Surfing the Urge: How To Overcome Temptations With Mindfulness

The first people to ever deal with a temptation were the biblical Eve, and then Adam. Instructed by God not to eat fruits from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they tried …

Surfing the Urge: How To Overcome Temptations With Mindfulness

The first people to ever deal with a temptation were the biblical Eve, and then Adam.

Instructed by God not to eat fruits from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they tried their best to obey. But precisely because they were told to refrain from picking it, the fruit became ever-more tempting. So tempting that a mere prompt from the serpent was enough for Eve to give in.

This is how I read the story. I always wondered whether the fruit would be equally luring if God simply informed Adam and Eve about the consequences of eating it — instead of banning it altogether.

Most of us instinctively know that the harder we deny ourselves something attractive, the more it usually lures us. The temptation arises when we forbid ourselves a certain activity — but at the same time, we desperately want it.

For example, you may realize that smoking, drinking or eating too much is bad for you in the long run — so you decide to stop. However, as you try to maintain abstinence, you may feel that the more pressure you put on ceasing the unwanted behaviour, the more the temptation to indulge in it escalates. Academics refer to this as the “ironic processes of mental control.”

Giving in to a temptation feels much easier for the majority of people than sticking to long-term goals. That’s because of the “feel good” principle that directs our behaviour according to Timothy Pychyl. In his book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle, he writes:

“The most important thing to understand is that we ‘give in to feel good.’ That is, we want to feel good now and we will do whatever it takes for immediate mood repair, usually at the expense of long-term goals.”

And then:

“The real catch here is that when we intend a future action, our affective state is often particularly positive. Why? There are two reasons. First, because we are putting off action until the future, we get the reward that we discussed with giving in to feel good. We feel good now that the intention is for future action. At the very least, we feel relief that we are not on the hook to act now. Second, we are imagining ourselves engaged in some future action that we perceive will make us happy. This is pleasant in and of itself.”

In other words: it is the urge to experience the immediate pleasure that drives us into temptation. When you postpone quitting smoking until tomorrow, you are pleased in two ways: (1) you can have a cigarette now and therefore don’t need to face the uncomfortable feeling of denying yourself a smoke; (2) you entertain a fantasy of quitting tomorrow, which is a nice vision to hold on to.

The main problem I want to address in this article is this:

How can you overcome the temptation that happens in the “here and now” in a painless way — i.e. so that you don’t have to experience a sense of being deprived of the pleasure?

The most obvious method people resort to in overcoming temptations is willpower. That means continuously activating self-control to prevent you from engaging in one behaviour and choosing another one instead. But using willpower to deal with immediate urges often feels like a tiring fight. That’s because, in order to make it work, you need to constantly engage the limited resources of self-control to suppress the temptationFor some people, this is akin to trying to push a river backwards.

Benjamin Hardy, PhD even goes as far as saying that willpower doesn’t work for unlearning bad habits. That’s because willpower is akin to a muscle. If you use it for too long, it gets depleted and needs to be put to rest. And while it is resting, you come back straight to the very behaviour you wanted to avoid.

Motivational psychologists who aren’t particularly enthusiastic about relying on willpower developed some alternative ways to overcome temptations. Examples of such alternatives that are now popular in the self-improvement industry are implementation intentions and environment design. Although they were proven useful, they also mostly advise a “forceful” way of dealing with temptations.

That’s why, in this article, I want to introduce you to the mindfulness-based approach to overcoming temptations. As you will see, it is not only effective — but also addresses the psychological mechanisms of our pleasure-seeking in a way that makes it rather frictionless to resist temptations. As a result, people who use this approach are able to skip their urges in a much more graceful way, without feeling like they need to enter an internal battle.

Let’s assume you want to ditch the habit of obsessively checking your Facebook notifications. The urge to get a quick high from seeing how many people recently liked your posts or watched the video you just published gets in the way of your long-term goal: becoming a professional writer.

One way to deal with the problem could be by using implementation intentions. The core of this method is in relying on pre-decisions, so that you don’t have to make decisions when the urge to check your notifications is upon you. An implementation intention aims to set a specific response to a specific cue and “automate” your behaviour in the critical moment.

For example, you may determine that as soon as a thought to log into Facebook crosses your mind, you will open your Hemingway app instead and jot five sentences in there. That would be a great example of how you redesign the cycle of an unhealthy habit by changing your response to the same cue. It is the process that Al Pittampalli refers to as “activating your personal autopilot.”

“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” — Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Benjamin Hardy, however, might say that this kind of tactic won’t last. That’s because you are not stronger than your environment,” as Maarten van Doorn recently wrote. And it’s hard not to agree — research from various fields, epigenetics included, shows how much our surroundings and context influence who we become and how we behave.

So this is where the second way to overcome temptations comes in. Although different scholars may call it differently, for our purposes let’s use the term “environment design.” This method advocates that to overcome urges, you do best to adjust your environment so that it makes attaining your long-term goal almost inevitable. In the words of Benjamin Hardy:

“If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, you must stop being 1) around people that drink alcohol and 2) at places that serve alcohol. Your willpower will fail if you don’t. You need to truly decide you’re done, to commit, and then to create an environment to make the success of your commitment inevitable.”

Although the above-described methods can be useful, they are flawed in that they don’t address the internal conflict that takes place in us. When we are faced with an opportunity to instantly feel good at the cost of our long-term wellbeing, a conflict almost surely arises.

Approaches such as implementation intentions or environment design are oriented merely towards the graspable outcome: not giving in to temptation. Their measure of success is whether the person using those methods is able to resist the temptation on the level of behaviour. However, the perceived cost of “winning the battle” is not really taken into account.

What is more, the above-described approaches build on the human tendency to act unconsciously, which I personally consider to be a serious drawback. What implementation intentions and environment design really do is they “reprogram your personal autopilot,” based on certain external cues. In so doing, they don’t really give you any deeper insight into the workings of your mind — but act as very utilitarian manners of adjusting your unconscious.

What is more, they do not contain effective solutions for the occasions when the external cues you rely on change. As an example, going back to the previous Facebook vs. Hemingway app situation: if you break your dominant hand or your phone stops working, the carefully designed “implementation intention mechanism” stops working, too. You have not developed a scenario for such unforeseen circumstances.

Luckily, recent psychological research is showing that there is an alternative to the “forceful” and unconscious approaches to temptations. I am talking about the mindfulness-based approach of “surfing the urge” — instead of “fighting” it. As you will see, mindfulness proves to be at least as efficient as the “traditional” ways of motivational psychology. Additionally, it seems to come without the trade-offs such as giving up the pleasure and depleting your self-control resources.

“All MBRP [mindfulness-based relapse prevention — note by the author] practices share the common intention of developing incremental systematic and sustainable practices to bring greater awareness to one’s experiences, with specific emphasis on the sequence of reactions that often follow a trigger and precede a lapse. Through both cognitive-behaviorally-based exercises and mindfulness practices, clients learn to recognize this succession earlier in its progression, and practice pausing before engaging in reactive behavior, or even in the midst of a reactive chain of behaviors.” — Katie Witkiewicz et al.

What if you could overcome temptations by simply allowing them to be? This is the core of the mindfulness approach. Instead of “fighting” the temptations, from now on think of “surfing” them. The idea is to observe, rather than avoid the urges.

The point of the mindfulness-based approach is looking for solutions within, rather than outside of yourself. It means that you will be examining your behaviour patterns and mental processes surrounding temptations — rather than turning your eyes away from them. You will try to understand the mechanisms that fire off inside your mind when you experience an urge. You will reorient yourself away from pushing for abstinence — and towards letting the temptation be.

Sounds a bit abstract, or too good to be true? It sure does. Then let’s focus on the practicalities and see how this mysteriously-sounding mindfulness procedure worked in a specific experiment described in the collaborative paper called The Benefits of Simply Observing: Mindful Attention Modulates the Link Between Motivation and Behavior.

The researchers examined the impact of mindfulness on real-life choices between tempting junk foods and healthy meal options.

The participants of the study were Utrecht University students, approached upon entering a campus cafeteria to eat lunch. Those who agreed to take part were assigned to three groups — one experimental and two control ones. The experimental group received a 12-minute mindfulness training, while the other two — respectively — a different kind of training or no training at all. Then, everyone proceeded to have lunch.

During the mindfulness training, the participants watched a series of pictures (including, but not limited to, images of food) and were encouraged to observe their mental reactions as they arose. Some of the pictures were designed to spark feelings of attraction (e.g. delicious meals or cute animals), some — aversion, and others were rather neutral. The students were instructed to pay attention to everything they experienced in response to each picture — and to recognize all those responses as temporary mental events.

After the training, all participants proceeded to the cafeteria to have their lunch. The researchers, who monitored their food choices, found that the members of the mindfulness group were less likely to give in to the allure of unhealthy snacks and chose healthy options like salads more often than the control groups. Additionally, the subjective feeling of hunger didn’t seem to play a role in those choices.

What happened? According to the researchers, the two components of mindfulness that were encouraged in the prior training played a crucial role in the process:

Bishop et al. suggested that the main components of mindfulness are (a) the regulation of attention and (b) a specific nonjudgmental orientation toward one’s present-moment experiences that includes learning to see one’s thoughts and feelings as ‘passing events in the mind.’” — Papies, E. K., Pronk, T. M., Keesman, M., & Barsalou, L. W.

The central idea behind the mindfulness-based approach is deliberately using attention to see the temptations as nothing more than transient mental events. As soon as the participants of the experimental group adopted such a perspective, the unhealthy foods lost most of their appeal.

As the authors of the paper wrote: “the experiments reported here teach participants to view their reward simulations as mere mental events, thereby reducing their motivational power.”

A lot of other studies confirm that by bringing more conscious attention into the mechanics of temptation, we can refrain from giving into it without engaging willpower and depleting self-control. This can work in two different ways.

For starters, mindfulness can help to reduce the subjective experience of craving, as one chooses to observe it in a non-judgmental way. This was the case in the study of treatment-seeking smokers, who reported reduced craving for a cigarette after having undergone training in mindful attention. Mindfulness is also the backbone of the famous Allen Carr Easyway method for fighting various addictions, which has already helped thousands of people around the world.

The second way in which mindfulness is useful is that it allows us to make better choices after we have already experienced the craving. For example, mindfulness-based interventions were found effective in moderating addictive behaviours, such as hazardous drinking. In one study on this topic, the authors wrote:

“Recent research suggests that mindfulness training may be a useful treatment for substance use disorders and theoretical analyses suggest mindfulness works by decoupling the relation between automatic appetitive responses and actual behavior. (…)Regression analyses indicate that greater mindful acceptance of current experience weakens the positive relation between automatic alcohol–approach associations and hazardous drinking found in other research (Palfai & Ostafin, 2003). The results contribute to basic science by indicating that the relation between automatic mental processes and behavior may be moderated by mindfulness and to clinical science by suggesting how mindfulness might work in changing substance use behavior.” — Brian D. Ostafin & G. Alan Marlatt

It seems that the single most effective way of dealing with temptations and changing our behaviour may be replacing automatic reactions with mindful attention to what we feel and do. Rather than trying to “cheat the system” or suppress cravings with willpower, what if we simply cultivated self-awareness?

The study of Utrecht University students reveals one more interesting thing about the choices they made in the cafeteria.

“Much previous research shows that subtle manipulations of motivation, such as goal primes or abstract construals, can produce similar effects on such fast or even automatic responses (e.g., Fujita & Han, 2009; Maner et al., 2007; Papies, Stroebe, & Aarts, 2008a). In contrast to these findings, however, the effects of mindful attention do not appear to depend on participants’ regulatory goals, suggesting that mindful attention does not work by activating goals.” — Papies, E. K., Pronk, T. M., Keesman, M., & Barsalou, L. W.

It seems that when we apply mindful attention, resisting the temptation doesn’t appear to be a sacrifice anymore. In other words: the students didn’t abandon the idea of eating a muffin in favour of achieving some other, “better,” long-term goal, e.g. losing weight. The behaviour they displayed emerged without engaging in any sort of “strategic thinking” or weighing the benefits of instant pleasure against overall well-being.

According to the researchers, the participants went for the healthier food choice simply because of recognizing the temptation as a temporary mental event. They seemed to have realized that it was not a “real” urge of their bodies to have a muffin — but a mental projection of experiencing the sense of reward.

How this might have worked on the neurophysiological level is maybe most clearly explained by Kelly McGonigal. In her bestselling book The Willpower Instinctshe describes how taking a few deep breaths and intentionally “slowing down” can impact our automatic impulse to give in to the craving. She calls it the “pause-and-plan” response — but in my understanding, it is nothing else but taking a mindful moment to “surf the urge:”

“Remember, your body has already started to respond to that cheesecake. Your brain needs to bring the body on board with your goals and put the brakes on your impulses. To do this, you prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other automatic functions. The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, you heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them of action, your body relaxes a little.

The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of an internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action. From this state of mind and body, you can choose to walk away from the cheesecake, with both your pride and your diet intact.”

Mindful attention transforms the way in which you perceive temptations. You are now able to recognize the “urge” as something temporary — nothing but an experience you happen to have at this particular moment in time. As a result, the “rewarding representation of the stimulus becomes less attractive.”

This naturally makes it easier to resist temptation. There is no need for enormous willpower or trying to manipulate your unconscious anymore. From now on, you can rely on your conscious (and hence, more accurate) assessment of the situation.

What’s more, the effects described above are available to everybody, regardless of whether they have experience with any form of deliberate mindfulness practice. As the researchers concluded:

“Because we all appear to have the basic ability to view thoughts as simulations of nonpresent events, we always have the potential of returning to the present, being content in the simplicity of the moment.” — Papies, E. K., Pronk, T. M., Keesman, M., & Barsalou, L. W.

With that, it is time to conclude. Even though the methods to “fight” temptations — such as environment design and implementation intentions — can be effective under certain circumstances, they also have weak points. Those weak points can be tackled by applying mindfulness.

First of all, mindfulness doesn’t rely on “programming your unconscious” to make sure you act in the desired way when the temptation arises. Automatic programming is always flawed, as it fails to take into consideration the unforeseen factors which may break your meticulously designed behaviour patterns. Mindfulness, on the other hand, allows you to act based on the present moment — rather than preconceived assumptions.

Further, the mindfulness-based approach to temptations encourages you to focus on the desired behaviour — like eating a healthy salad in the experiment — and reinforces it. It makes the conflict between instant pleasure and the long-term goal less pronounced. As a result, you don’t focus on avoiding anything — but rather, you make conscious and positive choices.

Finally, a mindfulness-oriented person doesn’t depend too much on the external cues to “design their behaviour.” As we’ve seen, with methods such as environment design and implementation intentions, it is easy to become overly reliant on the outer world to condition the desired outcome. Then, when circumstances which are beyond your control change, there is no room to be flexible and adjust your approach to temptations on the spot.

Mindfulness, in turn, is by definition an internally-driven approach. Rather than outsourcing your ways to “fight” urges, it teaches you how to “surf” them — i.e. observe them through the lens of mindful attention. Because of that, you start seeing how you can be in charge of your own thoughts, desires and behaviours, instead of battling them.

And once you are in charge — there is no need to “reprogram yourself.” You are simply free to choose.

Larry Carter