Question: Do you always know when you are being tempted?
If you answer “yes” to that, does that also mean that you are the only one who is responsible for all the times that you succumb? As the guilt piles on, do you then feel like a failure?
Or is it, as comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “the Devil made me do it,” implying that his shortcomings were out of his control.
This question is something that has been written about and researched through the ages. Aristotle, Plato, and various deep thinkers all through history have noted that we have trouble with temptation, and in activating its seeming antidote, self-control.
When It’s About Eating and Exercise
This issue can raise its ugly head when we try to control our eating, and try to find ways to exercise the recommended amount. Trying to tame eating and/or exercise habits can feel completely different from each other, and understandably so. With eating, we are faced with having to restrain ourselves from snarfing down the many delectable items that we see around us. With exercise, we are faced with something that takes much longer to do, involves more disruption to our daily flow, may require learning something new, and may involve discomfort.
But there is a glaring similarity. Both endeavors require delay of gratification. In other words, a person needs to keep their eye on a long- term goal that holds value for them. You forego the lure of a fast-food burger for a healthier and lower calorie alternative, knowing that it will be better for you and will be in keeping with your goal to lose some weight. You trade a leisurely Saturday morning for a workout session because you know it will feel great and be better for you than staying on the couch.
Making matters worse, temptations are always right there in front of us. Something is going to make us feel good RIGHT NOW. On top of that, the long-term goal may feel fairly nebulous. Feel better? Lose weight? How much better? How much weight? How long will it take me to get to my goal? How long do I have to torture myself? How long do I have to “be good?”
What About Willpower?
Which brings us to willpower. Much has been written about this aspect of ourselves. The bottom line here is that we DO have some, but it gets depleted as we go about our day. Turns out that self-control and decision making are in the same areas of the brain. If you have a tough day of making hard decisions, it becomes more difficult to resist whatever will give you gratification NOW.
Our willpower can also erode due to lack of sleep, or hunger. Lack of sleep messes with our hormones, and our brain’s need for glucose can make a quick, sweet snack look even more attractive than usual.
Distractions Muddy the Waters
I recently read a book called Temptation (pretty straightforward, right?). The book was 275 pages long. Of those pages, only the last 8 had to do with how we can prevail against temptations! That makes 267 pages talking about all the different ways we can be tempted. The book focuses on the many distractions we have in our lives and how it is so very tempting to pay attention to them. (e.g., social media, TV, availability of things that cause addiction, social pressure, buying things). At first, the message seemed clear: the problem is huge, and there isn’t much we can do about it.
There is a way to reframe this, however. It goes back to the question at the beginning. “Do we know when we are being tempted?” Let’s look at it this way. The temptation is pretty clear when we are facing a yummy cake that someone at work brought in. But in many situations we do not always know when we are being tempted. In fact, most of the time, it’s very difficult. To quote from the author Daniel Akst: “Don’t be naïve: your environment acts on you in ways you can’t begin to realize.” (Italics mine)
Our environment these days is one big distraction! We are up against something so huge that we can’t begin to sort it out. Some books trying to help with this suggest that we do a thing called precommitment. That’s the scientific way of saying you figure out what is going to tempt you, and then devise an alternative action for when you are faced with it. An example would be, “if someone brings in cake to work, I will plan on having tea instead.”
That’s a good idea. However, most of the situations that we face are not that straight forward or even predictable. Our computers are always available, we have obligations that come up, we have situations and emotions that we have a history of dealing with a certain way.
What is the Answer?
How can we begin to change some eating habits and exercise more?
The author of Temptation, Daniel Akst, and many, many, others have some ideas about this. To keep it simple, here’s three of the most salient ones, which are based on tons of research.
- Arrange your environment to help you succeed. Perhaps you have read in other places to do things like “don’t have ice cream or chips in the house”, or “pack your gym bag the night before and keep it in your car.” Those things speak to arranging your environment. Here’s the thing: if you are wanting to make some changes, you need to do some brainstorming for yourself and do more than just those things. Since there is SO MUCH around us to distract, we need to really think this one through.
- You need to spend some time being brutally honest and brutally aware of what you usually do so that you can get on top of what may be sabotaging your efforts to reach a long-term goal. That is why some gurus (and me) recommend writing down some of the things that you know are a problem, and do your best to figure out what you are feeling and how you arrived at your final decision. This is a pain, but unless you do this, you are apt to end up trying to follow some program or set of rules that you cannot sustain (remember the thing about willpower?).
- This next one may sound a little funky. Get out in nature. Why? To put it simply, nature does not distract. It does not involve constant choices that need to be made other than which direction to go. In fact, studies have shown again and again that people who have even a little access to nature (like a view of a courtyard) have more success with self-control. Apparently, as Bruce Springsteen sang, “It’s so hard to be a saint in the city.” Not only do cities offer more distractions, but they also offer more anonymity, which has been shown to feed lack of self-control.
There is a lot of food for thought here. There are many forces working against us, but we can fight back! Once we learn about the odds against us and then figure out where temptation shows up in our lives, we can make plans to resist and to do things differently.
All the best
© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: MrPants / iStock