How many of us have started a diet with utmost seriousness only to fall off the wagon a month later? How many of us have pledged to meet some savings goal only to blow it on some impulse buy? How many of us have tried to give up smoking only to suddenly buy a pack on a whim at the gas station? It’s no surprise that many experts in self-help (if there can be such a thing) say that motivation is not enough.
In all these cases, we know what’s the wise choice from the perspective of the long term. We know we really want to live a long and healthy life but we choose to smoke anyway. We know we’d be happier and healthier at a lower weight but we choose the highest calorie options at the restaurant. We know we want to retire but we choose to spend money on random impulse buys instead of saving.
Why? The problem is that our brains are pulled in two directions. We are capable of thinking about the future but for the most part we live in the present. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. The long life in the future is not guaranteed but the present is here before us so we are going to give in to short-term pleasures and our entire cognitive life is structure such that giving in to short-term pleasures served our ancestors well in terms of passing along their genes. Better to stuff our faces with food now rather assume there won’t be a famine that’ll kill us in the future.
Everything in our cognitive wiring is structured along with this division between short-term and long-term. We would rather spend money on immediate pleasures, driven by the surge of dopamine, than save for the long-term because our genes want to spread themselves today not tomorrow because tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Thus, we are working against powerful evolutionary forces in trying to be healthy, be frugal, and save money. We can have all the motivation in the world and have no carry-through.
So what do we do?
Psychologists have suggested that we have to work-around our short-term instincts by structuring our environments to be more conducive for serving our long-term goals. For example, when it comes to saving money, when employers make 401k saving opt-out rather than opt-in savings rates go way up. This gives us a clue about how to structure our lives to fight these short-term instincts.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, throw away all the lighters in your house, making it harder to give in. Stop hanging around people who trigger your instincts. If you always smoke at your favorite bar, stay far away from that bar. In other words, structure your environment to maximally favor your long-term goals. If you’re trying to lose weight and have a problem with late-night snacking, literally get rid of every unhealthy snack in your house. That way, if you want to snack you have to get dressed and leave the house.
Sure, this won’t ultimately stop you if you really want to give in. You can always buy another lighter. You can always drive up to the fast-food joint late at night. But you want to put as many barriers in front of you as possible and ease the pathway to success as much as possible. You want there to be friction that stops you from making impulse buys. Big retail companies know this as well — it’s why Amazon has that “instant buy” button: no friction. If you have a hard time getting to the gym in the morning, lay out your gym clothes the night before.
But how do you get the discipline to layout the gym clothes in the first place? I never said it would be easy. Most people fail at their diet and exercise plans. But it’s not impossible. Some people are capable of quitting cigarettes. Only a small percentage of people are capable of losing weight and keeping it off. Some people do manage to save enough for retirement. Some even manage to retire early.
When it comes to weight loss, unfortunately, many people don’t get serious until they have a “wake-up” call like a diabetes diagnosis or a heart attack. Then they get serious. It takes heavy-duty motivation to drive serious discipline. For some, discipline comes easy. But most of us struggle against our short-term instincts for immediate gratification. We live in toxic environments with temptations all around us. Giving in is easy. And even if we reach our goal there’s no guarantee we will manage to stay disciplined for the rest of our lives. This shit ain’t easy.
Unfortunately, I don’t have fool-proof advice. If I did, I’d be writing a best-selling self-help book. But every guru out there thinks their advice is key to achieving your goals. In reality, the key lies within us and most of the advice is generic. How much do we want it? How well can we structure our environment to maximize success? Were we lucky enough to be born with high executive function that allows us to have excellent impulse control? Not everyone is so lucky. There are genetic and environmental components to success at resisting short-term instincts.
But knowledge helps. Knowing that there is this tension in our heads between the short-term and long-term can prepare us to better fight the battle. Good luck!