The same thing happens every year. You made a resolution, bought a gym membership and even a flashy new pair of kicks. But there you are on the couch, eating cheese doodles again. Why is our willpower so wobbly? Why do you tell yourself you want to hit the gym but instead chow down on doughnuts?
It's not because you lack the desire, says Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. The problem is that we don't have the right restraints. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about how to reach your goals, whether it's exercising every day or cutting out the cookie habit.
Do you think it's now easier than ever to give in to temptation?
Human nature hasn't changed. What's changed is our environment. Temptations are everywhere: McDonald's, credit cards, the Internet.
And so the key to mastering our self-control is mastering our environment?
That's the best bet you have, because it's influencing you in ways that you probably don't even realize. There are simple things like not having certain things in the house that would lead us to gain weight. Or, say, if you want to stop smoking, avoiding the crowd that smokes. If you want to remain loyal to your spouse, perhaps you should avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex.
How much of our success in controlling our urges is genetic?
That's what they used to call the $64,000 question. The answer is, some. There's a complex mix of the genetic and the environmental, but there's very little doubt that traits like conscientiousness are hereditary. But that doesn't mean they are entirely so or that changes can't be made.
In the book you mention sti c kK.com, a site that allows people to create 'commitment contracts' where they can lose their money if they don't stick to their goals. Why is negative motivation so powerful?
Humans are loss-averse. We know this from a million studies of investors. Gaining a dollar produces a smaller change in your emotions than losing a dollar.
The gym starts thinning out around this time of year, as people who were gung-ho to lose weight in January stop going. You have to assume they still want to lose weight, so why do they stop?
It's very difficult to maintain long-term goals in the face of short-term rewards. Obviously, they have a long-term goal of being fit and healthy and all that good stuff. But they also have a short-term desire to drink beer and watch TV. What gyms should do is set up a system where you pay the gym $1,000 on Jan. 1 for the entire year, and every time you go and work out they give you back $5. You need some system where the rewards for attending outweigh the rewards for not attending. The rewards for going and sweating are distant and not that tangible. The rewards for staying on the couch and drinking beer tonight are tangible.
What is it that we fail to understand about self-control?
A big failing is that we think it comes down to willpower. Another thing that we fail to understand that it's very difficult to do all this at once: to believe we're going to lose weight, quit smoking, finish our thesis, go the gym every morning. It would be much smarter to pick one thing and just focus on that.
But even focusing on one thing isn't easy. People fall off the wagon all the time even when they're dealing with just one thing.
Nobody really talks about the importance of how to handle transgression. Let's say you're trying to lose weight but you go to some restaurant and have a big dinner with dessert and wine. That's a crucial point, because you have a choice. Some people will say, 'Oh well, I blew my diet.' But if you can recover from it and go back to your diet, that makes a huge difference. You need to be able to mentally address how you will handle set backs before they happen.
So what's the secret?
The first thing is to try to be clear about what your preferred desires really are. And the second step is to put ourselves in a position to live in accord with them. That might mean making sure there's no cookies in the house. It might also mean using proximal goals. So, for example, if you want to write a 300-page book, that's not your goal. Your goal is to write one page a day.
How important is it to have other people on board with your goals, whether it's a gym buddy or family?
You need to rely on other people to help you. To tell you when you are going off the rails, to help you go to the gym, to help you make better choices. Just having someone you need to perform in front of can help you.
But doesn't it all boil down to being honest with ourselves about what we truly want? Everyone says they want to go the gym and get buff, but maybe what a lot of those people really want is to sit around eating nachos?
Nobody wants to go to the gym every day. What we want is to be healthy and sexy. We want the outcome. You just have to decide for yourself what your preferred desires are. And when you've made that decision, your desire alone isn't going to determine your success nearly as much changing your environment.
This interview has been condensed and edited.