7 Ways to Resist Temptations

Whatever you do, do not over-control.

Posted Aug 31, 2020

How can we resist life's many temptations? Willpower comes to mind but it isn't a very reliable source. Sometimes we have willpower and a lot of it; other times we have none or very little of it. It fluctuates. I discovered that simplifying my life was a way to budget my willpower.

For example, I decided to drop all dieting in favor of letting go of refined sugar. While my friends wondered if I became too hard on myself and possibly become a sour person, my decision softened and sweetened my life instead. I no longer wondered when to eat what. Having regrets regarding food consumption was a thing of the past. Meanwhile, the pounds dropped insidiously. I became thin without aiming for it. It cannot be stressed often enough, simplifying one's life often invites happiness.

Many people during our troubled times find themselves losing control over food or merchandise, eating and shopping too much. Modern life has been too stressful as it was, with decision overload, hectic schedules, and social isolation.

Now, with the pandemic, we have extra stressors, such as health risks, loss of loved ones, economic uncertainty, and financial hardship. When we go outside, we must remember to wear a mask and wear it correctly, without touching the mask or our face. It takes a great deal of self-control to keep a proper physical distance, wash hands, and never ever cough in our hands.

It takes extra discipline when it is hot and sweat pearls run down our faces. When others pass by without a mask or with the nose not being covered, it takes effort not to be impolite or impatient. For a significant amount of people, it takes effort to stay polite for following rules with which they do not necessarily agree.

Furthermore, we must be patient (self-controlled) when it comes to the development of a vaccine. All these activities add up and take a toll.

Self-control expert and researcher Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, finds that many of the “self’s activities depend on a common resource, akin to energy or strength.”She asserts that we have a psychological resource for self-control that can be depleted. The more we would use self-control, the less we have it available to ourselves later when we might need it for another activity. 

Experiments support this hypothesis. People who try to diet and spend energy resisting temptation may give up more readily when solving an unrelated, difficult task.

In addition, we can deplete ourselves by making too many decisions. Vohs et al. explain:

“The current work tests the hypothesis that there is a hidden cost to choosing, a cost that goes beyond that of being responsible for outcomes or the costs involved in thinking about options. Specifically, the process of choosing may itself drain some of the self’s precious resources, thereby leaving the executive function less capable of carrying out its other activities. Decision fatigue can therefore impair self-regulation.”2

What is there to do? Here are some tips that apply even when the pandemic is over (and yes, it will be over someday):

1. Simplify With a Plan. Commit to a strategy and do not negotiate after your commitment. For example, ahead of a meal, think about what to eat, how much you want to eat or drop from your menu a food altogether. Decide how much you want to spend before you go shopping. While a lot of people think that planning and sticking to a plan is too restrictive, it does, in fact, relieve one of having to make new decisions over and over.

2. Prioritize. Do not restrict yourself on too many levels all at once. Vohs recommends to not put every decision you want to make in the category “urgent,” but to choose your decisions wisely. If you have to run a marathon, do not also train for a new job and go on a diet.

3. Implement a Routine. Instead of making decisions over minor things, just have a simple routine you follow. For example, shop where you always shop instead of trying out new, expensive online stores. Avoid certain settings routinely, such as bars and bakeries, if you want to avoid alcohol or calories.

4. Outsource. If you can and if it makes sense for a healthy life, have other people make a decision on your behalf. 

5. Satisfice. This weird word simply means to be content with and accept things when they are “good enough” instead of perfect. For more information, please read my article "Seeking Perfection? There Is a Better Way."

6. Replenish the Source. If you have exhausted yourself with too much self-control and decision making, go for a walk in nature, relax in a bubble bath, meditate.3

7. Go sideways. Sometimes it is better to eat a little piece of chocolate or have a sip of lemonade before you overly self-control. Don’t let yourself become too keen on a thing. Vohs recommends: Give yourself a little, and accept going sideways—sometimes. While this does not work for me when it comes to sugar, it works for me with shopping and other things.

Have some mercy! Know thyself and be kind to yourself, alright? 

© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

References

1. Psychology Today, Pdf: Article “Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources” by Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister, Jean M. Twenge, Brandon J. Schmeichel & Dianne M. Tice: https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/584/decision200602-15vohs.pdf

2. Ibid.

3. Kathleen Vohs (2013) explains how self-control is a limited resource: Willpower & Self-Control in Consumer Decision Making. YouTube: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dAOTiWIPYE