When you think about your goals—whether it’s to actually meditate on the reg, become a better runner, or cut dairy from your diet—you probably think a strong willpower is how you make them happen. Well, here’s some news for you self-control pros: there’s something else that could be more effective in helping you succeed.
The true secret? Avoiding temptation completely.
According to a new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, goal attainment is more likely to happen when a person experiences fewer temptations. In other words, keeping everything that could act as an obstacle to your goal-reaching out of reach could be more effective than strong willpower. (So maybe leave your credit card at home when you’re trying to save money, rather than having it on hand while surrounded by cute printed leggings and hoping for the best.)
To test this IRL, researchers worked with 159 college students in Toronto to see how they progressed on four personal goals that they wrote down the first week. They also took detailed personality tests and self-control measures. Three weeks later, the students started keeping a thorough journal for a week.
Throughout the day for this period, they would be pinged on their phones and asked to report on whether they felt any temptations, whether these disrupted their goals, if they had used willpower to resist the temptations, and how mentally exhausted they were. At the end of every day, they would also be asked how depleted or energized they felt. When the semester ended, researchers checked in with the students to see how much progress they had made toward their goals.
Surprisingly, students who relied on deliberate self-control did not achieve more success—but the ones who avoided temptation did. Why? Resisting temptation is exhausting. The students who experienced more temptations tended to report feeling more mentally exhausted at night, the study shows—and as mental exhaustion went up, goal success went down.
“Against popular and scientific wisdom, effortful self-control did not appear to play a role in goal-pursuit, suggesting that the immediate positive consequences of exerting willpower do not translate into long-term goal success,” the researches concluded. “Our results suggest that the path to better self-regulation lies not in increasing self-control, but in removing the temptations available in our environments.”
One way to reach your goals at work? Make sure you’re getting the R&R you need—here are three healthy-leaning ways to use all those vacation days you’re hoarding. And here’s how to write a to-do list that actually makes you happy.