Why Self-Control Alone Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals

Studies show that it’s not self-control, but unpacking desire itself that is the best way to achieve goals.

by Tim Vernimmen and Knowable Magazine
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

It’s probably all too familiar. Against your best intentions, you find yourself reaching for a late-night snack again. You snap at a colleague who didn’t really say anything wrong. You find excuses so that your daily run becomes a biweekly one. You’re convinced you don’t want to behave that way anymore, but here you are, doing it again.

Psychologist Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto has long been fascinated by how we keep ourselves in check — or don’t — whether you call that willpower, self-control, or something else.

He is also intrigued by our complicated relationship with effort. On the one hand, there is plenty of evidence that we aim to avoid effort at all costs. On the other, we often find meaning and purpose in it.

Using a variety of experiments and approaches, Inzlicht investigates when people in his lab or outside of it avoid or expend effort, consider things meaningful or irrelevant, control their impulses or indulge them, empathize or don’t — and what happens when they get bored out of their wits.

In a 2021 article, Inzlicht coauthored for the Annual Review of Psychology, he examined how different research approaches — from lab experiments to phone apps regularly interrogating people about their daily lives — may fit together to better explain how self-regulation works.

Might new psychological insights reveal strategies to get ourselves behaving in the way we say we want to? Or do we just need to reconsider our core motivations?

We had to ask, and Inzlicht was kind enough to indulge us.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

How do you study something like self-control in a lab setting?

One classic task is the Stroop task, in which we show people words that do not just refer to colors but are also displayed in colored text, and we ask them to name the color the word is shown in. This is very easy, of course, when the color of the word matches the color it refers to, and much harder when it doesn’t. We used to think that people who made a few errors on such tests had great self-control.

But although this kind of test is nice because it’s very exact and controllable, it doesn’t give you the full picture of how a person behaves in daily life, of course. Thankfully, other researchers are doing complementary work.

There is a beautiful study that started following about 1,000 babies born in a town in New Zealand more than 50 years ago, and has been tracking many of them ever since.

People in this study who were rated by their parents, their teachers, and eventually themselves as having high self-control went on to experience all kinds of benefits. They had better incomes, more money in the bank, better health, a lower chance of mental illness, and they were less likely to be convicted of a crime. From that, you might assume that these people exercised more self-control on a daily basis.

But when we started looking at the associations between people’s performance on tasks like our Stroop task and the self-control reported in the long-term studies that predicted all the good stuff, we didn’t find any.

Our conclusion is that it’s very important to distinguish what we call “state” self-control — how people perform on experiments designed to test their self-control in a particular setting — and “trait” self-control — how much self-control they display in daily life, as judged by themselves and others. These are not the same thing.

That is quite a counterintuitive finding. What do you think might explain it?

A study in Germany, which I and others have replicated, gives us a hint, I think. These researchers gave people beepers and pinged them seven times a day for a week to ask them questions like, “Do you have any desires right now?” In some of the studies we did, we added a few more: “Do those desires conflict with your personal goals? And if they do, did you try to restrain yourself? And were you successful?”

What the German researchers found, and we have confirmed, was that people who report more restraint overall report controlling themselves less often in daily life.

Such findings have convinced many researchers we should worry less about self-control and more about people’s desires to begin with. That’s because it turns out that people who appear to have high self-control in daily life report fewer desires that conflict with their goals. They just aren’t craving unhealthy food as much when on a diet, and they aren’t as tempted to buy stuff when they’re trying to save money.

But how did they become that way? Why do they have fewer desires? How come their desires are more virtuous? That, we don’t know yet. Some people think they may engage in other forms of self-control, like managing their environment in a way that helps them avoid temptation. For example, if you’re trying to keep yourself from eating between meals, don’t buy any snacks, or if you do, keep them in the kitchen or the garage, not next to the TV.

But life is unpredictable, so I don’t think that explains everything. I think they’re also wired a bit differently.

To what extent may these wiring differences be rooted in learning? Might they be influenced by the extent to which restraint or persistence was rewarded as we grew up?

Absolutely, I think that’s true in multiple ways. In a study we recently published, our data suggest that consistently rewarding people for their efforts, rather than the outcome of their efforts, makes them more willing to make an effort, even in entirely different tasks.

If you are born in a disadvantaged environment, it may not necessarily be the case that the harder you work, the more good stuff you get. The efforts you make at home may not necessarily beget you a reward. Creating places where efforts rather than results are rewarded, for example, at school, might provide a way forward in these situations.

“Good planning can help people to require less self-control in the moment and still be better at reaching their goals.”

This is important because the chance of success will usually still be higher if you make an effort. Opportunities aren’t fairly distributed, but it’s good to try and make the most of the ones you have if you can.

I should add, however, that I think the link between effort and reward is often exaggerated in our society. People born into privilege call themselves self-made because they’ve worked hard and therefore believe they deserve all that they’ve earned, and others should just have tried a little harder. Yet they ignore the invisible hands that helped them.

But if success largely depends on people’s inclinations to resist temptation, whether they were born with it or learned it early on, what are the pitiful, struggling rest of us to do?

Based on the research showing that people who seem to have high self-control in daily life report fewer occasions of being tempted, I think it’s important for people to really work on their internal motivation to achieve a goal so it becomes something they truly want. To convince themselves they want to eat healthier because it makes them feel better, to the point they just no longer like unhealthy food. This is a hard problem, however. How do you love broccoli? Aside from Pavlovian conditioning, where you consistently combine something that’s neutral or unpleasant with something rewarding until the first thing becomes appealing in and of itself, I don’t have a great answer. But I do think it can be done.

Now, you can have multiple conflicting goals that may all be equally valued, which is something I struggle with personally. I consider myself a pretty conscientious person, but I am sometimes too goal-focused, and that may result in conflicts with my family. When my kids were younger, the goal of making time for them and the requirements of my job often came into conflict.

In such cases, it might help to plan by making a schedule of when you’re doing what, so you don’t have to constantly negotiate that conflict day after day. This is an example of how good planning can help people to require less self-control at the moment and still be better at reaching their goals.

I think people who are high in self-control plan more and better. We haven’t really tested this yet, but I’m quite convinced it helps to set a goal and then regularly evaluate your progress.

Of course, you may not always be able to follow the plan, and you have to be OK with that, too. Some studies suggest that people who are high in grit may miss out on opportunities. The blinders that keep us on task may prevent us from seeing the horizon or from looking at the periphery to discover other options.

One argument against making plans or setting goals may be that it can be very disappointing if you don’t achieve them in time. Some people may become discouraged and abandon their goals entirely.

First of all, we know that negative feelings can be instrumental in helping you stick with your goals. If they are only temporary, they can be very motivating. We don’t like negative feelings, but they can indicate something to us — “Hey, pay attention. Stop. Look.” The important question is what you do with those emotions. People might experience negative emotions, start beating themselves up, and get distracted from the task. That’s when they are no longer conducive to achieving one’s goals.

But there are also people who are keenly aware of how they are feeling. When they do the thing they don’t want to do, or they are tempted to, they become aware of it. Then, critically, they don’t beat themselves up but go: “Interesting, this happened — don’t do it again.” That can be very helpful. Studies have shown that people with high self-control tend to feel more guilty about transgressions. But they experience the guilt less often because they anticipate what will make them feel bad and avoid it.

There is quite a hype on social media surrounding the idea of “manifesting.” People focus on a goal until they achieve it and ask others to similarly focus on them achieving it. Some of it veers into magical thinking or financial scamming and is understandably ridiculed. But might the activity, as such, have benefits on a psychological level?

First of all, I share in the laughing at it, but I agree it could be effective. The placebo effect is real. Our expectations guide how we perceive things, which then guides the actions we take. Many athletes carefully visualize the different steps in their performance before they start, for example.

Getting other people involved, meanwhile, is a form of what behavioral economists call pre-commitment. It’s like a pledge — if your friends know you’re trying to do this thing, you don’t want to disappoint them. So maybe you’ll work harder to make it happen. It can be motivating and potentially empowering, too. It’s not going to work if all you do is think about it, but it might work if it helps you to take action and stay the course.

Even when they are pursuing what they tell themselves they really want, many people struggle to stay the course and feel it requires a lot of effort. Might there be a way to change that?

It would be wonderful if we could bottle that. We aren’t there yet, but we have been working hard to better understand people’s peculiar relationship with effort, which is really quite intriguing. A number of years ago, my colleagues and I proposed something we called the effort paradox. The notion here is that effort appears to be both avoided and approached, depending on how we look at it.

In three experiments now, we’ve given people lists of daily tasks, and simply asked how effortful each of these tasks are to them, and how much meaning they ascribe to them. And we’ve found an association, albeit not a strong one, for things like attending classes, working and exercise: More effortful tasks were experienced as more meaningful.

We’ve also asked people how much joy they derive from these tasks, and the results persist if we control for that: People experience the effortful tasks as more meaningful regardless of whether they enjoy them more or enjoy them less. This link between meaning and effort might explain why we keep performing these tasks.

“If your friends know you’re trying to do this thing, you don’t want to disappoint them. So maybe you’ll work harder to make it happen.”

One of our favorite experimental tasks at the moment is the demand selection task. Essentially, you give people a choice between two decks of cards. Each deck consists of cards that ask participants to make four very simple calculations. They’re both really easy, but the task for one deck of cards is easier than the other. When we give people a series of choices, what we find is they overwhelmingly choose the easier one.

Yet interestingly, when we ask them, people also attribute more meaning to the more difficult option in the demand selection task, which I think again provides some evidence that there is a connection there, perhaps even a causal one. People also attribute more value to things that they have expended effort on, say, a piece of furniture they’ve put together themselves or something they’ve written.

This runs quite deep: Even rodents, birds and grasshoppers have been found to prefer things that were difficult to acquire.

Many New Year’s resolutions concern things that we do for our own benefit, yet some of us may instead try to do more for others. Does this involve the same difficulties, or not quite?

We have also adapted the demand selection task to find out how effortful empathy might be. Again, we give people two decks of cards, one asking them to “describe,” and the other asking them to “feel” the emotions displayed by the people in the pictures. Note that in this case, there isn’t even a right or wrong answer; we aren’t evaluating people’s answers, just asking them to do it.

We’ve done this a number of different times in slightly different ways. The patterns are not always significant, but overall, they suggest that people generally prefer “describing” over “feeling”; people tend to avoid empathy.

Crucially, this is even the case when we use positive images, which would require participants to feel the other person’s joy. So empathy is avoided for positive empathy too, it’s not simply that people avoid feeling bad. Overwhelmingly, in every study we’ve ever done on this, people describe the “feel” deck as more mentally demanding, discouraging, irritating, stressful, which might explain why they avoid it.

In that sense, people often appear to avoid empathy, much like they avoid effort. Yet, similar to the way that cultivating internal motivation helps people pursue their resolutions, we find they are more likely to support a charity if they feel it’s more aligned with their own identity. In addition, intriguingly, there are also studies showing that people are more willing to donate money to a good cause if it requires them to make a physical effort, like a charity run.

In a funny way, these tasks you ask study participants to perform stand between them and the other duties on their to-do list, of course. How might that affect the outcome of these studies?

Of course, none of these tasks we ask people to perform are inherently meaningful or important to them. So, I think, as psychologists, we should ask ourselves to what extent the effort avoidance we see in our lab is a product of the way we’ve designed our tasks. I always assume that the number one motivation for my participants is to get out of the lab and do something else instead. So unless our intention is to study boredom or fatigue, I think we shouldn’t give people very long tasks to do.

As much as people dislike effort, they also really dislike doing nothing.

However, boredom is a very interesting element in our studies. As much as people dislike effort, they also really dislike doing nothing. In our demand selection task, people may prefer an effortful card over one that asks them to do nothing. In fact, there are some studies showing that when given a choice, people might choose to administer an electric shock rather than do nothing. People knew what the button would do — but nearly half pressed it at least once, and one man pressed it nonstop. In another study, many participants chose to kill maggots rather than do nothing — no insects were harmed, but people believed that they were.

I believe boredom, an emotion that signals we’re no longer engaged with whatever is going on, may impel us to explore, which can be very positive. And while it makes it harder to keep doing dull work, if we have nothing else to do, or need a break from a more challenging task, it can also make certain chores more tempting.

It may be helpful to incorporate that insight into trying to achieve your goals. If you feel unable to keep doing the thing you planned to do, think whether you feel up to something else on your list.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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