It used to be that I’d get sick right after exams, when the holidays began. Now I seem to get sick right after I get back, when the holidays end!
It’s just a cold. A cold that demands a lot more sleep than normal. Not too bad, but definitely annoying. There’s the inbox to deal with, all that work I thought I’d dive right into when I return. I’m making attempts between sleeping, but progress is at a snail’s pace.
And then I got to thinking about how I do this all the time. I plan to do something virtuous in the future, like get up an hour earlier and exercise. But in the morning I want to sleep more than exercise, roll over and tell myself I’ll do it tomorrow. You don’t need a small setback like a cold to stop you!
What do you have planned for your virtuous future self? Losing weight? Staying tidy? Saving money? Whatever it is, seems most of us will let our selves down. But why?
There’s been some interesting research from addiction studies to explain this. It’s not ego-depletion as we have been assuming for a long time. It’s about trusting your future self.
Jeff Wise wrote about it recently in the New York Magazine. You can read the long article here. I’ve summarized the key ideas below…and I hope this helps you a) come to a new understanding of why it’s so hard to change, and b) show you an easy way to do something about it.
The popular idea is that “we have a part of our brain that is rational and knows what’s good for us, and another part that’s impulsive and wants bad things. They struggle on and on and eventually the rational part gets tired and gives in”.
That’s the ego-depletion idea where willpower is a muscle that fatigues. They’re having trouble replicating those studies now.
The other idea is that “the human brain doesn’t have two warring parts, but one unitary system that prioritizes immediately rewarding options over those that pay off later.
The struggle, then, isn’t really between good and bad, but between the future and the present”. The challenge is that, in that moment, the future reward isn’t as valuable as the immediate one. It’s too far away.
To make it even harder, it’s not just one day that you need to get up early and exercise, for example, but many days. That’s bundling. Only with repeated effort will you reap the rewards.
It’s not surprising then that “researchers have found that people who more strongly identify with their future selves are better at self-control”.
But you have to believe it will be true. That means losing the self-doubt and having faith that you will do that future behaviour and reap the rewards. Self-talk won’t work. What the research is suggesting is that seeing it in your own behaviour will.
According to Jeff Wise, the author of the article, this is how you do it:
Step one: Choose a simple rule for yourself, one so simple and clear that you can’t possibly fail.
Step two: Make sure you follow step one.
The point is not to build a habit, but to establish a pattern of evidence for your own brain to observe.
A have it right. It’s one. day. at. a. time.
Now I’m off to set my alarm 5-minutes earlier tomorrow. What you need is a small, no brainer, can-easily-do-that start, and consistent effort. Step one. Step two. Step one. Step two.
I think I can do that.
What will you do?