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Resisting temptation

Ulysses and the Sirens, J.W.Waterhouse, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In a world filled with distractions and temptations it is all to easy to get pulled off track. We may know that playing the piano or weeding the garden or reading Tolstoy is going to make our life better, but somehow we end up reading the junk mail or checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds instead. If we do this occasionally, it is not a big problem. But if we give in to these temptations too often we can quickly find our life veering off course. In the quest to cultivate a rich and meaningful life, managing temptation is a fundamental skill.

The weapon that we most often deploy to defeat temptation is willpower. The problem is that applying willpower is extremely hard work for our brain, and if we have to apply it for too long the willpower 'muscle' fatigues and fails. If we are tired or sick our willpower is drained even more quickly, and if we are stressed, upset or distracted we may not even remember to apply it in the first place. So relying on willpower alone to manage temptation is a risky idea. 

In his book Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, Roy Baumeister makes this observation: the best decision-makers know when not to trust themselves. His decades of research showed that people with excellent self-control still feel temptation. What they are much better at is recognising the risk of their willpower failing, and using a range of strategies to avoid or manage high-risk situations. If they know that once they go into a shoe shop they won't be able to resist buying shoes, their strategy is to not go into the shop in the first place.

When I'm running education sessions on good decision-making in the face of temptation, I stress the difference between internal strategies and external strategies. Internal strategies are things you can do inside your head to help you resist temptation: applying willpower, focusing on values and goals, switching your attention to something else.  However these strategies become much harder to apply when you are tired, hungry, stressed or upset. So the smart option is to back yourself up with some external strategies, things outside your head that can help you to stay on track when your own mind can't be trusted. 

External strategies include reminders and visual prompts; these might remind you of your goals and values, or remind you of the negative consequences of giving in to temptation. Other options can involve setting your environment up in a way that makes it harder to yield to temptation, and easier to make a good decision (eg. fruit on the kitchen bench, chocolate in the supermarket down the road). Other people can also act as external strategies, by providing reminders, barriers or encouragement as needed. 

David Nowell is a neuropsychologist who specialises in self-regulation. At one of his terrific workshops he used the story of Ulysses and the Sirens to illustrate the use of external strategies for dealing with temptation.

Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) was a hero of the Trojan War; the famous Trojan Horse was his idea. After ten years of war he was finally heading home to see his family. However he had offended the gods, so they were making his journey as difficult as possible. At one point he had to sail through the part of the ocean where the Sirens lived. The Sirens were monstrous creatures, but they possessed the most beautiful, seductive song. When sailors heard the song they would throw themselves into the ocean and drown, or wreck their ships on the rocks, at which point the Sirens would devour them.

Now, Ulysses really wanted to hear the Sirens. But he also desperately wanted to get home. Being a very clever fellow, he knew when not to trust himself, so he had his sailors tie him to the ship's mast. The sailors' ears were filled with wax so they were deaf not only to the Sirens' song, but to Ulysses' desperate pleas to be untied. With this strategy in place, Ulysses and his crew were able to stay on track in their quest to return home. 

So, Nowell asks, what are the 'Sirens' in your life? What are the things that lure you in with the promise of pleasure, only to shipwreck your plans and goals.

And how can you 'tie yourself to the mast'? What strategies could you put in place to help you resist temptation and stay on track?

Too much time on social media? Consider an app that limits access to these at certain times.

Spending too much on clothes? Leave credit cards at home and shop with limited cash.

The sofa seem more appealing than exercise? Commit to meeting a friend at the gym.

Eating too much ice cream after dinner? Don't keep any in the house.

When you are making plans to cultivate a more meaningful life, don't rely on willpower alone. Build in strategies that make it harder to yield to temptation, and easier to do the things that enrich your life. Like Ulysses, know when not to trust yourself. 

Check out David Nowell's blog Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns at Psychology Today.

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