How short-term pleasure is ruining your life and what you can do about it!
You went on a diet and three days later you are sitting on the couch, eating a chocolate cake.
At the beginning of the year, you promised yourself you would exercise three times per week. However, you haven’t been to the gym for weeks.
You want to start a business next to your full-time career and instead of working on it every evening, you are watching tv.
Sound familiar? It does to me! A couple of months ago, I realised that instead of working on my book in the evenings, I was actually watching Netflix shows in my bed. As I often use myself as a "guinea-pig" to test and understand psychological theories and the functioning of our brain, I started to wonder what was going on.
The reptile brain
I realised fairly quickly that I was falling into the trap of my reptile brain. Let me explain. Our brain is constructed in such a way that its main priority is survival. In order for us to survive, our brain steers us towards two paths:
- Avoiding short-term pain
- Chasing short-term pleasure
Although it is pretty easy to understand how pain could threaten our survival, the question is what pleasure has to do with it. Well, in order for our ancestors to survive, they had to go out and hunt in dangerous environments. Evolution has come up with the phenomenon of feeling pleasure as a token of appreciation for the effort, making it a huge motivating factor. If it was not for that, we would still be in caves or not exist at all.
If you are interested in the explanation of this exact psychological mechanism, I recommend the book by D. Kahneman & A. Tversky (Eds.), Choices, values and frames.
From an evolutionary and biological perspective, long-term pain (i.e. getting sick because of a poor diet) or long-term pleasure (fulfilment, i.e. getting fit next year), play a secondary role. However, for us to stay fulfilled, healthy and alive, we need to go and find the long-term benefits!
The difficult part is that in order to realise these long-term benefits, there is a 99,9% chance that we will need to go through some short-term pain and, at the same time, ignore the short-term pleasures.
Our society is obsessed with short-term pleasure. In fact, most advertisements and marketing companies are making use of this weakness. Have you seen these advertisements of companies that promise you will feel better after overeating or drinking if you buy and take their pills? Why do they not just recommend stopping overeating or drinking? Simple. Because it does not cater to our short-term instincts.
Get in the driver’s seat
So, is it at all possible?! Is it possible to trick your own nature? Based on my own experience and of some of my clients, I can say yes, it is. But I need to warn you... it does come with a price tag and often it means failing and starting over, again and again.
The first step as with everything in coaching / psychology is to become aware of your own patterns. You need to find out for yourself what you have labelled as a short-term pain and what you have labelled as a short-term pleasure. We all have different mechanisms that we develop from the moment we are born. Something that you consider a short-term pain can be a pleasure for someone else. Imagine that! So, what behaviours of yours do you link to pain and pleasure?
2. Long-term benefits
Ask yourself, what are your long-term benefits / pains? Think of things such as staying fit and healthy, changing your career or starting a new company. Something that you know is good for you in the long term, or something that you know you want to avoid.
3. Fake it till you make it
Often, it is not enough to only identify your long-term benefits / pains. To help yourself, try to link the long-term fulfilment (benefits) to short-term (healthy) pleasure.
Waiting a couple of months or years for a reward takes too long for our brain. It demands the pleasure now. You can help yourself by finding short-term pleasures that you can link to long-term benefits, "healthy" ones. So, not eating candy after a workout, but, for example, having a nice bath instead.
Make a list of healthy short-term pleasures. Remember that they need to have similar weights as the pain you have to go through, otherwise they will not work.
4. Be a winner!
The crucial point starts when you begin to experience failures. It is pretty certain that one day you will give in to your short-term pleasure and forget your long-term benefits. This is not the biggest crime. What is important is what you do after the failure. What we often tend to do, is to go all the way in.
So, if you did indulge yourself in a triple chocolate cookie whilst on a diet, you have two options:
- You say to yourself: "Well, I screwed up, shit happens, tomorrow I start again with my plan". Choose this option, and you are a winner!
- You say to yourself: "Well, I screwed up, I am never going to succeed now, so, I might as well get another cookie." Choose this option, and you lose the game!
Very important message: When you realise you have made a mistake, just forgive yourself and carry on with your plan!
5. Get a buddy
Another great way to stay on your path to fulfil your long-term benefit goals is making a pact with someone else. Someone who can hold you accountable, someone who will cheer you up. The best thing would be if this person is also on his / her own quest of achieving a long-term goal. It doesn’t even have to be the same thing.
It will be worth it!
All meaningful long-term benefits in my life and in your life come through experiencing short-term pain. I know it sucks, trust me! Yet, it is definitely worth it!
Do you have difficulties saying no to your short-term pleasures? Let us know in the comments!