Tackling Temptation: Is It Better to Resist or to Give In?

When I’m not reading about personal finances or World War II, I’m often reading some sort of psychology-related book or article in an attempt to answer the age-old question, “Why do we do sub-optimal things when we know better?”

Of course, that question can be applied to personal finances and world wars. For years, people have asked themselves such questions as “Why did I spend my money on something that provides no lasting value?” Or “Why did I watch ‘American Idol’ rather than open an IRA?” Or “Why did I take orders from a guy with a bad mustache and gas problems?”

My latest attempt to solve this conundrum (the one about making less-good decisions, not the one about following smelly people into moral depravity) began with reading an article by Sebastian Marshall on Lifehacker, which listed seven cognitive costs of doing things. Among them is “ego/willpower depletion.” It’s a concept I’ve heard of before, but hadn’t delved into.

Ego Depletion

The term “ego depletion” was coined by Florida State psychology professor Roy Baumeister, and is used to describe the theory that (in the words of Wikipedia) “self-control or willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be used up. When that energy is low, mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one’s self-control impairs the ability to control one’s self later on.”

Not only is willpower impaired, but so is the ability to solve problems or stick with a project. This can be illustrated in a series of experiments [PDF] performed by Baumeister along with colleagues Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Mruaven, and Dianne M. Tice.

Cookies or radishes?

In one experiment, subjects were led into a room that had both cookies (baked in the room for full aromatic effect) and radishes. One group was allowed to eat the cookies, another was told they could only eat the radishes, though they were left alone in the room and could have sneaked a cookie if they wanted (but they didn’t). Then, the subjects were given a geometry puzzle that (unbeknownst to them) was unsolvable.

The results: Subjects who were allowed to eat cookies spent twice as much time on the puzzle before giving up as did the subjects who were relegated to the radishes. Resisting the urge to stick cookies in their mouths had depleted their stick-to-itiveness.

Funny or sad?

In another experiment, subjects were shown “emotionally evocative” videos. (For the kids in the audience, “videos” were black plastic rectangles that contained magnetic tape on which movies were recorded; the ones found hidden deep in your father’s closet were definitely “evocative,” though not the kind used in these experiments.)

Two groups were shown funny or sad videos. One group of participants was encouraged to “let their emotions flow while watching the movie” (even, presumably, if they wanted to laugh during the sad scenes), and one group was “instructed to try not to show and not to feel any emotions during the movie”; they were told they would be videotaped, “so it was essential to try to conceal and suppress any emotional reaction.” (The other group was also videotaped.)

After watching the video, the participants were asked to create as many anagrams as possible with 13 sets of letters within six minutes. The result: “Participants in the suppress-emotion condition performed significantly worse than participants in the no-regulation condition in terms of number of anagrams correctly solved.”

“Thank You, Sir, May I Not Have Another?”

While reading about ego depletion, the first real-world application that came to mind is my attempt to eat better and lose weight (which I wrote about last June, and it’s one of my favorite contributions to GRS, so, like, go read it if you haven’t already). I’m happy to report that I’ve lost 20 pounds over the past 11 months, and shorts that were a bit tight are now a bit baggy. But it hasn’t been easy, and I’ve noticed that it gets more difficult as the day goes on. I find it much easier to resist the donuts at work in the morning than I do the ice cream at home in the late-night hours.

I’ve also noticed that my cravings for all kinds of things spike near the monthly deadline for my newsletter. Of course, a smart person would spread the month’s work over the entire month. But, well, I can’t seem to do that, which leads to a “that time of the month” condition my wife calls PNS: Pre-newsletter syndrome. I work late hours, forgoing anything that doesn’t have to do with my newsletter — and I have much less success at resisting junky food and sporadic spending.

Is this a tradeoff I have to make? For most of the month, do I deplete my willpower resources resisting one set of suboptimal behaviors — such as eating junk, spending wildly, leaving the house partially clothed — which leaves little left to resist the temptations that prevent me from writing my newsletter until the last minute? Then, come the end of the month, all my willpower resources are consumed by getting my work done, and I spend all my time at my desk writing, spending too much on junky food, half-naked.

Or maybe that’s being just smart, since the studies referenced earlier found that performance suffered when restraint was exercised. Maybe my newsletter is better by my giving in. We can call this the “Debauch Yourself to Awesomeness” theory, as proposed by Dr. Frank-N-Furter with his/her exhortation to “give yourself over to absolute pleasure.” (Rocky Horror, anyone?) I might be willing to give it a try — just for scientific purposes, of course.

Lead Yourself Not Unto Temptation

I haven’t read enough about willpower/ego depletion to yet know the solution to the problem, but I’m willing to guess that it starts with limiting temptations and thus the need to exercise your restraint muscles. If diet is a problem, stay out of the kitchen and steer clear of those bowls of snacks in the office. If spending is a problem, stay away from stores and unsubscribe from retailers’ email lists, including Groupon, Living Social, and their ilk.

For me, time management is the biggest struggle; in fact, while writing this post, I found myself watching a YouTube video of a lacrosse game. How did that happen? It started with me looking for a video from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to include, deciding it was too weird, but then I was off to Distractionland, where every ride seems more fun than the one you’re waiting in line for.

Email’s a killer for me; I found I was compulsively checking it several times an hour, to no good end. The solution I’ve tried with some success: Close it and don’t reopen it for at least an hour (I even have a timer at my desk).

But I’m sure you have some tricks yourself. How do you resist temptation? How do you make sure you get the important things — financial or otherwise — done? Add your tips to the “comments” section below. I’ll be sure to read them, because — after making myself close email, leave YouTube, and finish this post — I have no more willpower to resist them.

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There are 90 comments to "Tackling Temptation: Is It Better to Resist or to Give In?".

  1. Nicole says 19 May 2011 at 04:44

    We’re definitely about commitment devices.


    • El Nerdo says 19 May 2011 at 13:22

      “Commitment devices” sounds like some sort of bondage gear! 😛

  2. DreamChaser57 says 19 May 2011 at 05:02

    To limit red meat consumption, I usually don’t bring any into the house – same for junk food, we can’t it eat if it’s not here. I also subscribe to buying one individual portion of something delectably indulgent, I can savor it but when it’s gone, it’s gone.
    As for personal finance, I saturate my mind with informational resources, blogs/books. I consider GRS commenters and other authors to be my peer group, thereby challenging myself to strive to do better. I constantly write down our goals, I hang them up where they are readily visible. When I hear of an interesting book, I add it to my Reading list which is sub-divided into general PF education, investing, retirement, etc. I listen to podcasts. I’m always thinking about debt. I’m always compiling our quarterly numbers to see where the budget is hemorrhaging at. I watch Til Debt Do Us Part where you can almost have a visceral reaction to how debt robs familial relationships of vitality and warmth. No one is entitled to a job, I try to optimize resources while they are available so that a lay off or any other curve ball life throws won’t completely derail us. I realize that adults are responsible for themselves and while we enjoy being generous I cannot “save” others who refuse to work, or be disciplined about their finances.
    Superbly written post and quite entertaining!

  3. No one of consequence says 19 May 2011 at 05:23

    Re: cookies vs. radishes: maybe the radish group gave up sooner because they were annoyed with the experimenter: “First this nitwit wants me to eat radishes instead of cookies, *now* he wants me to solve this stupid problem?”

    • Deborah M says 19 May 2011 at 05:30

      You’ve hit the nail on the head! A passive-aggressive response to authority… perfectly justifiable behaviour, given the radish treatment.
      In the past, I might have responded exactly this way. I hope that I wouldn’t, now.

      • fetu says 19 May 2011 at 15:15

        Yep…..I know how that works….I am mad at my husband so I will eat all his chocolate that he has been hiding in the back of the fridge! Most days I am not tempted by it. :0)

    • partgypsy says 19 May 2011 at 06:27


    • Maureen says 19 May 2011 at 06:53

      I was thinking that the cookie group felt more obligated to work on the problem: ‘Well, he DID give us cookies…’

    • Mary H says 19 May 2011 at 07:16

      Maybe sugar and fat help you concentrate.

      • Steve says 19 May 2011 at 10:49

        That was my guess. Sugar = brain food. Or maybe it was just the extra calories (since cookies are far more calorie dense than radishes.)

        • Tara says 19 May 2011 at 13:33

          I know I need to eat chocolate when I’m working on a difficult problem at work – it’s soothing and stress-relieving, plus it gives me energy.

        • sally says 19 May 2011 at 15:36

          Yeah, that was an unfortunate confound in the radish/cookie experiment because glucose is a way to counteract the depletion effect. But the effect has been demonstrated with many non-food related initial tasks.

    • sally says 19 May 2011 at 15:34

      Good thought, but this is an alternative explanation that subsequent research ruled out. The performance deficit on the second task only occurs when the initial tasks are related to self-regulation / executive function. Tasks that are similar but do not draw on executive function do not have the same effect.

  4. Ben David says 19 May 2011 at 05:25

    Heaps of evidence contradict the “facts” given in this post – the most famous being the “Marshmallow Test” which correlated self-control with success and satisfaction in life.

    Giving in to temptation leads to low self-esteem, and reinforces passivity in the face of external forces.

    Every successful episode of self mastery – builds self-mastery, and allows more focused acts of will.

    Which is how one achieves any non-trivial goal.

    • Mary Kate says 19 May 2011 at 05:41

      That’s what I was thinking. I think that the more you practice self-control the better you become at it. For some things you may have to abstain (alcohol for an alcoholic for example). The more you stick to the plan the easier it becomes. But all work and no play makes Jack/Jane a dull boy/girl.

    • Nicole says 19 May 2011 at 05:53

      Except with the marshmallow test, one of the ways that people mastered self-control was to build their own commitment devices– shielding the marshmallow so they couldn’t see it and so on.

      Additionally, the marshmallow test isn’t perfect because it’s also heavily correlated with how stable a child’s home environment is. If, at home, someone else is likely to take the treat from the kid and eat it themselves, then the child is more likely to not wait for a second marshmallow.

      Finally… this test isn’t actually contradicting those experiments at all. It is consistent with the following: If you put cookies in a room with a bunch of kids with high self control (marshmallow non-takers), they don’t work quite as well. If you put cookies in a room with a bunch of kids with low self control (marshmallow takers), they work a lot less well. (It is also consistent with the opposite… perhaps it takes more mental effort to have that self-control.) Basically it says nothing about what happens across groups, only what happens within two groups of about the same average self-control.

    • erika says 19 May 2011 at 11:41

      The “marshmallow test” was not about self-control exactly. It was about the willingness to delay gratification. The subjects (all children) were offered a choice between having 1 marshmallow immediately or waiting and then getting 2. The experimenters found a correlation between those willing to wait for a better treat and success in later life. Not the same issue as the depletion of self-control that this article is referring to.

  5. Everyday Tips says 19 May 2011 at 05:26

    I am terrible resisting temptation, especially once something gets stuck in my head. Sometimes I have the best of intentions, but then I break down when weak. For instance, sometimes I crave salty fries. As long as my stomach is somewhat full, I can fight it. But, as soon as I am hungry, I think and think about those darn fries.

    So, for me, I have to do whatever it takes to make sure I am not ‘weak’.

  6. J.D. says 19 May 2011 at 05:36

    As somebody who has worked long and hard to fight temptation, I have lots of thoughts on the subject. I’m not going to share them all. 🙂

    That said, I do think there’s something to ego depletion. I’m still working to lose those last few pounds. I find that if I allow myself to be tempted early in the day, I feel victorious. As Ben David says in #4, I get a great sense of satisfaction. At the same time, I also then have trouble resisting temptation later in the day.

    My solution, obviously, is just to avoid temptation as much as possible. Because I believe in balance and not complete self-denial, I do allow myself to indulge once in a while, but I like for this to be a planned, controlled indulgence. I don’t like when it’s a spontaneous thing, like when I’m walking through a store and decide to buy something.

    Just last week, I ordered three new European board games off Amazon. This was an unplanned purchase, and I feel bad about it. I now have three more games that are going to sit largely unused. Last night, I joined a friend for “board game night” at a local game shop. I got to try games for free. I would have felt much better about myself if instead of giving in to temptation on a whim, I’d let myself play a few games, and then if I found one I liked, actually planned to purchase it.

    Anyhow, one of my mantras over the past few years has been “force of will”. Whenever I sense myself succumbing to temptation, I try to repeat this to myself: “Force of will. Force of will. Force of will.” (This is actually the name of a card from a game, which amuses me.)

    I still think it’s better to resist than to give in (obviously, despite what I titled this post for Robert), but it’s interesting to learn about ego depletion. It explains quite a bit, actually. And it tells me that for myself, it’s better to avoid temptation early in the day. That’ll help me be strong later in the day if other temptations arise.

    • Adam P says 19 May 2011 at 07:02

      I hear you on the Amazon purchases, J.D.

      My new thing to curb my addiction for rare out of print books is to go online and find books in “like new” condition at good prices, then I click “add to cart” and close the computer. This way I figure if I still want it in 30 days I can buy it. Of course everytime I’m bored and browsing, something new goes in the cart.

      One night recently I came home from a 2 birthday party night a little…inebriated. I was in my browser, and woops…I accidentally on purpose opened my amazon account and ordered my whole cart that had been accumulating.

      Amazon should have a breathalizer test! Oh the perils of online shopping. If you went into a mall and tried to shop while drunk you’d be kicked out before you could do much damage! 🙂

      • E. Murphy says 19 May 2011 at 09:07

        This was hilarious, Adam. And I agree, a breathalizer test before ANY online shopping.

    • Hipjazz says 19 May 2011 at 07:13

      “Because I believe in balance and not complete self-denial, I do allow myself to indulge once in a while, but I like for this to be a planned, controlled indulgence.”

      I like this statement very much.

      Also, total tangent here–which games did you buy?

      • Practical Parsimony says 19 May 2011 at 20:48

        I lost 46 lbs in three months. I just quit buying cookies, chips, and crackers. However, every night I allowed myself to have one Hershey bar. I had to drive to get that chocolate. That treat was something that helped me resist all fried foods, sodium,ice cream, and sugary drinks. My house was pure. I left to go get the chocolate treat. I only had so much energy to waste on self-deprivation. This method of weight loss is my style. If it comes into the house, it is mine and on my mind. Even in the face of temptation at dinners, in eating establishments, I stuck to my plan and had that one bit of chocolate each night. Somehow, I felt rewarded, sort of like the people with the chocolate chips, maybe. Life was good while I was under that self-imposed and self-formulated chocolate plan. I was much more ordered and focused than if I had been counting calories and watching carbs. Yeah, no counting, no cheese and no bread.

    • Anonymous says 19 May 2011 at 07:25

      Ooh, which games?

    • J.D. says 19 May 2011 at 09:25

      The games I bought: Small World, Power Grid, and Descent: Journeys in the Dark. They all get fantastic reviews, but that doesn’t do any good if I never play them. I still have Alhambra and Dominion unopened upstairs from the last time I did this. 🙁

      I do love board games, though. Kris and I used to host monthly game nights with a couple dozen people. We’d also play a lot of board games in our spare time. She and I are both addicted to Carcassonne on the iPad (and I keep bouncing in and out of the worldwide top 250). I have high hopes to bring gaming back into my life, so maybe the games I just ordered won’t sit unused for too long. But it was still dumb of me to order them.

      • elorrie says 19 May 2011 at 13:23

        You’ve got to open that Dominion box! Its awesome.

    • A.J. says 20 May 2011 at 05:49

      Ironically, the price of the Force of Will card has skyrocketed in the last year…they’re currently $70 each for played cards.

      There’s gotta be a moral in there somewhere, but I can’t find it!

  7. Jacq says 19 May 2011 at 05:57

    Tim Pychyl wrote about this research and issue in Psychology Today a couple of months back:

    His conclusions:

    “…subsequent research demonstrated that we could strengthen our willpower or self-regulatory ability by regular focus on self-regulation. More interestingly, even a boost of positive emotions or a focus on our values and goals through a self-affirmation process diminished the self-regulatory exhaustion.”

    “…these self-regulatory impairments are eliminated or reduced when participants are highly motivated to self-regulate on the second task.

    For example, when participants are paid for doing well on the second task or they are convinced that their performance will have social benefits, they perform well despite the apparent self-regulatory exhaustion from the first task.”

    How do I personally make sure the important things get done? I use a fair amount of techniques like making a list; Pomodoro (built in breaks); using transitions to make behaviours automatic (eg. do dishes immediately after every meal); keep a master list of everything I want to get done in the next month and when I’m feeling tired and unmotivated; pick something / anything off the list to get done; build in enough down time in the day and protect it (see The Now Habit by Neil Fiore) and not expect myself to be a working machine… The best really is to just get started and promise to put in 5 minutes and promise to let myself quit if I really want to after 5 minutes – which almost never happens but it’s nice to have that out. That works really well for exercise.

    With resisting temptation, I remind myself of the last time I decluttered (physical items OR body weight) and what a PITA that was. That often helps. The methods that usually work best for me (for diet or money) are those that allow some kind of “banking” process (like WW points) but it helps to have something else physical that I want to buy (or eat) *more* than the impulse item.

  8. partgypsy says 19 May 2011 at 06:26

    I’m a morning person. The earlier I can get up the more stuff I can get done. But since I help get the kids ready for school I’m at work later than my optimal zone. So, I try to front load the work, get as much done in the morning before lunch as possible, even if it means eating lunch an hour late. If I really need to get stuff done I close my door and email browser. At home I do the mindless low level stuff (put away dishes, put away clothes) at the end of the day when I don’t need high levels of energy or concentration.

    As far as food, carbs (pastries, candy, cookies) are my weakness. I do a combination of making a relatively healthy pastry I can bring to work (this week it was homeade fig date bars) which I can have with my tea. I also have a bowl of chocolates on my desk. Pure chocolate is not my weakness. Simply knowing I can have one at any time makes me feel less deprived. But because they are not stuffed with caramel or peanut butter I’m not going to go nuts with them.

    • Sushi says 19 May 2011 at 08:58

      Homemade Fig Date bars? Can I have the recipe? Please 🙂 I’m trying to go all homemade on breakfast : save money and lose weight, but oatmeal does get boring 🙁

    • partgypsy says 19 May 2011 at 12:57

      It’s from the Rodales whole foods cookbook but I make it with both figs and dates. I’ll look up up when I get home! My kids will eat them too.
      The cookbook is copyrighted but if you go to amazon and look at rodales basic foods cookbook you can search for it (I love this cookbook)
      also here is a similar version if you substituted honey for the sugar and orange juice for the water, and whole wheat for the regular flour. You can add raisons, chopped apples, or any other dried fruit you like but I like the fig/date combo the best

  9. Adrian says 19 May 2011 at 06:28

    This Post Ties In Perfectly With The Financial Effect Known As “Debt-Burnout” As Coined By Financial Author/ Television Host Gail Vaz-Oxlade, Amongst Others.

    For Months At A Time, We Newly-Converts Often Focus Intensely And Solely (Often To Our Own Detriment) On Debt Repayment In An Unbalanced Fashion, Leading To An Eventual “Burnout” Usually Around The Third-Year Mark.

    I Myself Was Not A Fond Believer In This Phenomenon Until It Happened To ME: At A Gazelle-Like Pace, I Raced Through Eradicating $22,000 Of Student Loans In Two-And-A-Half Years (Through Working Various Jobs) Only To Become Completely Exhausted With Practising Such Tiring Restraint. (For The Record: I Did Not Backslide Back Into Debt, And I Continued To Read GRS Amongst Other Financial Sites And Practise Much of The Skills; I Simply Became Less-Enthused About Directing My Money Continously Towards Such An Untangible Concept. In Laymens Terms, I Became Exhaustively-Lazy Due To My Own Choices.)

    Perhaps J.D. Or Robert Could Re-Visit This Topic Once Again To Provide Us Laggers With A Hefty Motivational Boost…

    • Roberta says 19 May 2011 at 09:49

      This comment may have useful information in it, but I am unable to concentrate on its content well enough read it, because of the capitalization issue. FYI!

      • Tyler Karaszewski says 19 May 2011 at 12:00

        Seriously, I Do Not Understand It At All.

      • Darci says 19 May 2011 at 12:13

        Yikes. Totally. It’s almost as unreadable as all caps.

        • Steve says 19 May 2011 at 12:29

          Actually, I think it’s worse than all caps.

    • Deb says 19 May 2011 at 13:13

      Yo, Adrian! Your use of caps is mystifying!

  10. Katie says 19 May 2011 at 06:31

    I think the best way of dealing with this is not to avoid things (consciously avoiding the presence of something can be as much work as resisting it when it’s in your presence). It’s to psychologically make it no longer tempting for you. For spending, for instance, the key is to internalize what will happen if you give in – do you really want that expensive piece of clothing knowing it’ll mean you can’t do X later? Probably not. Similarly, if you eat a king size bar of chocolate, you’ll probably feel sick and slowed down and kind of gross. Those consequences are something you want to avoid in and of themselves.

    Once you stop idealizing whatever it is, it’ll no longer be tempting. That said, the key to this is to not sweating the small stuff, as well – if you know you can have a piece of chocolate whenever you want one, you don’t feel like you hvae to devour all the chocolate (that you don’t really want because it’ll make you feel sick) now because you’ll never have it again.

    • Malo says 19 May 2011 at 08:56

      I agree with this (especially about chocolate bars…).

      One of the Personal Finance tips on this site is to wait and see if you want something after a period of time. This does NOT work for me, because all I can do is obsess about what I want. This is with clothes, cookies, events, furniture, etc.

      I’m not a shopaholic. I don’t go looking for something unless I know it’s purpose, cost, and how it will fit in my life, but once I get focused on what I want, delaying time of gratification is the worst form of torture for me!

      On the flip side: Waiting to make a purchase has REALLY helped my husband with his impulse buys.

      • Crystal says 19 May 2011 at 10:15

        Malo-I’m so relieved to hear you say that! (or read you type that-whatever) I thought I was the only one….
        Delayed gratification for me only makes me want TWO of said item incase the first breaks!
        And you really cannot wait for clothes-30 days later and the item will be long gone

        • A.J. says 20 May 2011 at 05:52

          True, but 30 days later, what you wanted will be replaced by TWO things that look even nicer!

          (Wait, I don’t think that’s a good thing…)

  11. Jody says 19 May 2011 at 06:35

    great article. self-motivation & restraint seem to be keys to getting anything *big* done in life. i could use more of both. 🙂

  12. Mom of five says 19 May 2011 at 06:47

    I will not set foot in a place that sells groceries more than once a week. That tactic has been able to keep our grocery budget in line even with rapidly inflating food prices.

  13. Jess J says 19 May 2011 at 06:51

    Thank you for the great post. I would answer the title question the way I answer most: It depends.

    Although the concept of will-power vs. temptation seems a simple one, the personality factor and other infinitely disparate contexts and situations make it much more complex.

    To use the cookie/radish example on myself, I happened to be more drawn to the radishes and the cookies. (I just ate a sweet breakfast bar, so…)

    The temptations I’ve handled were a result of a sort of self-brainwashing; my eating habits for example, changed over a period of time as I systematically made decisions about how I wanted to nourish my body, while still satisfying desires. Moderation, portion control, and quality of food. Instead of cutting out red meat, I reduced how frequently I ate it (moderation). When I have the munchies, I don’t bring the bag to the couch. I fill a small bowl and put the bag away (portion control). I eat more whole and fresh food and less processed food (quality).

    Choosing what to do with my time is the next thing, and I will attempt to make changes in the same way – observe my habits, decide where I want to make changes, and consciously choose at any given moment what I shall do – whether to accomplish a task toward financial independence or numb my brain with video games. 😉

    A couple related sources you may find interesting:
    RadioLab episode: “Willpower and the ‘Slacker’ Brain” (It describes a study on how trying to consciously remember something like a string of numbers affects how a person chooses between “good” or “bad” food.) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122781981

    Book titled “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. (Explores congitive dissonance and the “decision pyramid”… once you pick a side, it becomes a slippery slope.)

  14. D says 19 May 2011 at 07:18

    I wonder if this has less to do with willpower exhaustion and more to do with our sense of self-righteousness. If I’m tempted 5 times and I only give in once, I can look back at the other 4 times and tell myself how “good” I was. Ex: I resisted the cookies in the break room, the birthday cake and the candy jar in the office. Since I was so good at work today, I can treat myself to a piece of cake tonight.

    On the other hand, if I’m only tempted twice, I pretty much have to resist both times to be “good.”

    Thanks, puritanism?

  15. Justin says 19 May 2011 at 07:18

    Some mornings on my drive into work the radio DJs will start talking about some random study proving some point or another using the most oddball scenarios. The cookie/radish/geometry scenario is getting lumped into that oddball group as well 🙂

  16. Anonymous says 19 May 2011 at 07:21

    I just want to say I love the “Debauch Yourself to Awesomeness” theory.

    I’m not sure the conclusions of the radishes/cookie experiment should be extrapolated so broadly; self-image might be more important for me. For example, I’m always more productive at work when I’ve exercised that morning, though I generally find exercise a big, boring pain, and work is often one hurdle after another. Exercise makes me feel tough, persistent, and rational, and it makes me more confident tackling challenges at work. If I don’t exercise, I spend 20% of my emotional energy kind of hating myself (which is stupid; I shouldn’t be so neurotic) and have less guts to tackle the big challenges I face every day in research.

    The exception to my negative response to no exercise is when I have a really big, really important deadline involving some last-minute crunch that wasn’t my fault, and I want to go all-in for it. I’m sure I perform better not exercising, eating poorly, and dressing however because these actions serve as reminders of how focused and dedicated I am.

    It’s not necessarily all about some static, finite supply of willpower, in other words. I think self-image inertia plays a very big role for me.

  17. Barbara says 19 May 2011 at 07:38

    I avoid this by planning to indulge. Weight Watchers helped me lose 40 pounds in part because I COULD indulge in planned portions of sweets. I never craved anything more unless told I could NOT have it.

    For money, I am now sticking to the only budget that I have ever stuck to. For me, this means planning to indulge in lattes a few mornings a week and deciding that I need to go out to lunch at least three times a week, so long as I keep it under $8 each time.

    Guess what? It works. Sure, I am down $100 a month by going out to lunch, but I am not down $200 to $300, which was absolutely derailing my finances a few months ago.

  18. Jo says 19 May 2011 at 08:05

    I think it may depend on where and when I’m called on to use self-control, and how convinced I am of why I’m trying to curb a specific impulse.

    I don’t think being self-controlled about web-browsing at work affects my food intake at home. But I think the take home of this article was really important and valuable– In a time of great work pressure, for example, there might need to be extra controls to help avoid temptations without feeling deprived i.e. more innocuous indulgences.

    The Paradox of Choice by Barry Zchwartz has been pretty helpful in understanding some of the energy that is taken just making decisions. So I’ve also found it helpful- as others have mentioned, to not have junk food in the house, block some websites (Facebook), or reduce the number of clothing choices, usually for finite periods– I can resist a temptation today, but probably not For All Time.

  19. Spider-mike says 19 May 2011 at 08:17

    Robert, I look forward to your posts as they usually have more substance tied in with CFP topics. There seems to be enough of these kinds of posts from the rest of J.D.’s contributors who don’t have your experience. I prefer your articles when they are chock-full of analytical advice that is more difficult to attain and/or more insightful into the financial planning world. While I personally believe the willpower management topics has been worn thin, I won’t argue that it certainly may be valuable information to readers on this blog and could easily have been covered by a non-CFP writer. I look forward to your next post.

  20. Erin says 19 May 2011 at 08:19

    One way around the issue is to change your temptations. Convince yourself that you enjoy the crisp, spicy taste of radishes more than the cloying taste of cookies, and the temptation completely vanishes.

    Of course, it’s not easy to convince oneself to prefer radishes over cookies, but think hard about all the things you dislike about a temptation and all of the things you like about the alternative, and you may find yourself drifting naturally towards the alternative.

    In my own life, this works about 60% of the time. 🙂

    • Des says 19 May 2011 at 08:44

      Though very difficult, I have done this a few times and it is the #1 best way to “avoid” temptation. It is really more along the lines of acquiring a taste for something. I learned to like black coffee (cheaper and less calories), and now lattes seem so thick and filling – more like a meal than a drink. I’ve become more and more interested in health and nutrition over the last few years, and anything with vegetables in it is more appealing to me now – though it was a gradual change.

      I think one key to this is to start partaking in the new habit in happy circumstances. So, rather than forcing myself to chug down black coffee at my desk on a Monday morning, I would get a carafe to share at Starbucks and enjoy a nice long conversation with a couple friends. That way, I can psychologically associate the new habit with good feelings.

  21. Elizabeth says 19 May 2011 at 08:21

    This post made me think of a trick my mom used to use. My siblings and I would sneak things like slivers of cake or granola bars because we knew if we didn’t, someone else would get their first. Her tactic was to divide things up. Ex. This box of treats has enough for three each. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Or, there’s this much cake for each of you. You can have the whole piece tonight, or same some for tomorrow.

    The result? It often became a challenge to see who could make things last the longest 😉

  22. Tyler Karaszewski says 19 May 2011 at 08:42

    You took the time to explain what a “funny video” was for kids (I think today’s kids are probably familiar with that idea), but you didn’t bother to explain what “YouTube” is for old people!

    I’m not sure I have much of a problem with the phenomenon mentioned in this post. In general I prioritize “important things” and do them first, but just to get them done, and not because I lose the willpower to do them later on. The idea that if I got a bunch of useful work done today then I’m going to want to eat unhealthily tonight seems ridiculous to me. Maybe I’ll want to go to bed early tonight, or sit on the couch not doing much, but I don’t think the reason is the same.

    It seems hard to even determine when to apply the “now you’re using up willpower” rule? What if someone came in and saw the plate of radishes, smiled, and ate them all right away and asked for more? Is a recreational triathlete “using up willpower” when he’s competing in a race that, while, difficult, is something he really enjoys?

    How does procrastination fit in? Say I’m a high school student. It’s saturday. I have N willpoower remaining for the weekend. If I play videogames all day Saturday and do my homework on Sunday, is there any difference from doing my homework on Saturday and then playing videogames all day Sunday? If we’re asserting that playing videogames requires no willpower, but doing homework does, then it should be the same.

    I guess what this idea boils down to is that you only have so much tolerance for doing things you don’t like, because things that you do like, such as eating cookies, don’t count. The more things you do that you didn’t want to, the more likely you’re eventually going to just say “to hell with it” and do something you actually want to do.

    So how would I manage that? Look at your todo list. All the things on there that you *want* to do. Of the things you don’t want to do, cross off any that no one will notice if you don’t do. Then, of the remaining ones that are left, put the most important ones at the top, so that you’re more likely to get them finished before you say “to hell with it” and go off to do something else while your willpower recharges.

  23. Meep says 19 May 2011 at 08:58

    I think I just wasted today’s willpower not writing a nasty response to this ludicrous theory. Now I’ll have to have some more coffee too, and maybe a cookie…

  24. Des says 19 May 2011 at 08:58

    I suspect habits are the key here. Setting up a habit means that you don’t have to use your brain to think about the difficult thing you are going to do. Someone above mentioned doing dishes immediately after dinner. If you just do it out of habit, you don’t have to use your mental reserves.

    We eat the same breakfast every morning (oatmeal and a piece of fruit). I am never tempted to eat anything else, because it is part of my morning routine. When I get to work, I get coffee and ice water and I don’t eat again until they are gone, which is almost lunch time. So, I make it to about 10:30 or 11 on healthy food without using any reserves.

    However, if something goes wrong with that routine, I have to tap reserves and my day doesn’t go as smoothly. If we miss the alarm and don’t have time for breakfast, or if I decide I’m going to give up coffee, or I open a soda before I’ve finished my coffee/water ritual – all of those things cause me to have to think (ever so little) about what I am eating and drinking and make me MUCH more likely to splurge on unhealthy snacks.

    • DreamChaser57 says 19 May 2011 at 18:10

      Agreed, structure begets more structure. If I exercise early in the morning, I am less likely to squander that effort by over indulging with unhealthy food. If I eat breakfast in a timely manner and have a refreshing steamy shower first thing and maybe even meditate-I notice the different exponentially in my productivity. However, if I get just wake up and sheepishly spend the first two/three hours of the day mindlessly surfing the “net” then my entire day is typically derailed because the internal dialogue that I have is that screw it because this whole day has went down the drain.

  25. Chris says 19 May 2011 at 09:19

    I think that people are different. I grew up with a Mother who could practice extreme self control when it came to our finances. We did not buy unbudgeted items – ever. All clothes were bought on sale, even if they didn’t fit. In early adulthood I recognized that trying to emulate that behavior set me up for failure. I allow myself small treats and rewards. I don’t buy expensive lattes every day. But about once a month I stop at a coffee shop and buy myself a treat. At the art fair, I search out a pretty mug or small vase and stop at that.

    And I cut myself some slack during times of stress. When I lived a 10 hour drive from my family and had little money I never flew home. But after my marriage crumbled, I bought myself a plane ticket home for a visit – even though my money situation was worse. By being frugal when things are good, I can give myself treats to help get through the bad times. Seems counterintuitive but it seems to work for me.

  26. Betsy says 19 May 2011 at 09:37

    I also struggle with staying on task, and do think that my productivity correlates strongly with the temptation to surf the internet. I found that if I don’t watch the news in the morning and if I don’t open my e-mail, youtube, etc., until I am already well into my work day, I perform much better overall and am not as tempted to waste time.

  27. Danielle says 19 May 2011 at 09:42

    Normally I enjoy Mr. Brokamp’s thoughts, but this one is junk science. With the cookies vs. radishes, it may just be that serotonin released by the sugar caused people to be more relaxed and problem solving, or the increase in blood sugar gave them more energy. Similarly, the people allowed to express their emotions may have experienced relaxation. Neither of these are well designed enough to allow us to draw any conclusions except maybe the better you feel, the better you’ll do.

    • Spider-mike says 19 May 2011 at 12:16

      I just think that there are other people that should have written about it. This is more of an opinion topic which the other GRS bloggers typically write about. I want more substance from him like in his previous posts.

    • partgypsy says 19 May 2011 at 13:39

      The use of food was in a sense unfortunate. They should replicate with things that individualized by subject what they find irresistable but are non-food related. So in the study Some will be tempted by their superphone, others by an open web browser, others by Suduko etc.

  28. Erika says 19 May 2011 at 09:45

    I totally buy into the diminishing willpower thing. By making issues less about willpower, and more about being present, and being INTENTIONAL, I’ve been able to do better.

    It’s been a slow process (it won’t get you out of debt fast or lose 20 pounds in a month), but for eating, I try to PLAN to eat things I love, really taste them, and not watch TV, read or use the computer at the same time. It’s been eye-opening. I don’t love some foods I thought I craved (so they’re no longer a temptation), and I really, really taste my food now. I also eat with more intention — as in, “I plan to eat this, and I’d like to not feel totally stuffed when I’m done.”

    Applying this to buying stuff, same thing! It feels so much better to buy something that you thought about and intended to buy, not something that just snuck up on you without control.

    • Katie says 19 May 2011 at 10:28

      I think this gets at an important point, which is that things are more tempting when we think about them as a temptation. If we think of twinkies as a “splurge” that is bad for us but “irresistable,” we’ll crave it. But if we sit down with a twinkie and really focus on it, we’ll learn that it’s really not actually that good and a lot of the desire for it going forward will be removed.

      Of course, there are probably always going to be a few things that we know are objectively bad but that remind us of home or childhood or whatever, which is fine. Having a few things like that will not undo all the other good work in your life and by being mindful of what those things are, we can avoid things we assume should be like that but aren’t really for us.

  29. Crystal says 19 May 2011 at 10:31

    It is comforting to read all of your comments and to know everybody-even JD!- struggles and slips up from time to time. I may not be able to control my impulse spending, but I AM good at keeping reciepts. If I buy an unplanned purchase I keep it boxed/tagged and out where I can see it constantly. Then after the ‘new’ has worn off in a week or 2 I decide to either open/use the item or return it. Often I return it.

  30. Steve says 19 May 2011 at 10:50

    If self restraint is a muscle, can’t you improve it by “exercising” it?

    The analogy can be carried further. E.g. if I knew I was going to run a marathon this weekend, I would go light at the gym all week.

    • sally says 19 May 2011 at 15:41

      Though the research on this is limited, the answer appears to be “yes.” Baumeister and colleagues use the muscle metaphor themselves quite often in this work.

    • Marcella says 19 May 2011 at 23:05

      I was thinking about this. I think it’s more that over time, after exercising restraint on a certain item, it becomes habit. So instead of your self control becoming “stronger”, in fact you need only a weaker self control. The behaviour is normalised and it’s not such an effort to resist.

      • sally says 20 May 2011 at 08:42

        What’s cool about this training is that it does not appear to be domain specific – exercising control in one area leads to improvements in other areas as well.

        I totally agree that developing good automatic self-regulation helps.

  31. Carla says 19 May 2011 at 11:48

    I think of the consequences. In my case, if I eat sugar, carbs, pasta, bread, chips, etc, I will get fat (again), period. The fear of gaining weight may not be the healthiest way to resist temptation psychologically giving my history of ED, etc, but it works for me.

    In terms of finances since I’ve been a difficult situations in the past, I think about how hard it was and how I never want to feel that pain again.

    • Tyler Karaszewski says 19 May 2011 at 11:59

      I find it unusual that someone named Carla has a history of erectile dysfunction.

      • Carla says 19 May 2011 at 12:09

        ED = eating disorder.

    • Matthew says 19 May 2011 at 12:55

      @ Carla (Post #50)

      Well interestingly enough you mention fear. The article that Mr. Brokamp had linked to from Lifehacker touched on that subject a bit. And fear is an effective way to change behavior.

      Of course, as with most things, extremes of methods are as unhealthy as the behavior you are trying to change.

  32. Spider-mike says 19 May 2011 at 12:19

    I just blew my willpower reading the rest of the comments on this article. I’m going go grab some donuts in my new corvette.

  33. Simon says 19 May 2011 at 12:37

    I just finished the book ‘We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess’. It is EXACTLY about this topic.

  34. Heather says 19 May 2011 at 12:40

    I have used visualizations with long-term success.

    I was a complete sweets hound, and I also tended to take seconds when stopping after firsts would have been sufficient.

    After some training in the matter, each night before bed, I would use one of the following visualizations (all in first person):

    –I am sitting at the kitchen table and have just finished eating. I notice but have no reaction to the food that is left. After a while, I get up and put it in the fridge. In this scenario (in my head), I don’t use willpower – the excess food has no draw to me.

    –I am walking through the teacher lunch room at the school where I work on a pot luck day. There are three tables jam packed with food – most of it in the form of cake, cookies, brownies, etc. I survey the spread, note that there is nothing really appealing, and leave the room. Again, no willpower because there is no draw.

    After doing this on a daily basis for a month or so, both scenarios could happen in real life. It took some time to change everyone else’s schema of me away from “Heather loves sweets,” but over time, they learned, too.

  35. El Nerdo says 19 May 2011 at 13:31

    From my own subjective experience there seems to be some truth to willpower being a finite quantity.

    1) When I need to meet some horrible do-or-die deadline I have been known to resort to former vices like sugar, caffeine, and even cigarettes (they are disgusting, I know, but they help with concentration).

    2) I instinctively have periods of utter idleness and mental indulgence in preparation to tasks that require a long bouts of concentration. Sort of like storing up “willpower points”.

    Now, back to the general ideas in this article and subsequent comments, there seem to be a confusion between the ability to say “no” and to something pleasant and the ability to say “yes” to something unpleasant. They are two different things, and while common language lumps them together as “willpower”, they are, in my experience, two very different things. Being able to not act on something is different psychologically to being able to mobilize for something.

  36. Vic says 19 May 2011 at 14:06

    Dealing with temptation not only requires will power, it requires an understanding of the consequences for giving in to it. We are all going to be tempted by something eventually. The best thing to do is to just think of the consequences and if you can live with your decision to give in. This should help you to regain your focus.

  37. average guy says 19 May 2011 at 14:11

    Oscar Wilde said: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”

    • DreamChaser57 says 19 May 2011 at 18:23

      I have to say I wholeheartedly disagree with this. Should be acquiesce in the face of destructive/abnormal desires? Should people cheat, isn’t that essentially about temptation? What about addiction, and the compulsion component? Addiction means one’s appetite for something is insatiable.

      • average guy says 19 May 2011 at 19:28

        I think Oscar there was probably pulling someone’s leg with his comment. Or else telling us more about him and his life than anything else.

        I don’t really agree with it, just thought it was funnily apropos.

        Here’s another one attributed to O.W. (probably apocryphal) on his deathbed: “This wallpaper is killing me, one of us has got to go!”

  38. chacha1 says 19 May 2011 at 15:03

    Avoidance and planning certainly work best for me, when it comes to tackling temptation.

    Not having cookies in the house. Not going to the mall. Not watching commercials. Shopping from a list. Making a meal plan. Planning for one trip to Starbucks a week. … All “tricks” but also basic organization of life around the priorities of conscious spending and conscious eating.

    Also, I like El Nerdo’s point about the distinction between the ability to not act and the ability to mobilize. Two forms of willpower, equally important.

  39. Nicole says 19 May 2011 at 18:21

    DH made chocolate chip cookies tonight (male, of course). I had at least 5 of them. With milk. No radishes.

  40. Marcella says 19 May 2011 at 23:21

    I feel like in some ways, I am slightly the opposite. The more self control I’ve exercised, the easier it is to control in other ways, but if I have failed to exercise control in one area, I will am much more likely to fail to control anything.

    For example, with diet, once I’ve got on a roll and had success in restraining from eating badly, I use that to motivate myself to keep going on that restraint. I.e. “I’ve put all this work in this week, eating well, don’t want to ruin it now”.

    On the flip side, my issue with self control is once I’ve failed to exercise it, everything goes out the window. The kind of thing where I think “Well, I’ve already blown the healthy eating today by having burger king, I may as well eat a doughnut too!”.

    Interesting post, it really got me thinking.

  41. Laura says 22 May 2011 at 10:36

    Really loved this post. I had never heard of ego/willpower depletion and I definitely want to look more into it. Robert, thanks very much for this post (and I enjoyed your excellent writing).

    For me, the cookies-radishes experiment was simply a reward-punishment scenario. Someone rewarded with chocolate-chip cookies would IMHO be more willing to submit to the punishment of a tough geometry puzzle, whereas someone who didn’t get that reward was less willing to be further punished with the puzzle.

    Like many GRS readers, I too struggle with diet, exercise, and losing weight. I’ve found that when I focus on healthy eating, what derails me fastest isn’t a break in routine so much as a bad day that I perceive as punishing. Then I want a reward to compensate. The weight-loss advice is to substitute a brisk walk or glass of water for that candy bar, but when an unpleasant work assignment is dumped on me or my boss is (again) acting like a jerk, neither the brisk walk nor the glass of water is sufficient reward for the perceived punishment. There are some days when a Snickers bar is the only good thing that happens all day. If I have several bad days in a row, as is unfortunately often the case, the candy starts to become a habit that continues when things improve – or, more accurately, is the bad habit I’ve returned to that I now need to work on again, at least until the next series of bad days.

    Would love to look into how much rewards-punishments tie into ego/willpower depletion.

  42. No Debt MBA says 23 May 2011 at 08:53

    I’ve also seen studies (though I can’t find the link at the moment) that imply that willpower is like muscle strength – that you get better at resisting temptation or acting properly (not procrastinating) the more often and longer you work at it like you can build up muscle strength by weight training. Seems to me resisting could build up some really good habits.

  43. Zane Claes says 23 May 2011 at 09:55

    My tactic is also one of option limitation. I don’t buy foods I don’t want to eat and I don’t intall video games or pay for cable TV. Basically, I “spend” my ego “up front” so that my environment is controlled. By spending it once, I do not need to revisit the decision (should I watch TV?) every day.

  44. Chris says 23 May 2011 at 13:22

    Interesting idea.I buy into the concept, and it’s helpful to understand your limitations. I was hoping by the end of the article there would be some tricks to replenishing it. If it can be depleted then there must be some mechanism to restore it. If you felt your willpower waning, is there an exercise or steps to build it back up?

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