Willpower: resisting temptation

Oliver Burkeman investigates the small shifts that have the biggest impact. This month, we’re resisting temptation


Willpower: resisting temptation

That’s not tempting.

The idea

For many years, psychologists assumed that willpower was a mysterious gift you either had or you didn’t. But, recent research suggests otherwise. What we call willpower is really more like a skill – which means you can learn it, just as you can learn French, cooking or kick-boxing.

So, people who are good at resisting temptation aren’t mentally ‘stronger’ than you; they just have better strategies to deal with their cravings. Keep a couple of them up your sleeve and, contrary to Oscar Wilde’s famous wisecrack, you’ll be able to resist anything, including temptation…

How to make it happen

Set an ‘implementation intention’ 

That’s the technical term for deciding in advance what you’ll do when temptation strikes. Don’t just decide to stop eating crisps; decide that when you feel the urge to eat them, you’ll get up, stretch and walk around the block instead.

Flash forward

Never mind positive thinking, try mentally projecting into the future, and considering how you’ll really feel if you give in. If you can generate a little of that feeling now, it’ll probably put you off.

Label, then let it go 

Borrowing a technique from Buddhism, try mentally naming the emotion that’s driving you towards temptation, whether it’s sadness, boredom or anger. Feel it, then let it go. We tend to tell ourselves our emotions are bad, but they’re not. We just need reminding that we don’t have to act on them.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock