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Lewis Garrad

Shared August 29, 2018

Focusing on failures of willpower leads to shame, both public and private, and holds back our curiosity from finding and enacting solutions that actually work.

Focusing on failures of willpower leads to shame, both public and private, and holds back our curiosity from finding and enacting solutions that actually work.

Kelly Burton

Shared May 1, 2018

"What we can learn from people who are good at self-control
So who are these people who are rarely tested by temptations? They’re doing something right. Recent research suggests a few lessons we can draw from them.

1) People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.

So engaging in these activities isn’t a chore for them. It’s fun.

“‘Want to’ goals are more likely to be obtained than ‘have to’ goals,” Milyavskaya said in an interview last year. “Want-to goals lead to experiences of fewer temptations. It’s easier to pursue those goals. It feels more effortless.”

If you’re running because you “have to” get in shape but find running to be a miserable activity, you’re probably not going to keep it up. An activity you like is more likely to be repeated than an activity you hate.

2) People who are good at self-control have learned better habits.

In 2015, psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finding across six studies and more than 2,000 participants that people who are good at self-control also tend to have good habits — like exercising regularly, eating healthy, sleeping well, and studying.

“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me. And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.

A trick to wake up more quickly in the morning is to set the alarm on the other side of the room. That’s not in-the-moment willpower at play; it’s planning.

This theory harks back to one of the classic studies on self-control: Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test,” conducted in the 1960s and ’70s. In these tests, kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later. The ability to resist the immediate gratification was found to correlate with all sorts of positive life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs. But the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.

“Mischel has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist,” the New Yorker reported in 2014. That means kids who avoided eating the first marshmallow would find ways not to look at the candy, or imagine it as something else.

“The really good dieter wouldn’t buy a cupcake,” Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist at Ohio State University, said in 2016. “They wouldn’t have passed in front of a bakery; when they saw the cupcake, they would have figured out a way to say yuck instead of yum; they might have an automatic reaction of moving away instead of moving close.”

3) Some people just experience fewer temptations.

Our dispositions are determined in part by our genetics. Some people are hungrier than others. Some people love gambling and shopping. People high in conscientiousness — a personality trait largely set by genetics — tend to be healthier and more vigilant students. When it comes to self-control, they won the genetic lottery.

4) It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy.

When Mischel’s marshmallow test is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.

But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards, because when you’re poor, the future is less certain."