Freedom from Transient Desires

How to overcome impulses.

Posted Sep 09, 2020

Individuals’ tastes and preferences are not fixed. Our behavior seems to be controlled by a narrow-minded “doers” who cares about immediate pleasure and a deliberate “planner” who is concerned with the long-term reward. The person who makes plans and the person who fails to implement them are different parts of the divided self. Having just a plan or goal is not enough. No matter how strong the goal intentions, there is no guarantee that the goal will be achieved, because of the planner-doer gap (Kahneman, 2011).

Indeed, the essence of self-control problem is mainly about conflicts between two selves (e.g., one who wants to be thin and the other who wants to overindulge). Self-control failures result in the person to act in a way opposite to her or his better judgment (or intention).

Self-control can be temporarily undermined by several factors, including the surrounding context, lack of resolve, cravings, boredom, and so on. For many, indulgence is a way of coping. When people are under the influence of emotions (e.g., craving, hunger, or stress), they often act in ways that they will regret later.

For example, seeing and smelling fresh baked cookies make one reach out before realizing one is on a diet. We then ask, "What was I thinking?” Sadly, the answer is that not much thinking was involved. Yet we might be unaware of our environment influencing our behavior because stimuli can activate cravings.

Whether people will give in to a desire at any given time depends on two things: the strength of the desire and the ability (strength) of the self to resist the urge. A stronger desire may make people more vulnerable to its motivational power.

If people can anticipate the change in desire, they can take precautions of the kinds chosen by Ulysses (in the Odyssey), when he had his men tie him to the mast as they approached the island of the Sirens. Able to foresee this temporary change in his preferences, he came up with an effective commitment device to limit his options (Ainslie, 2001). This is an example of a pre-commitment strategy that one can use to limit his or her choices in advance against the foreseeable temptations. The ability to precommit to one option over another is one of the most powerful self-control strategies (Rachlin, 2000).

For example, a gambler may carry only a limited amount of cash into a casino. An addict may decide, in advance, to prevent himself from making the wrong choice if given an opportunity later (e.g., avoid driving by the liquor store on his or her way home from work, or keep no alcoholic beverages at home). Learning to catch things at an early stage makes it easier to derail the chain of behavior that leads to the full desire or passion emerging.

For a compulsive shopper, a useful strategy to restrain the urge to overspend would be to keep track of triggers, such as family conflict, anxiety, or loneliness. It is also helpful to emphasize the importance of managing credit cards or getting rid of them. The main psychological force of credit cards is that they separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying. And the lower the pain of paying feels, the more we spend.

In general, a self-control strategy helps a person to commit to behaving in a certain way in the future. The level of commitment varies from person to person. For instance, two individuals can face the same temptation and differ in their self-control response. The person who expects strong vulnerability will be more likely to require greater willpower to adhere to his or her goals than will the person who does not anticipate such a strong vulnerability. There is no virtue in resisting things we don’t desire.

Self-control capacity can be considered as a skill that is developed over time and the increased practice enables people to achieve future goals and outcomes. People who practice small but regular acts of self-control find it easier to increase the capacity to confront even bigger challenges.


Ainslie, G. (2001), Breakdown of Will. Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman Daniel (2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Rachlin, Howard (2000), The Science of Self-Control. Harvard. University Press.