To Change Your Life, Consider the Easy Route

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Photo: Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Change is hard. Everybody knows that. So we head into our New Year’s resolutions with our teeth gritted, determined to battle our way to success. Sure, we know that most of us are doomed to fail, and that the yoga studios that are packed on January 2 will be back to their Zenlike calm by February. With enough willpower, though, we hope that we can beat the odds and bull our way through.

But what if this attitude has it exactly backwards? What if the key to success isn’t trying hard but not trying very hard at all?

The idea sounds crazy, because it runs contrary to how most people, and even most psychologists, view the process of self-control. In the standard version, people struggle with temptation because we have long-term goals (say, losing weight) that stand in conflict with short-term ones (eating cake). We can beat back the urge to indulge the short-term desire by using willpower, but we only have a finite amount, and the more we use it the more depleted it gets — until it ultimately runs out, and we eat the damn cake. So the way to achieve our long-term goals is to build up our willpower muscles so we can fight back longer and better.

Canadian psychologists Marina Milyavskaya and Michael Inzlicht decided to test this model. At the beginning of a school year they asked university students to describe four goals that they had for themselves in the coming semester. The answers they got were things like “get a 3.6 GPA,” “improve my health,” or “learn French.” In the weeks that followed the students were sent short questionnaires at random times on their smartphones in which they were asked to assess whether they were feeling temptation at that moment and whether they felt depleted. Then, at the end of the semester, they asked the students how well they’d met their goals they’d outlined at the beginning.

In a paper published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Milyavskaya and Inzlicht reported that “contrary to conventional wisdom, self-control was unimportant in accomplishing one’s goals.” Students who tried harder to fight temptation didn’t win success as a result of their efforts. Instead, they wound up feeling depleted and failing. As the authors put it, “Effortful self-control, in contrast to prevailing views, played no role in predicting goal attainment.”

Milyavskaya and Inzlicht’s results jibe with the findings of other studies. “Better self-control is, paradoxically, associated with less inhibition of immediately available temptation,” write psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth in a 2015 paper. The implications are both gladdening and disheartening. On the one hand, think of all the effort we’ve wasted over the years trying to make something better of ourselves. On the other, imagine what we can accomplish now that we know we can do better by not trying too hard.

But just how exactly do we pull this off?

Part of the answer is to really prioritize avoiding the things that might lead us astray. As Milyavskaya and Inzlicht write, “The path to better self-regulation lies not in increasing self-control, but in removing the temptations available in our environments.”

I had this experience with cigarettes. In the 17 years that I smoked I must have quit a dozen times, but inevitably there would come a time when I’d be at a bar and someone would offer me a cigarette. I’d tell myself, “Just one can’t hurt,” and that would be it. What put an end to this, I’m convinced, is that Mayor Bloomberg put a ban on smoking in most bars in New York City. Suddenly, there were a lot fewer occasions when I had to face temptation, and quitting was easier.

A corollary of all this is that if you can’t have something, you won’t really want it. I find that I’m only tempted to eat ice cream after dinner when I know there’s a pint sitting in the freezer. If there isn’t any there, I don’t think twice about it. I’ve broadened this to a general principle: If there’s something I don’t want myself to have (junk food, cigarettes, or whatever) I don’t let it in the house.

Of course, this technique will only take you so far; you can’t always control which temptations you’ll be exposed to. Someone might put a box of Klondike bars in the office fridge, or you might be at someone’s house and another guest pulls out a pack of Marlboros. Then what?

It turns out that there’s another major factor that predicts who manages to achieve their goals, and that’s whether you’ve managed to achieve a well-established pattern of behavior. “What we tend to do in the present is what we have tended to do in the past,” write Galla and Duckworth. Maybe you’ve set a rule for yourself that every time you find yourself wanting to eat something sweet, you have a piece of fruit instead, or if you’re tempted to have a cigarette, you chew a piece of gum. If you’ve followed the rule for a long time, you know that the chances you’ll break it are low, so effectively that temptation isn’t really there for you.

The neat and wonderful thing about this is that once you change your pattern of behavior, you wind up changing what you desire, too. It gets easy to stay on track. A lot of people have told me that once they got into the habit of eating healthy food, things like KFC and Doritos just started to seem gross.

There’s an obvious Catch-22 here. You can’t establish a pattern of behavior if each time you try you deplete your willpower and fail.

The trick is to recognize that self-control isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. We can carve out small, manageable areas of good behavior and gradually build trust in our ability to hold fast. I call this approach “The Loop”: First, find a rule that will bring you a little bit closer to your self-control goal, but will be so easy that you have no doubt you’ll be able to stick to it. Then, each day keep track of whether you’ve done it or not. That’s all. Don’t worry about solving the big problem; focus on staying on The Loop. If it starts to feel like a struggle, then dial the rule back to make it easier. As time goes by, The Loop will become second nature and you’ll be able to crank it up to a more ambitious setting.

I’ve been doing various iterations of this for years, and have got a half-dozen Loops going right now. One of the best things about it is that once you’ve figured out how it works, it’s easy to apply the technique toward other goals. Here are a couple of examples.

Learning a Language

Memorizing vocabulary and rules of grammar is impossibly boring. I found myself wondering: Is there a way to master a foreign language without expending any significant effort?

After fiddling around with various flash-card programs, I found Duolingo, a website that offers daily modular learning blocks. Set a quota for yourself, and it will bug you via text message if you don’t meet it. Duolingo feels more like a video game than homework, and I haven’t missed a day in three years. In that time, I’ve finished the German course, am almost done with the French, and just started in on Russian.

Exercise

I always used to despise exercise. Then in my late 20s I realized I was getting a potbelly. My first attempt at getting in shape involved going all-out for five minutes on a rowing machine. I found myself counting down the seconds until it was over, and feeling like I’d accomplished nothing anyway.

Then I came up with a better idea: jogging really slowly. My goal was to find a pace so low-key that my muscles never burned. My first time out, I ran 15 minutes away from my house and 15 minutes back. Shockingly, it wasn’t unpleasant. I started doing it once a week, then twice. Before long I was doing five miles three or four times a week. That was 20 years go. Now an hour-long run doesn’t feel like a challenge, but just a pleasant part of normal, healthy life, like taking a shower or brushing my teeth.

Eating

Compared to getting active, changing how you eat is really hard. When you’re hungry and the food is in front of you, it’s just really easy to put it in your mouth.

Over the years I’ve applied various iterations of The Loop to the problem, and one I’ve had the most success with involves potato chips. I’d realized that once I opened a bag of Ruffles or Kettle chips, it was very hard for me to stop. I’d find myself standing over the kitchen sink, pushing a fistful in my mouth and saying, “Last one …” So my rule is that the only chips I allow myself are Baked Lay’s, a kind of pseudo-chip from which 90 percent of the joy has been engineered out. Nutritionally speaking, they have less calories or salt or something, but the point for me is that I have no desire to overindulge.

Focus

Everyone’s horribly distracted these days, but while the scale of the crisis is new, the challenge is not. When Victor Hugo was on deadline to finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he took off his clothes and locked them away so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go outside and hobnob.

My personal version of The Loop in this area is less dramatic: When I need to get a writing project done, I turn off the internet and note the time. Once I’ve logged my start, I’m not allowed to do anything for two hours except write, study my fingernails, look out the window, or rest my head on my desk. Eventually boredom drives me to the keyboard, and I’m click-clacking away. It’s a process, but each day I get better at it. Before long, I’m busting through my two-hour minimum without even noticing.

These examples are obviously idiosyncratic; they work for me but might not for anyone else. The point is to choose a goal, think of a rule that seems like it will be easy, and play around with it. If you fail, change it up. Stay in the saddle, but go easy on yourself. If you’re trying too hard, you’re doing it wrong.

To Change Your Life, Consider the Easy Route