Just say no
How often have you said yes instead, to that second creme caramel even though you’re dieting? Or given in to that urge to send him a text even though it’s his turn to contact you? Or skipped a session at the gym because it was too cold/dark/late/clashed with your television commitments? If you’re nodding your head and thinking, “more times than I care to remember”, you’re not alone.
Human beings are tempted all the time and in a multitude of ways to do things they know aren’t in their best interests. Yet more often than not they do them anyway. Just why this is the case has puzzled scientists for decades who have come up with all kinds of colourful theories to explain this tendency.
More recently, they have turned to dual-system models to help their understanding.
These models explain self-control – or its absence – as the outcome of a war waged between two emotional systems: our impulses and our power of reflection. Tellingly, both utilise separate information-processing pathways, confirming we really are of two minds when it comes to temptation. That is, when we see something we desire, the two systems vie for control over our response. And yes, the one that fires up the most is the winner.
So what makes it so hard to exercise restraint? According to scientists who have studied the problem, external factors such as mental strain, stress and too many wines are all significant contributors. They have dubbed this effect outside influences have as “short-term ego depletion”.
But short-term ego depletion isn’t the whole picture as it doesn’t explain why some people, drunk or sober, are paragons of discipline while other folk cave in to any and every enticement. That’s because, say researchers, various cognitive functions also come into play such as how self-aware we are.
The good news is, whatever our shortcomings, it’s possible for all of us to strengthen our willpower. One method entails repeating neutral or good habits until they eventually replace the bad ones – for instance, taking three deep breaths of fresh air every time we feel like a cigarette. Not so easy at first (or especially gratifying), but like everything that requires mastery in life, practice practice practice makes perfect.
For more tips on kicking the habit of short-term gratification, click here to access the story in Scientific American Mind. You might also be interested in hearing what Ven Robina Courtin has to say about working with disturbing emotions in everyday life at our upcoming Mind & Its Potential conference.