During the last workshop we were talking about setting goals and following through on intentions. Someone asked why is it that even when we know what we ought to do, we sometimes (if not most of the time) still make choices that don’t work in our own long term interests? It’s a great question, especially because it’s really where most of us get stuck as we attempt to make meaningful changes in our lives. We seem to have plenty of moments in life where we recognize our problems, or experience the consequences of doing things in less than optimal ways. But then what? We know we need to fix something or do things differently, but what should we do? And why do we end up usually falling right back into our unhealthy habits?
I’ve been reading Richard Wiseman’s book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. In the chapter on Motivation, he talks about a series of studies that show that the most effective strategies to really get people to make real world change requires a balanced approach of positive goal setting and simultaneous acknowledgement of the hurdles that will get in the way. Think positively and negatively. He calls this Doublethink. Keeping both of these thoughts in mind actually creates a greater likelihood of people following through on their intentions when compared to a person who only thinks optimistically about achieving goals – “I can do it!” It’s also superior to the types of strategies that have a predominant problem solving approach – “Just put one foot in front of the other.” In other words, the best approach is “I believe I can do it by figuring out what’s going to help me and what’s going to get in my way.” A few years ago, an entrepreneurial client of mine shared with me an exercise he was doing that he got from a book he was reading, the 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss that applied this very principle. The exercise was to pick three goals for yourself that you would like to achieve six months from now. This being more of a business/lifestyle book rather than a psychology text meant that some of these goals were not necessarily aligned with what Positive Psychology describes as best goals, however the exercise itself is based on good principles. Once having picked these goals, the exercise was to write down daily what needed to be done today and tomorrow in order to achieve these goals by the future deadline, and of course to do those things today. This writing exercise was to be repeated daily, adjusting as needed to stay on track for these future goals. With both the Doublethink and the 4-Hour Workweek exercise, they illustrate a practical approach to achieving goals that requires a simultaneous ambition for the future as well as a realistic view of the present.
One of the common biases we have as humans is that our perspective of time skews one way or another. An accurate time perspective acknowledges:
1) The past, the good and the bad, has happened and has lead us up to the present moment.
2) The present moment is real. It’s where we live.
3) That the future is coming, and it is the inevitable extension of where we are today.
All three – past, present, and future are real and need to be accounted for in order for us to live authentically. Any form of bias that diminishes the realities of this time perspective, such as nostalgia, trauma, depression, hedonism, blind optimism, or anxiety – makes the beliefs in our mind misaligned with the realities of our world. This disconnect makes us vulnerable to problems that we don’t see, or prevents us from tapping into useful resources that we aren’t aware are available to us.
One particular way in which this time perspective bias commonly manifests itself is related to our need for ease. It’s one of the universal human needs that we all have. In the immediate sense, when given the choice between simple or hard, we’re likely to choose simple. When the choice is between something we’re good at or something that makes us feel incompetent, we usually choose the former. However, sometimes when we make these choices, choosing easy now leads to hard later. This tends to happen when we don’t acknowledge that our past experience gives us a reliable map as to what to expect when we make certain similar choices, and that what we do today is going to affect our future. Instead, what we can do is consider how our past experiences can guide our judgment as to what is most likely to occur based on the options we have in front of us. When we make this assessment, we should take into account not only what is going to occur immediately, but what is likely to occur over time as the repercussions of our choices unfold into the future. When we make unhealthy choices, what tends to happen is that the natural consequences of unhealthiness eventually catch up to us. Pain. Regression. Stagnation. Misery. Ambivalence. Why? Because unhealthy strategies are by definition unsustainable, regressive, costly, and painful. On the other hand healthiness and strategies that work towards these goals are the opposite – growth promoting, inherently gratifying, sustainable, and good.
When we make positive changes, what starts off as a meaningful insight, leads to determined intention. This persistent choice to reach our goals initiates new behaviors that are modified with each iteration to get closer and closer to where we are going – holding onto what’s working, making adjustments for the parts that aren’t. As we practice and practice, these “new” behaviors eventually become integrated into our minds as new brain cells are formed and new connections are made, replacing our old patterns with a “new normal.” In this final stage of integration, what once felt new and awkward eventually becomes more and more familiar. What once required focus and attention, starts to fade into our subconscious mind feeling more automatic. And what was initially challenging becomes our new competency. And it is here where we can best reconcile our natural need for ease. If we see the larger picture, if we focus on health, and if we use our need for ease as part of our motivation to develop a greater intention – then eventually our need for ease will be met. And not only will it be met, in this new area of growth it will be met permanently. With integration, it stays easy.
So, don’t choose easy now when it is likely to make things hard later. These short-sighted choices are also likely to be experienced as easy only for a short while and hard for a long time. Think fast food, spending beyond your means, a relationship of convenience, bribing your kids or even intimidating them. This is the part of the Doublethink strategy where we acknowledge the potential challenges in the present that can get in the way of our positive long term goals. Instead, choose goals and strategies that may be temporarily hard now to address real hindrances and problems, but are also healthy, gratifying, fulfilling, and will make our lives easier later. So instead think about changing the way you eat, saving for the future, making time for the important people in your life, or parenting from a developmental and relational perspective that focuses not on “bad” behavior today but rather guiding children to become healthy adults later.
Easy now and hard forever, or hard now and easy forever. The “good decision” seems obvious when you put it that way, right?
Next in this series, we’ll talk about another reason why we don’t make the best decisions – when we’ve convinced ourselves that we have no “good” choices because we’ve focused too hard on the negative.