The most ‘disciplined’ people don’t have more self-control than you — they just make a different daily choice

Get rid of temptation.

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Get rid of temptation.
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Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

  • People who seem to have a lot of self discipline are really better at limiting the temptations in their environment.
  • That’s according to the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.
  • Clear’s point is backed by research, including a study that found rearranging the kitchen at a Google office prompted people to snack less.

I’ve been reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

Clear has a popular website where he writes about productivity; in this new book, he zeroes in on the science behind building good habits and breaking bad ones.

One of the most enlightening snippets is about the function (or lack thereof) of self-control.

Clear summarizes the research this way: “‘Disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”

This is brilliant, largely because I can stop feeling bad about myself for not being able to resist the siren call of Diet Coke, or Facebook, or the snooze button, or … lots of things.

The study Clear mentions is an oft-cited paper published in 2012, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers gave Blackberries to more than 200 people and pinged them throughout the day, reminding them to record whether they were currently experiencing any desires – to eat, to drink, to smoke, etc – whether they were trying to resist the temptation, and whether they’d ultimately given in. The researchers also measured participants’ general levels of self-control.

As it turned out, the people with the highest levels of self-control were no better able to resist temptation than anyone else. But they did experience fewer desires. The researchers say their results suggest that “high self-control operates more by avoiding temptations in the first place than by resisting them.”

Read more: The founder of PayPal uses data to optimize every aspect of his life – and he says being healthier comes down to a single habit

If you want to stop mindlessly snacking during the day, you may have to reorganize your workspace

Reading this section of “Atomic Habits,” I was reminded of a study I covered a few years ago, about an experiment that was conducted in a Google kitchen.

For the study, which was published in the journal Appetite, researchers redesigned the kitchen so that one beverage station was located closer to a snack bar than the other. Results showed that Googlers who visited the beverage station closer to the snacks were 69% more likely to grab a snack than those who used the beverage station farther away.

In other words: Fighting the urge to snack (assuming you’re not actually hungry) only becomes a thing when there are snacks in front of you. If you don’t walk by the place where there are snacks, you’ll probably be fine.

A Reddit thread (which we first spotted through Ramit Sethi’s daily email) yields similar insights. In response to the question, “‘Thin’ women, how much effort do you put to stay at that weight?” multiple people answered that they don’t put in much effort at all. As soon as they got into the habit of, say, only eating vegan food or never eating food out of a box, it didn’t take much for them to stay on track.

To be sure, not every bad habit will disappear when you restructure your environment. If you’re a cigarette smoker, staying out of bars might help, but it probably won’t solve the problem immediately.

Still, it’s reassuring to know that disciplined people are really just trickier people. Go forth and join their ranks!