Hacking Your Executive Function: Resisting Temptations


Note: there may be some mention of self harm or other unhealthy coping strategies. It should not be graphic.

Hello and welcome to the least fun part of executive function, resisting temptations (booooo everyone give in to temptations it’s so fun). But in all seriousness, sometimes we do need to have the ability to look at something that could be fun or taste delicious or feel nice and say “nope I gotta do something healthy and responsible today”. We all have to be our own inner parents and force ourselves to eat a vegetable every once in a while.

When I first started researching for this series I didn’t realize that this type of skill was part of executive functioning, but it COULD explain why I consistently eat too much ice cream immediately before doing aerials and even though I know it will make me sick I still can’t make myself stop.

Anyway, the point is that the part of your brain that has to balance what you want and what you need is the same part of your brain that organizes and balances other complex things like schedules and emotions. So we’re going to talk about using some of the same types of strategies that we did for organizing other stuff to organize your needs when you gotta do poopy stuff instead of fun stuff.

The first thing I’d note is that if you want to “resist temptations” (I really need a better way to say this) you need to be aware of what it is you’re trying not to do (eat a bunch of sugar, fall asleep at 3:00 in the afternoon on the couch, play video games all day instead of doing your work) so that you can tailor your strategies to fit that. It’s best to have a clear and defined goal that is reasonable, so instead of saying “I’m not going to eat any sweets ever again” you might say “I’m only going to eat dessert two times a week.”

Sometimes you can prep ahead of time and set yourself up for success, but sometimes things will pop up unexpectedly (a wild cake appeared! What do you do?), so you’ll also want to have some skills that can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Let’s start with planning ahead, then move into reactive strategies.

There are a few tactics that are very similar to ignoring distractions: create an environment where there’s just less temptation. I try not to buy ice cream from the store and keep it at home so that if I want some I have to drive somewhere and get it. Get an app that blocks websites you would RATHER be on if you have to work. Or you may want to create an ideal environment by building up your ability to focus on what you should be doing, like giving yourself a reasonable number of tasks to work on or trying the Pomodoro Technique.

BUT as I mentioned in the previous post, we don’t have unlimited amounts of self control. I personally am a proponent of moving away from black and white thinking when it comes to things that are tempting. You don’t have to give up all sugary desserts, just be reasonable about how often you eat them. When you give yourself a set amount of the thing you’re craving, it gives you something to look forward to and can help you to stop focusing on how bad you want it. I like to build these types of things in as a reward for doing the harder thing and using my willpower. So if I’m trying to spend an afternoon working instead of watching Youtube, I might say that I can have one hour of Youtube once I finish a certain number of tasks. It’s easier to put the temptation away when it has a clear time and place and you feel confident you’ll have it later.

Sometimes though it’s just not possible or healthy to give yourself a small amount of something. One of the things that has required me to resist temptation was overcoming self harm. A great option for resisting temptation in those cases is substitution! What is something that satisfies the same urge but doesn’t have the negative consequences? For me it was getting tattoos! I’ve also found that frozen fruits taste a lot like dessert, that fidgets are a good substitution for picking at my nails, and that dying my hair satisfies the urge for change that sometimes leads me to ghost all of my friends. Isn’t substitution fun?

The challenge here can be figuring out what the underlying need is that you are fulfilling through giving in to the temptation. This is where mindfulness can play a role. When you notice yourself getting pulled towards a particular course of action, it can be very helpful to stop for a moment and take note of what you’re feeling. Notice the sensations of your body. Notice the thoughts that are running through your head. See if you can identify the emotions you are feeling. Notice what you were doing before you started feeling specific urges, or if it has been a long time since you did a particular activity you like.

It’s rare that there is only one specific activity that can meet the need we’ve got. When you look at all of this data you may be able to find the underlying need: so self harm was not what I really needed, what I really needed was an intense physical experience that helped me to release some emotions. You may have to try out a couple of different substitutions to find one that scratches the itch so to speak, so be patient with yourself, and potentially use multiple substitutions if a behavior is satisfying more than one need. For reference, there are some good lists of self-harm alternatives out there.

Another good way to deal with temptation is to distract yourself! You can’t focus on how much you want to punch your annoying coworker if you’re neck deep in a really engaging project. This is where it’s good to have a list of Stuff That Gets Me Interested (just generally a good list if you have trouble with your emotions) so that if you’re feeling the siren call of purging a meal, instead you can look at your list and remember that when you’re reading Harry Potter nothing on this planet will be able to distract you.

Finally, you may also want to focus on WHY you shouldn’t be doing the thing you want to do. If logic is your jam, you can give yourself reasons that it’s a bad idea (I should not eat all this ice cream because I will feel horrible), remind yourself of your long term goal (I want to build up my muscles so I should go to the gym instead of taking a nap), or write out a pro and con list of doing or not doing the thing. Even just taking the time to think through your choice is sometimes enough to get past the urge.

Choosing not to do something that sounds appealing in the moment is a big skill. It can range from making long term healthier choices to deciding not to do something really awfully impulsive and dangerous. While we often think about resisting temptations as something our parents or authority figures force on us, it’s actually really important that we have some level of control over our behaviors so that we can choose not to do something that is dangerous, unhealthy, or mean if we want to. Good luck resisting my friends!