A slight shift in perspective will result in a lifetime of “effortless” self-control.
We humans are masters at rationalizing. Day after day, we pretend that what we do today has little bearing on what we’ll do tomorrow, but unless we fully embrace and apply the notion that what we do today is all that matters, we’ll face a lifetime of disappointment.
Howard Rachlin’s, The Science of Self-Control wonderfully illustrates how we rationalize our behaviours.
Inexplicably, we tend to think of our future selves quite differently than we think of our present selves, and therein lies the demon of cognitive dissonance and failure.
The Frailty of Will Power
For example, consider this scenario: Bob’s doctor recently told him that he needs to start exercising and losing weight. Bob agrees. So later that evening, Bob is dining at his favourite restaurant, and remembering his doctor’s orders, he orders broiled sole and a salad.
Choosing a light meal made him feel good, as though he was in control — and he was until the waiter wheeled the dessert cart to the table and offered to whip up a hot chocolate sundae.
Just like that, Bob’s self-control evaporates. He can almost taste the explosion of chocolate flavours and freshly whipped cream. This sundae would perfectly offset the bland dinner and the faint hunger pangs he suddenly notices.
Bob was torn between two competing forces:
- Force-one was his future desire to take control of his health and, consequently, his life; and
- Force two was his immediate desire to enjoy the moment and indulge in the sundae.
The Twisted Logic of Our Present Self
When Bob left his doctor’s office, he decided that his long-term health was the most important thing, but now that he’s confronted with this “chocolate sundae dilemma,” he instantly separates his present self from his future self and conjures up a clever rationalization for letting the waiter proceed.
Bob’s justification goes like this:
Starting tomorrow, Bob promises to swear off all desserts for the rest of his life. So now that he’s made that decision, Bob focuses on the here and now. As a result, he rather easily concludes that since he’s going to abstain from all desserts in the future, simply enjoying this last chocolate sundae tonight won’t make the slightest difference to his long-term health.
In fact, according to Bob’s reasoning — enjoying the sundae right now makes total sense because he gets the best of both worlds … gratification now and, starting tomorrow, a lifetime of healthy eating.
The Folly of Separating our Present Self from our Future Self
Although Bob wants the long-term benefits of health, his short-term desires always win out. As long as he deludes himself that tomorrow will be the beginning of new patterns and behaviours, he will continually find his life and his power slipping away.
As casual observers of Bob’s reasoning, we can see that he conveniently ignores that all actions have consequences. New behaviours must start somewhere. If he continues to satisfy his immediate desires today … with the intent of starting new behaviours tomorrow … he’ll never change.
Tomorrow is an empty notion because it never arrives.
Immediate Gratification is Part of Our DNA
When given a choice of receiving $300 nine months from now or $600 twelve months from now, most of us will choose to wait an extra three months for double the money.
However, if we’re given the choice of $300 today or $600 twelve months from now, most of us will take the $300 today since it’s human nature to live by the creed, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
The fact is, whatever we do today is our lifestyle. It’s part of a pattern that can only be changed by taking immediate action. Only by acting today can we initiate new behaviour that will eventually lead to better habits and a new lifestyle.
Our lives are mainly controlled by our daily habits and programs, and only by establishing new habits can we eliminate the need for endless decisions and rationalizations.
At one time or another, we’ve all rationalized and justified our choice of immediate gratification. But here’s the thing: Truly successful people know that today’s actions significantly affect tomorrow’s outcome. They know that passing on the dessert tonight will make it easier to pass on it tomorrow, and passing on it tomorrow will make it easier to forgo it the next day and the day after that.
With awareness, you can enjoy the occasional dessert, but you’ll also learn to enjoy saying “no” or “yes” to better alternatives.
It’s critical to remember that our health is so inextricably linked to our non-thinking habits and behaviours.
The Power of Hard Rules
The key to long-term health (or to achieving any goal, for that matter) is to create a lifestyle filled with automatic habits that serve our future selves.
About ten years ago, I changed my diet habits from eating whatever and whenever it was convenient to eating within a 4-hour window.
I have a personal rule: I do not eat a single calorie before 6 p.m., and when I do eat, it’s real food — not ultra-processed garbage. By eating real food, my hunger and satiety hormones work. That means I can eat anything I want and as much as I want, with no restrictions.
Interestingly, before 6 p.m., I can walk past a bowl of popcorn, almonds, or mixed nuts (which are usually on the counter) all day long without being even remotely tempted. However, because of my rule, as soon as it’s 6 p.m., it’s like Kryptonite, I suddenly cannot pass by those same bowls without grabbing a handful.
That’s the power of making a hard rule to form a habit. Eating before 6 p.m. is non-negotiable, so it never enters my mind and requires zero willpower to avoid eating. However, after 6 p.m., all bets are off.
I’m not trying to sell my eating plan; that’s not my point, but rather to illustrate that a hard rule makes sticking to our desired lifestyle infinitely easier. A hard rule eliminates temptation because it crushes those inner demons of rationalization.
Consider This …
Suppose you have a hard rule that you won’t drink any alcohol from Sunday to Thursday. If you’re out with some friends after work on a Thursday and you say to your mates, “I’m cutting back, so I’m trying to avoid drinking during the week,” you’re dead!
Your workmates will pounce all over that wishy-washy statement, and quicker than you can say, “Double-scotch on the rocks,” they’ll help you rationalize why you really should have a drink.
“After all,” they’ll reason, “it’s Thursday, we’ve had a hard week, relax, enjoy living, don’t be so uptight.”
However, if instead of saying, “I’m trying to cut back”, and instead you say with authority, “I NEVER drink outside of Friday and Saturday,” that definitive statement will not only stop your friends from any attempt at persuasion but will immediately kill any rationalization from your subconscious mind as well.
People who exercise the most control over their lives know that today’s actions determine tomorrow’s actions, which means what we do today is ultimately all that matters.
If we live long enough, we’ll all have regrets. But the ones that will haunt us are when we knew we had a choice. Since our health is our most valuable possession, let’s be sure to choose a lifetime of health while it’s still an option.