Learning to avoid temptation
November 18, 2014 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I have very good willpower (I would say well above average) when it comes to enduring painful, unpleasant, or tedious experiences (long distance running, winter hiking, data entry). At the same time, I have very poor willpower (almost certainly below average) when it comes to avoiding temptation (food, drink, buying things I want but don't need). On the face of it, it seems like the two should be related. Why is it so different to push through a wall when running than to push through a wall when peckish? But for me, they seem entirely independent. What sort of techniques can I learn to specifically build the second kind of willpower?
posted by 256 to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you find the experiences different because you think of them as being different? Maybe if you thought of them as being the same, it would be easier? Like if you tend to crave candy between 1pm and 5pm (like I'm doing right now!) instead of thinking "Ugh, I'm avoiding temptation..oh shoot, I'm no good at this *munches candy*" you think "Ugh, I'm enduring this unpleasant experience. That's ok though, I know how to do that."
posted by bleep at 1:54 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you set up little endurance contests for yourself, like "Let's see if I can go five days without buying anything"? That might give you the satisfaction of having a tangible success to work towards.
posted by ostro at 2:00 PM on November 18, 2014

It sounds like you're good at doing things. But *not* doing things isn't the same, and in general I find it a really unhelpful framework for changing habits/behavior. Pick a thing you want to *do*, and do that when you feel the temptation - whether it's something also-virtuous like pushups, or an alternative soothing/pleasurable activity. I've always found it's much easier to do an alternate activity than just to... not do the thing I was going to do.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:08 PM on November 18, 2014 [20 favorites]

For me, a lot to do with how I frame the payoff. In the first set of examples you cite, you can often feel good about pressing on in situations like that. There's very little regret for completing those things, but sometimes you regret giving in to the temptation to quit, due to the negative consequences of stopping, not getting work done, etc. There is a particular balance between effort and payoff that seems tolerable to you, and the converse less so.

In the second set of examples, there's a perceived initial payoff for giving in to the temptation, and for some reason it offsets the initial worry about the consequence (although that may come later). Perceived initial payoff for temptation can often be intimately connected to emotional needs or concerns, and it can sometimes be helpful to try and discern what those connections are. We eat to assuage feelings, to fight boredom, etc. Sometimes shopping can meet some deep need, as well, such as feeling the need for security, novelty, etc. You might want to see what the perceived payoff is in each of those categories for you, and perhaps that data might inform how you can change the payoff/setback balance.

Here are a few thoughts from another post that I wrote regarding why it is we often do what is not in our best interest. I repost it here in case it might be helpful for you.
The ancients had a word called akrasia. Basically, the word grapples with the fact that often times, we do not feel that we can do what we know factually to be in our best interest. For example, we smoke although we know we will likely have health problems. Same with overeating, infidelity, and a number of other vices. We don't do them because we think they are necessarily better than the alternative. We simply feel weak in our wills to do otherwise. The question is, why do we do that? Philosophers, theologians, and pretty much everyone, have been grappling with that question for awhile.

This isn't a complete answer to the question, but I have come to think that we often grapple with competing beliefs in life, and the one that gives us the quickest and most instant gratification often wins out. For example, I believe that I should not overeat, but I also believe that I have a need to be emotionally assuaged by this chocolate cake. Which belief/need wins out? It's like Sophie's choice, and the cake often wins out if it can make the struggle stop, at least for the moment.

However. We often have events that make some beliefs hit a bit closer to home and move them up on the priority scale. I too often choose the chocolate cake, instead of choosing the healthier life. Except right after I've had a heart attack. I choose smoking until I finally feel like total crap that one time getting out of bed, get the bad x-ray, or have a friend that died. Many of these come-to-Jesus moments can switch our value system that provides weight to other sides of our belief struggle.

The trick, I think, is finding out what in life can trigger those heart attack moments without actually having the heart attack. Sometimes it's a lot of thinking, studying, internal reflection, and simply hard practice to develop habits such that we prefer something like a healthier life, for its immediate and inherent value, to eating poorly. But this is hard, and it is a struggle, and sometimes people are (I dare to say) blessed with warning signs of imminent danger that can help get our attention before the bad thing happens. Who knows what those warnings always are. But the struggle between competing beliefs regarding one's immediate needs in life is a significant part of the human condition, I think.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:08 PM on November 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

One set of behaviors has a huge pleasure payoff and the other doesn't. The second set of behaviors probably has an emotional soothing component that you are chasing. The euphoria after buying something or the pleasurable satisfaction of delicious food or drink helps to soothe emotions and reduces stress for many. It's often temporary, but that doesn't matter in the moment. To change these behaviors, you have to find replacement activities that don't involve food or spending and you have to find a way to satisfy or resolve the emotional need behind the activity. That's not often not managed through willpower alone.
posted by quince at 2:10 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

(I think the "do it" and "don't do it" muscles are different.)

The strategy is to remove willpower and decision-making from the equation. Ideally, you keep yourself out of situations where you're exposed to temptation. If you can't do that, then you choose a list of "bright line" rules.


It takes some trial and error to find the right rules. Too strict and you'll violate them because you have to. To loose and they're sort of no longer a bright line, and then they need decision and interpretation and willpower again.

The final danger is that bright line rules work so well that they don't flex with your changing needs and you hurt yourself. So be careful.

(One last point, though: Are you getting enough calories? Are you getting enough micronutrients? Are you having enough good experiences with friends? That's another avenue to explore.)
posted by zeek321 at 2:10 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

IANAN (I am not a neuroscientist), but I would bet that "doing" (exercise, working) flexes different willpower muscles than "not doing" (don't eat that, don't buy that).

It's one thing to tell yourself: I'll just take this one more step, I'll just keep pushing to this goal. That puts you entirely in control of what's happening.

It's a totally different thing to say: I won't do this for X amount of time, when you have no control over the passage of time.

So... is there a way that you can refactor your thinking about tempting things into something more active? Like: I won't eat this chocolate because I am eating these healthy carrots that I brought instead. Or: I won't buy this *shiny thing* I will do work on my ongoing craft project/go volunteer somewhere instead?
posted by sparklemotion at 2:11 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Every single reputable thing I've read and learned about behavior modification talks about the importance of framing the desired change in terms of positive goals -- what you want to do, not what you don't want to do. And they've all said that framing the desired change in terms of negative goals is setting yourself up for failure.

So as others are saying, what you're describing is common. I might try to play around with flipping your goals, like "I'm going to eat healthy snacks every day this week," "I'm going to drink two glasses of water every night before deciding if I still want alcohol," or "I'm going to save $X for Z big purchase."
posted by jaguar at 2:23 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

When you're pushing through an endurance wall, your attention is focused on that one thing in that exact moment - the moment ends, and you are free to put your attention to other things.

Avoiding a behavior, though, is something you have to do at all times. Not only that, but you won't be thinking about it the vast majority of that time. That's an entirely different kind of discipline.
posted by amtho at 2:28 PM on November 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just don't even really understand exactly what is meant by "willpower". Eating, drinking, and shopping each involve different motivations, cues, and contexts, and these vary for people, at different times, although I agree that they're mostly (probably) related to comfort and that finding replacement activities would help you a lot.

With regard to eating, people really are so different. For me, I found that inadequate planning, inconsistent meal times and an inclination to opt for convenience when possible (which I sort of want to call 'efficiency') set me up for poor choices; those poor choices (cheese pastries and french fries and the like) simply were not satiating enough, for biological reasons, and taking them led me to eat too much later in the day. Other people may have different issues (e.g. emotional eating).

For me, answers involved learning about meal planning and nutrition, so that I could equip myself to plan ahead, and buy, prepare and eat the kinds of foods that would keep me full and prevent a dinner of e.g. a large poutine. (Satiating foods are high in protein, fats and fibre.) I also removed any "easy" and poor choices from the house. Willpower didn't come into it. I never felt deprived, because I kept myself in a state resistant to those cravings, and I enjoyed the new foods I was eating.

Various motivations helped me stick to this -- I wanted to lose weight (or alternately, to "become fit"), and was also interested in learning new ways of cooking that were pleasing in their own right.

None of that, imo, draws on "willpower", or can be really spoken about as bad or good. Those are all just processes that involve learning and finding enough positive motivations to steer you through the sharp bit of the curve. (Same applies to drinking and shopping.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:47 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Someone in this thread compared resisting temptation to being its own individual muscle, and then enduring hardship as a separate individual muscle. Perhaps the best metaphor for this situation is that resisting temptation/enduring hardship is just like muscles on the human body: (from very fuzzy memories of anatomy class) the muscles to extend the leg are different from the ones to retract the leg, but they are all apart of the leg on the human anatomy. They are related to the functioning of one limb, but are separate. You get the idea.

In addition, maybe you've practiced enduring hardship a lot, and not enough indulging in temptation. You've practiced one muscle but not the other. Which is why resisting temptation is so hard for you.

My advice: indulge in all the temptation you want for a short period of time. Get used to it, feel it, really just luxuriate in it; get used to Hedonism just like one can get used to hardship. Get used to hedonism until the idea becomes mundane and even a bit dull. When temptation becomes just as normal to you as hardship, then one can say 'no' quite naturally.

Plus, when one gives into temptation, it's a fun process.
posted by tenlives at 5:28 PM on November 18, 2014

I recently read a quote that went straight to my core.

"All cravings are merely the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in an external thing as a substitute for the joy of being."

This applies to food cravings as well assuming you're not starving yourself. I think the difference is that in the activities you mentioned you are forced to be more in your body because you're actively doing something that requires concentration just to do them. Once you tap into that concentration you are tapping into the side of the brain that deals with discipline as well (which you seem to be good at). Eating however doesn't require any concentration. You can think and dream and eat through a whole box of oreos while being in la la land and not even realizing how much you're eating.

Try to be concentrated while you're cooking and eating. Make it a process. Set up the table nice, pray before your meal (You're less likely to gobble down your meal disrespectfully if you pray to something higher than yourself before eating) and eat mindfully, without your mind wandering. Savor every bite. Put the dishes away.

Put something that inspires you towards discipline on your fridge. For myself I put a picture of the Indian God Ganesha up because Ganesha is known to love sweets (a symbol the sweets of prosperity) and he's always shown holding a bowl of sweets, but he is almost NEVER shown actually eating any. When I see Ganesha holding those yummy sweets so close to him and yet so disciplined that he's not reaching out to eat any of them, it reminds me that spirituality and discipline are intertwined and inspires me to keep away from the fridge until I am truly hungry. I mean if Ganesha can be right next to his favorite sweets all day and not gorge them down I can certainly stay away from the fridge until dinner time. But maybe just a picture of a hot babe with really nice abs will do it for you! :)
posted by rancher at 7:39 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAD or a neuroscientist, but I've done some reading on the subject, and I have these same general tendencies. Here's my layperson's understanding of this with the caveat that I'm not an expert and even experts still aren't entirely clear on how all of this works:

The inability to say no to alcohol/candy/etc has to do with impulse control. In your case the drive for that hit of pleasure overrides your brain's ability to say no. In general, that reward pathway is centered around dopamine's activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain, while the saying no comes from the prefrontal cortex which plays a central role in executive functioning.

Now, when it comes to thinks like running marathons, that's all about your brain telling you to keep going, which is very different from saying don't do something. Plus, in this case, you're also focusing on motor pathways (keep running, etc). There's also the fact that you probably get some sort of reward from continuing to run (endorphins, anyone?) so it might also be feeding in to the same part of you that craves rewards.

To take this to an extreme, consider someone with ADHD, hyperactive/impulsive type. They will have a really hard time saying "no" to drugs/alcohol/candy/video games and tend to have other impulsive behaviors like blurting things out and not waiting their turn. However, they could be really great at sustained physical activity because those pathways aren't impaired.

In terms of how to handle this, I think that's already been covered pretty well upthread. It's usually more helpful to focus on doing something else while also creating barriers like not keeping candy/alcohol around. Basically, make it as easy as possible for your brain to say no.

With all that being said, words like "willpower" and "discipline" are really not very helpful. They tend to be used in a judge-y way and are often utilized to make people feel badly about themselves, and really they don't mean anything. (I'm not criticizing you for using them, but I think it's not a very useful way of looking at things.)
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:49 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why is it so different to push through a wall when running than to push through a wall when peckish?

I'm not a neuroscientist, but Roy F. Baumeister is, and his research supports the idea of Ego Depletion, modulated by blood glucose levels. Essentially, using willpower requires mental effort, and eating & drinking, two activities you find hard to regulate, power that mental effort. This model neatly answers your question: you need the sugars in food to resist the delicious sugars in food.

If you think they're truly independent, an experiment is in order: try doing data entry or winter hiking on an empty stomach.
posted by pwnguin at 12:05 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Late answer, but here goes: they are 100% related. This is overly simplifying it, but you may have a stronger BAS (behavioral activation system) than BIS (behavioral inhibition system). There is a largely heritable component to these; people with strong BAS tendencies tend to engage in more approach behaviors, and respond to signals of conditioned reward—either the presence of reward (e.g., food) or the absence of reward (e.g., safety). The BIS, on the other hand, is sensitive to punishment and the absence of punishment. So if your BIS is stronger, you’re more motivated by ’not being punished’ or ‘being punished.’ Things can activate both the BAS and BIS, as when we’re anxious or conflicted, when we’re frozen and don’t know what to do.

As mentioned here earlier, people with higher BAS sensitivity respond best to cues of reward; it’s great for pushing through the wall of marathon-running, but also means that you give into temptation. You’re lured by reward and have a high approach tendency. There are some holes in the ‘willpower as a limited resource’ theory, pointing to the fact that at the heart of willpower is really an issue about goal-switching. When your guard/resources are down, you go for the short-term goal (eating yummy food) instead of the long-term goal (losing or maintaining weight). It’s cognitively easier to go for the rewards that are in front of your face, giving into the immediate wants of the limbic system instead of listening to your slow and taxing prefrontal cortex.

Because people with high BAS sensitivity tend to approach things, they need to regulate their environment as much as possible. Get rid of the junk food. Internet blocker. Leave the credit cards at home. When that’s impossible, you need a concrete reminder of your long-term goal, so that you’re not trying to override a concrete temptation (donut) with a foggy, abstract idea (health). Ultimately, willpower is a momentary decision to opt for one goal over another because the overall benefits outweigh the costs - keeping in mind that both making decisions and acting are taxing. When you’re tempted to go for the temptation, take out that photo of yourself in a bathing suit/you on vacation in Greece with the money you’ll save/etc. and tell yourself “it’s worth it!” That is, keep in mind that the overall benefits/rewards outweigh the temporary costs. Make the reward clear and go towards it.

In the face of temptation, I also frame things in terms of approaching my future self with compassion. I tell myself, "be kind to future Blazing Unicorn; she is older, more tired, and doesn’t have time for this crap.” Your future self is the result of thousands of tiny decisions made by present you. I envision my future self, and make my decisions in line with the most awesome and rewarding version of her. "Future you" is worth it.
posted by blazingunicorn at 8:37 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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