It's February. How's your New Year's resolution coming along? Chances are excellent that by the middle of this dreary month, your plan to hit the gym daily or get up at 5 a.m. has fallen by the wayside. Is the problem your lack of self-control?

Nope, says a stack of studies. Humans are actually pretty terrible at exercising restraint, science has found again and again. Your lack of willpower is perfectly normal. So what sets those rare few who do manage to resist temptation apart from the rest of us who can't stop ourselves from grabbing that doughnut or hitting the snooze button?

The answer, according to a fascinating new review of research on the subject from Grit author Angela Duckworth and a team of collaborators from Harvard and Wharton isn't willpower. Mental toughness is largely about situation and strategy. Grit, in other words, is mostly techniques you can learn. Handily, the authors outline a host of them for just about any situation. 

  1. Commitment devices: For example, deleting time-wasting apps from your phone or signing up for an expensive personal training package you know you'll regret not using.

  2. Temptation bundling: Self-bribery, such as promising yourself you can watch your trashiest TV addiction if you just make it onto the treadmill.

  3. Situation modification: Eliminating temptation (e.g., not buying the cookies if you know you'll eat the whole box once you're home) or avoiding tempting situations (not going to a party where you know you'll want to drink).

  4. Self-monitoring: Setting up systems (like a wall calendar with X's or daily recording of your diet or drinking) that keep your goals in the forefront of your mind.

  5. Mindfulness: Nonjudgmental awareness of the present, also known as mindfulness, has been shown to increase self-control.

  6. Mental contrasting: Imaging in detail both a future in which you exercise self-control and one in which you don't.

  7. Goal setting and planning: Setting concrete, reachable goals and making specific plans to meet them. 

  8. Psychological distancing: Imagining you are someone or somewhere else when temptation hits, or imagining the temptation itself is something different (i.e., "That's not a tasty marshmallow, that's a fluffy white cloud").

  9. Making the future more relatable: Techniques like writing a letter to your future self make the future seem more real and thus reduce the chances you'll do something dumb now (like not saving or smoking) to mess it up.

  10. Taking breaks: Short rest periods have been shown to rejuvenate self-control. For instance, nurses are much better at following hand-washing procedures when they're fresh off a break.

If we all adopted these strategies, would we become a nation of lean, wise, early-rising, savers overnight? Certainly not, as George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Melon expert in decision making, points out in his commentary accompanying the article. Our environment has an outsize impact on how we live, and factors like what food is available at what prices and whether our communities and schedules provide opportunities for exercise are huge considerations.

You can't immediately control whether your town has bike lanes or how much corn syrup food companies put in bread. But you can control how good at resisting temptation you are. The key is forgetting about willpower and actively employing the strategies above instead.

Published on: Feb 20, 2019
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