Temptation or Willpower: What Matters in the Long Run?
by Omar Ganai
7 minute read
To kick-off a recent Motivator Meetup, Coach Stevo and I reviewed a new study. The researchers of this study asked an important question:
What’s more important for goal achievement: reducing experiences of temptation or exerting willpower?
We summarized the findings below. You also can watch the discussion in depth on Crowdcast ($59 or free for Habitry Professionals).
This study is awesome! It’s the first to examine how goal progress is affected by:
Also, the study was conducted outside of the lab. That means it gives us some clues about how goal achievement happens in everyday life.
At the beginning of a semester, students were asked if they wanted to take part in a study about goals. It they decided to sign up, they were asked to share four personal goals they wanted to make progress on during the semester.
Then, for one week, students who signed up for the study got a ping on their phone five times a day, at random times between 10AM and 10PM. When they received the ping, students had the chance to report:
a. If they were currently experiencing a desire
b. Whether that desire conflicted with any of their goals (if it did, it was a “temptation”)
c. If students experienced had experienced temptation, they were then asked if they had exercised willpower to resist it
d. How mentally exhausted they felt in the moment (a measure of willpower depletion)
e. At the end of the day (at 10pm), they were also asked how exhausted or energized they felt in general during that day.
At the end of the semester, researchers asked students how much progress they had made on their four personal goals.
Surprisingly, resisting temptation was not related to goal progress. Not related! In the same way daily temperature is not related to the day of the week. Instead, students who experienced fewer temptations made more progress on their goals. It seems like successful students avoided misplacing energy trying to fight temptation. Instead, successful students did things to keep moving forward on their goals. By contrast, their less successful peers reported experiencing more temptation during the day. Less successful students also reported exerting more willpower to resist their temptations. This left them feeling more tired at night. In other words, less successful students misplaced their efforts. Sadly, they ended up trading more mental fatigue for less goal progress.
The study relied on self-report. A follow-up study with some objective measures of goal achievement would provide more useful evidence.
Goal achievement seems to be more about avoiding situations that are tempting, rather than fighting them with willpower. But of course, we all experience temptation and we’re never gonna stop experiencing temptation, so the question becomes…
What do we make of the fact that we our long-term goals and conflict with our short-term temptations? As always, the founder of humanistic psychology, has a starting answer:
Teach clients that they can choose to act on a temptation OR choose to avoid it, instead of choosing to resisting it. If they choose to act on it, they may learn to accept that they want it. If they choose to avoid it, they may learn to accept that they don’t want it. Fighting temptation is a tactic of last resort.
More importantly, we should start using the phrase “self-concordance” instead of self-discipline. Self-concordance means, “in agreement with yourself”. Help your clients learn the habits of supporting their own autonomy.
It starts with you being personally interested with them about their subjective experience and feelings. This will help them uncover their Point A, or where they currently are in their journey.
Over weeks, they’ll start to learn little bits of what is important to them and what is not. They’ll be trying lots of Point Not-As. To quote Coach Stevo: “Most clients do not know what they want. They just don’t want to be where they are anymore. They just want to get from Point A to Point ‘Not A’. So like an airplane in a dogfight, the most important quality for success is maintaining momentum. Get them moving. Keep them moving. Your only enemies are inertia and friction.”
Over months and years, with work and some luck, they will learn what is actually important to them and what is not. Point Z (their unrealistic fantasy) fades away and they get to the Point B that is truly theirs. At this point, they will achieve self-concordance.
All this implies that we should help clients acknowledge their temptations (ha ha) and give them strategies for how to avoid them where and when they can. Remember, fighting temptation is the tool of last resort. There are so many other options.
Your primary challenge as a Motivator? Facilitating conversations with and between clients so they can connect these dots on their own. Basically, it starts with making boring old planning fun.
Steve Troutman likes to “invite clients to watch their thoughts and feelings without judgment almost as if they’re assessing a cloud passing by in the sky.”
Chuck Osswald has advice if your clients keep getting their goals tangled up with their temptations. Ask them how they can make whatever they are facing bigger than themselves. Who are they doing this change for?
Chris Forrest has created an infographic that riffs on Dan John’s Red-Yellow-Green System. This infographic helps clients understand how they can get better at adjusting their level of effort week as they work on a habit, based on their current life situation. “Beginner” clients are those who force themselves to do things when temptation is felt. “Developing” clients are those who ask the coach or community for help in figuring out how much to do each week. “Advanced” clients are those who start adjusting their habit on their own based on a realistic assessment of what’s possible in the upcoming week. They also start helping other people in the group.
Susan Ogilvie likes to tell clients about avoiding Commitment Prison. When people join your group, they aren’t thinking about what their life situation will actually be like. They just want results immediately. So start telling them about Commitment Prison, a place where they still confuse “struggle” with “progress”.
Kerry Thuett gives clients a Success Log. Help them notice and learn how to interpret multiple metrics of competence. Quantitative and qualitative. Otherwise, in their ignorance, clients will focus on a sole, incomplete metric.
Mitch Kahn likes to use a walking-jogging-sprinting metaphor to help clients “goldilocks” their habits. This a simple way to explain how to ramp effort up and down for a habit on a weekly basis. It also explains to them how much progress they can make based on their level of effort.
Brian Tabor likes to throw social events where people can have fun. People who are great at self-control actually have fun doing things like eating broccoli. They are not fighting temptation, they don’t even feel it. They don’t even want the cake. How can you make things fun for your clients, so it doesn’t feel like homework? Social events. For example, in his community, they don’t celebrate Christmas. They celebrate Festivus.
Amanda Fisher likes to share her story with her community so that clients feel understood. By sharing stories about your successes and struggles with each habit. Talking about it all as a learning experiment is a great way to teach a growth mindset.