7 Essential Steps to Mastering Temptation

We Americans are out of control. We want to lose weight, but we can’t stop eating. (Since 1980 the obesity rate in the United States has doubled; two-thirds of the population is now overweight.) We want to save, but we can’t stop spending. (The average American household owes more in debt than it earns in a year, and still keeps spending more than it takes in.) We want to be healthy, but we can’t stop smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. (One in ten Americans has an addiction disorder.) We can’t even control our attention. (We’re multitasking like never before, constantly switching our focus from Blackberries to iPhones, to email and texts and the internet.)

These behavioral problems aren’t just vexing and embarrassing. They’re killing us.  Smoking and obesity are the top two causes of preventable death in the United States. More than half of people who die between the ages of 15 to 64 do as a result of unhealthy decisions, compared to just 5 percent a century ago. And impulse control takes a toll across all age groups. Children born today might be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. They will also face greatly diminished economic prospects, as runaway spending in both private and public spheres contributes to an unprecedented and increasingly unsustainable debt load.

Self-control is one of the hardest things to achieve in modern life, but in the course of my research I’ve come across seven key tools that can help us to resist temptation.

#1: Name your problem. Admit to yourself that you’re not happy with your behavior and how it is affecting your existence. At the same time, frame your challenge positively. The way you view the task ahead of you determines your mindset and your likelihood of success.

#2: Choose your battles. You have limited reserves of willpower. If you use them up on one thing (e.g., forcing yourself to work late) you will not have them for another (quitting smoking or restricting how much you eat).

#3: Rest. You have less willpower if you are tired or distracted.

#4: Practice. You can increase your overall store of willpower by exerting it more frequently. People who exercise not only improve their stamina and overall healthy, they get to practice overcoming inertia every time they lace up their sneakers.

#5: Burn Your Ships. Remove options. To reduce the attractiveness of something — and hence the amount of willpower required to deny yourself it — move the choice further away. Put less food on your plate. Freeze your credit card into a block of ice.

#6: Stay cool. Avoid making decisions when emotionally aroused, whether by hunger, anger, loneliness, or lust. Especially lust. A study published in Journal of Consumer Research found that men who watched dirty videos were more prone to seek immediate gratification when it came to making choices about money, soda, and candy.

#7: Face the truth. We all tend to overestimate the strength of our willpower, and then put ourselves in situations where temptation is more than we can resist. (“Sure, let’s go to the pizza parlor — I’ll just order a salad.”) One recent study found that the more highly test subjects rate their willpower, the more likely they were to succumb to temptation.

Do you have other tips for bolstering your self-control? I’d love to hear about. Please leave a note in the comments section.