The decision to change is the ultimate instant gratification

By angelao, February 7, 2016

I aspire to be many things — intending to be more organised, disciplined, creative, and efficient each day. Aiming to do more and to learn more and to enjoy more. Yet, the amount I desire change doesn’t directly impact how much progress I make… and The Willpower Instinct explains why.

A common mistake is this:

Don’t mistake a goal-supportive action for the goal itself. You aren’t off the hook just because you did one thing consistent with your goal. Notice if giving yourself credit for positive action makes you forget what your actual goal is.

For example, people who merely intend to exercise later are more likely to overeat at dinner. This habit allows us to sin today, and make up for it later—or so we tell ourselves.

I’ve definitely noticed this myself, rewarding myself with mindless entertainment for merely intending to be focused in the future.

Dr. McGonigal explains the pleasure of committing to change as well:

The decision to change is the ultimate in instant gratification—you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. But the challenge of actually making a change can be a rude awakening, and the initial rewards are rarely as transformative as our most hopeful fantasies (“I lost five pounds, and I still have a crappy job!”).

As we face our first setbacks, the initial feel-good rush of deciding to change is replaced with disappointment and frustration. Failing to meet our expectations triggers the same old guilt, depression, and self-doubt, and the emotional payoff of vowing to change is gone.

At this point, most people will abandon their efforts altogether. It’s only when we are feeling out of control and in need of another hit of hope that we’ll once again vow to change—and start the cycle all over. Polivy and Herman call this cycle the “false hope syndrome.”

That is why retreats and long workshops and epiphanies feel so good — we get to experience the reward of the result of a change we’re merely considering. We’re vaguely aware that our change will take a lot of work and habit, but we’re very clear on the rewards of being successful.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D

I took away two strategies from this book — though it is filled with so many.

1. You will do tomorrow what you do today. So start doing what you intend to do today! Do it in a small way.

For example, I am doing #100learningdays for the second time, where everyday, I write about something I learned — about a topic, myself, or the world. It is a tiny habit that has given me a growth-oriented lens to view every situation.

2. Wait ten minutes before reacting to any indulgence.

Ten minutes might not seem like much time to wait for something you want, but neuroscientists have discovered that it makes a big difference in how the brain processes a reward. When immediate gratification comes with a mandatory ten-minute delay, the brain treats it like a future reward. The promise-of-reward system is less activated, taking away the powerful biological impulse to choose immediate gratification. When the brain compares a cookie you have to wait ten minutes for to a longer-term reward, like losing weight, it no longer shows the same lopsided bias toward the sooner reward.

Now, I make sure to make it home before I open any snacks I buy.

Finally, I leave you with this example of someone designing their environment to give them better self-control:

He turned his treadmill into a willpower generator by taping a “Willpower” label over the machine’s calorie tracker (since he didn’t really give a damn how many calories he burned—this was a guy who would throw an entire stick of butter in a pan without thinking twice). As he walked and burned more calories, the “Willpower” number ticked up and he felt stronger. He started to use the treadmill each morning to fuel up with willpower for the day’s difficult meetings and long hours.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D