Why you know what you should be doing, but fail to put it into practise.
When people come to see me seeking psychological strategies for change, they fall into two broad groups. There are those people who’ve never heard of ideas like your thoughts affect your feelings, and don’t know that exercise and diet can have a big effect on stress levels. I get to introduce them to a world of new knowledge that can transform their life and it’s very exciting!
The other group of people are those who know at least some of that stuff. They’ve read about how the mind works, they know that they should be exercising and taking better care of themselves, but somehow, they’re just not doing it. They’re not sure why (they often fear it’s a lack of motivation or some kind of intrinsic flaw), but they just can’t put into practise all the good ideas they read about. If that sounds like you, then this is your blog post!
So why is it so hard to do what you know is the best thing for you? Is it a case of motivation? Is it about being somehow a lesser human being? No, and NO! There’s actually certain ways of thinking, ways which are evolutionarily sound (but which are less useful in today’s likely-to-survive-until-we’re-80 world) which interfere with your ability to do what’s best.
Good news: Once you know what these ways of thinking are, you’ll know how to work around them, and you’ll be better placed to actually do whatever it is you know it’s in your best interests to do.
Roadblock 1: ‘Temporal Discounting’
Temporal discounting is a fancy term for the fact that we prefer to get something right now than wait for something even better. In psychological experiments, researchers might offer participants a choice of getting $5 now, or getting $10 in two weeks, and most people will take the $5 now. In clichéd terms, it’s the rationale behind the phrase ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’.
Even though in the long run, we’re richer for waiting, most of us have trouble with the waiting part. This is despite the fact that outside of a research lab, the principle of waiting in order to get a better result is built into modern life in general. Better grades come from putting off fun until the holidays, better wealth long term comes from investing now so you have more to spend later.
So why does our brain prioritise an immediate reward? Well evolutionarily, it makes sense – taking food now rather than holding off for the possibility of more food later sounds like a good survival strategy to me! It’s only very recently that it has started to make sense to wait for a better result than to take instant gratification.
The effect explains why it’s so hard to quit smoking by thinking about the cancer you may get in 20 years time, or to resist junk food by thinking about the body you’ll have in a year from now – our brains are wired to take the immediate reward.
Plus, you can magnify this effect if you’re feeling stressed – the more stressed you are, the more you become focussed on the short term. Stress is a state where we feel less certain of our long term survival, and immediate rewards become even more attractive.
Roadblock 2: Feelings rule
In a title fight for your attention, feelings beat thoughts hands down. Why does the way we feel override our thinking?
Stress rigs the fight here. Our brains basically evolved in three stages. The earliest, oldest part of our brain is responsible for our physical systems. Next comes our feelings driven brain, where we experience emotions like fear. Lastly came along our logical, rational decision-making brain parts.
When we’re under stress, our brain directs more blood flow to the parts of itself which are more critical to survival – the parts responsible for physical and emotional reactions. Think about it like this – if you see a lion coming towards you, you don’t need to know the percentage likelihood of you being eaten. You need to feel fear, and you need to run! (and if you had to choose between feeling afraid and running, running is the most critical part of surviving, so this part of our brain gets the most blood flow of all.) So our natural tendency is to focus on feelings rather than rationality when there’s a clash between the two. And just like with temporal discounting, the more stress you’re under, the more you focus on your feelings and ignore the rational side’s protests. It doesn’t matter that there’s not many lions in your city, your brain responds to every threat like it’s a lion.
Even when you’re not stressed, feelings tend to win because feelings are more immediate than thoughts are. When you feel a certain way, you feel it NOW, whereas a logical choice involves the benefit not coming until the future. Unless you can convince yourself to feel uncomfortable now in order to get a long term benefit, you won’t be able to overcome your feelings. Usually, this only happens when you start to experience the negative, long term consequences of choosing feelings over what’s actually good for you long term. You hit a certain weight, and decide that now it’s worth feeling uncomfortable for health. Your relationship falls into crisis, and the looming threat of divorce pushes you into uncomfortable action to save your relationship.
What Can I Do About It?
Now you know about these concepts, you’ll recognise them in your own life. Awareness is the first step towards change! You can also implement these practical ideas:
One: Find ways to create more immediate rewards for the changes you’re trying to make – saving the money you’d spend on cigarettes in a clear jar in the kitchen is an immediate reward for your change, as is spending that money on something else which will bring you pleasure in the short term. Visually representing weight loss through a chart stuck on the fridge, regularly buying new clothes (if you can afford it!), and giving yourself non-food based rewards for weight loss are ways of making its effects more valuable in the short term.
Two: Minimise your stress so that you can use as much of your logical brain as you can. Practically, this means you should be: exercising most days of the week, taking time for a formal relaxation/ meditation practise (10 minutes a day is fine) most days of the week, and only working on improving one area of your life at any one time (because change is stressful). For most people, willpower is strongest in the morning so scheduling your change-making behaviours earlier in the day is a smart idea.
Three: Be willing to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. That’s all you really need to do in order to ‘beat’ your feelings. Understand you’ll have to feel uncomfortable in order to make changes to get what you want. Understand you can’t actually rely on your feelings as a guide to what’s good for you - in fact, you’ll need to actively ignore them to get where you’re going (like you would an errant GPS or irrational toddler). Once you stop believing that if you feel a certain way, you must behave in a certain way, you’ll become freer and be able to take the actions you need to get what you really want in life – and your heart will no longer dominate your head.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.