Live Your Life So You Don't Need Much Self-Control

It is common to romanticize having a lot of self-control. But the best way to beat temptations is to keep them from happening in the first place. And most of us have a lot of control over that.

Reducing the Need for Self-Control over Eating

In the area of diet, one of the best way to reduce temptations is to go off sugar so that your body adjusts to not having so much sugar and sugar isn’t so tempting any more. I give a variety of tips for going off sugar in “Letting Go of Sugar,” but one obvious tip is to arrange a period of time when you don’t have anything sugary in the house. Depriving other family members of sugar for that period may generate some complaints, but it isn’t the worst thing in the world!

Beyond going off sugar, eating a low-insulin-index diet avoids the insulin backlash that would make you extra hungry. See “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid” and “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon.” Eating things high on the insulin index is a sure road to temptation!

If you are bringing fasting (periods of time with no food) into your repertoire in accordance with posts like “Stop Counting Calories; It's the Clock that Counts,” “Lisa Drayer: Is Fasting the Fountain of Youth?” “Jason Fung's Single Best Weight Loss Tip: Don't Eat All the Time” and “Andreas Michalsen on Fasting,” it will help to simply stay out of the kitchen as much as possible until your eating window. If food preparation has to take place outside your eating window, try to get someone else in your family to do it. For example, you might want to try to get someone else to make breakfast—perhaps by promising that you will only make healthy things for breakfast, like eggs or unsweetened oatmeal.

While fasting, it also helps to make a big ritual out of making coffee or tea, which are fine to drink when you are fasting. (If caffeine is an issue, you can use caffeine-free varieties.) Of course, don’t put sugar in it. And if you need a nonsugar sweetener, you need to be careful. Check out “Which Nonsugar Sweeteners are OK? An Insulin-Index Perspective.”

Aside from staying far away from temptation, try to consciously notice the tug of temptation when you get even medium close. Often, on my way to work, I pass by many restaurants. It makes me feel a psychological kind of hunger to pass by those restaurants. The temptation isn’t all that great, but I do notice the moderate tug that is there. Being aware of the tug of temptation when it is at moderate intensity can serve as a warning to stay away from more intense temptations.

Brian Resnick’s Vox article “The Myth of Self-Control” has some useful perspectives on self-control from psychologists. Here is some of what they say, all quotations from “The Myth of Self-Control”:

Quotations from Psychologist Kentaro Fujita

  • Effortful restraint, where you are fighting yourself — the benefits of that are overhyped.

  • Our prototypical model of self-control is angel on one side and devil on the other, and they battle it out … We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively. Actually, the people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place.

  • The really good dieter wouldn’t buy a cupcake … They wouldn’t have passed in front of a bakery; when they saw the cupcake, they would have figured out a way to say yuck instead of yum; they might have an automatic reaction of moving away instead of moving close.

  • [Effortful restraint is] a defense of last resort.

Quotations from Psychologist Brian Galla

  • We don’t seem to be all that good at [self-control].

  • People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.

  • Self-control isn’t a special moral muscle … It’s like any decision. And to improve the decision, we need to improve the environment, and give people the skills needed to avoid cake in the first place.

Quotations from Psychologist Marina Milyavskaya

  • There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial … And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.

  • ‘Want-to’ goals are more likely to be obtained than ‘have-to’ goals … Want-to goals lead to experiences of fewer temptations. It’s easier to pursue those goals. It feels more effortless.

The Marshmallow Test

All of this is in accordance with a finding in the famous marshmallow test. Here is Brian Resnick’s summary of that, with my emphasis added. :

Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test,” conducted in the 1960s and ’70s. In these tests, kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later. The ability to resist was found to correlate with all sorts of positive life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs. But the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.

“Mischel has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist,” the New Yorker reported in 2014. That means kids who avoided eating the first marshmallow would find ways not to look at the [marshmallow], or imagine it as something else.


The bottom line is this: don’t rely on self-control unless you have no other option. Try to live your life so that you don’t need much self-control. For example, if you have set a goal to avoid alcohol, don’t get within 100 feet of a bar. If a particular type of food is very tempting for you, don’t have any in the house. Schedule some fun distractions when you have set a goal to fast. Being smart in arranging your life makes it so you may not have to be strong.

For annotated links to other posts on diet and health, see “Miles Kimball on Diet and Health: A Reader's Guide.”