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Here we are: a new year with a new set of New Years resolutions.To follow through and turn those resolutions into results, we're usually convinced that willpower is the essential ingredient. But what if the reason we often fail in our resolutions hinges less on willpower and more on avoiding temptations right from the start? That may sound straightforward, but, as a new study suggests, it's an argument that challenges popular wisdom, and should change how we think about setting goals now or anytime of year.

Researchers tracked the lives of 159 college students over the course of a week. Five times every day a message was sent to the participants’ smartphones asking them to report if they were facing temptations, whether the temptations conflicted with their goals, and whether they had exercised willpower to resist the temptations. They were also asked to report how mentally depleted they were feeling.

At the end of each day, the participants completed a diary entry describing their energy levels—from having a lot left in the tank to being mentally exhausted. As a wrap-up, the researchers interviewed the students at the end of the semester to assess their progress on four important goals they’d identified at the start of the study.

The results showed that the participants who spent the most time flexing their willpower via self-control made less progress toward their goals than those who experienced the fewest temptations. And those who experienced the most temptations, whether or not they tried resisting them, reported feeling the most mentally depleted during the day and drained at night.

The results offer a few takeaways: (1) trying to resist temptations via willpower is draining, (2) simply facing temptations, whether or not we resist them, is draining and (3) being mentally drained from experiencing temptations correlates directly with making less progress. The key takeaway, then, isn’t to engage temptation with force of will, but to avoid temptations from the get-go or at least minimize exposure whenever possible.

The study also assessed the individual students' self-control levels before things got rolling—and there were of course differences—but the researchers took those into account to make sure they didn't color the results.

Quoting the researchers: “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.”

As simple as this sounds, it runs counter to the cult of willpower that dominates thinking on reaching goals. We tend to think that overcoming temptation is all about self-control, as if self-control, wielded with enough force of will, can overcome any temptation. Disproving that argument is as easy as walking into a grocery store hungry.

Beyond our typical self-control challenges, we're also increasingly facing the challenge of managing our attention. Focusing is hard under the best conditions, but trying to focus with a smartphone nearby, a web browser open, a television blaring—all of the above and more—is plainly insane. And yet some flavor of that distraction stew is what we're operating in every day. What this and similar studies suggest is that our self-sabotage begins well before we try fending off distractions with self-control. Just as it’s a bad idea to walk into a grocery store hungry, it’s folly to think you’ll focus with tempting digital distractions playing for your attention.

That said, it’s a little ironic that the data gathering method used in this study was pinging the students' smartphones. But the point remains: every ping, alert, message, whatever, is a tiny temptation, and collectively they’re a big one. We can’t change that now baked-in fact of life, but we can—and really, we have to—develop better ways of managing it.

The study will be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

You can find David DiSalvo on TwitterFacebookGoogle Plus, and at his website,daviddisalvo.org.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Changing Habits Beats Reliance on Willpower is a reply by Susan Heitler Ph.D.

About the Author

David DiSalvo

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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