Maybe you know the feeling. You plan to eat healthy, but by the end of the day you find yourself hiding in the pantry sneaking your kids’ leftover Halloween candy. Or you sit down on the couch and tell yourself you’re only going to watch one episode of Parenthood, but by the time you’ve almost convinced yourself that it’s 1:00 in the morning and you really should go to bed, Netflix has already started the next episode.
Why are we so bad at following through with our plans?
When we think about how to improve our follow-through, we often focus on just that—our follow-through. We wipe the Kit Kat crumbs off our face and promise to do better in the future. So, we try a little harder next time. And what happens? We find ourselves once again hiding in the pantry wiping Kit Kat crumbs off our face. How did we end up here—again?
When we look at our failures to avoid temptation, we often think our problem is lack of willpower. We think if we just use more willpower next time, then we’ll be able to avoid the Kit Kats and Netflix binges and yelling at our kids.
But what if we’re actually more likely to avoid temptation by relying less on willpower?
That might seem counterintuitive, but stick with me.
You see, the fact that our willpower runs out at some point during our Netflix binge or when we’re staring down the Kit Kat bars is only our first problem. We also have a second problem: we don’t anticipate our first problem. When we form the intentions to eat healthy and exercise and be patient with our kids, we don’t form a plan for how to face our temptations with limited willpower.
It’s easy to say you won’t eat your kids’ Halloween candy when you’re full from lunch and the candy is out of sight. It’s much harder to resist when you’re exhausted from a long day, craving something sweet, and standing face-to-face with the Kit Kats. When we think about our future behavior, we focus on what psychologists call the “should self.” But when we actually encounter the temptation, our “want self” is the one that dominates. Our “should self” is patient and controlled. Our “want self” wants what it wants, and it wants it right now.
How can we keep the “want self” from taking over?
When we set a goal for our future behavior—whether it’s to workout or spend less time on Facebook or be more patient with our kids—we can anticipate what we are likely to experience and how we are likely to feel when we need to do (or not do) our thing. We can anticipate that our willpower will run out and not rely on it to do more than it can handle. Then we can make a plan for how to deal to these feelings and experiences in a more positive way.
- What is one temptation you can work on avoiding this week?
- Imagine yourself facing your temptation. What kind of situation are you usually in when you face it? Are you alone or with other people? How do you usually feel? Stressed? Hungry? Tired? Bored?
- What are a few things you can do to avoid or deal with these triggers and willpower-killers instead of succumbing to temptation? What changes can you make to your environment? How can you deal with these feelings in a better way?
- Try it for the week and see how you do! Share your struggles and your triumphs in the comments below.
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Also published on Medium.