates, who took a series of personality tests, answered questions meant to measure their self-control, and wrote down four things they wanted to achieve, like exercising more or learning a new skill. A few weeks later, Jarrett explained, the volunteers began a “week-long period of intense record-keeping”:

During this particular week, five times a day at random times, the students’ smartphone pinged and asked them to report whether they were currently experiencing a desire for any temptations, whether these temptations conflicted with any of their goals, whether they had exercised willpower to resist the temptation(s), and how depleted or mentally exhausted they were feeling in that moment. At the end of each day that week, they also completed a diary about how mentally exhausted or energised they had felt during that day. Finally, the researchers caught up with the students again at the end of the semester to find out how much progress they’d made on their four personal goals.

In the end, the participants who’d made the most progress toward their goals were also the ones who had encountered the fewest temptations. “The lesson seems to be to accept that humans are weak-willed,” Jarrett wrote. “The key to success therefore is to avoid temptation in the first place. Avoid the grocery store when you’re hungry. Don’t leave the cookie jar on the side in the kitchen. Make your bedroom an iPad-free zone.”

But the most successful subjects, he noted, also happened to be the ones who scored the highest on the initial self-control tests, suggesting that willpower was “a trait, rather than an in-the-moment act.” Or maybe it means they used all that willpower further in advance, planning ahead of time to steer clear of tempting situations. Either way, the lesson is the same: Hard work for its own sake isn’t always the best way to go. Sometimes, life is easier when you make things easier for yourself.