The quality of your life depends to a large extent on the quality of your decisions, and for the first time in the history of humanity, our decisions are the first cause of mortality ( study ). It does not seem typical of the most intelligent species. We send robots to Mars but we are surpassed by a chocolate cake.
To improve your body you not only need knowledge, but also strategies to strengthen your will , and this is what we are going to detail today.
You will understand why our emotions often make bad decisions , and what we can do to avoid temptations .
STORY OF TWO BRAINS, OR YOUR RIDER AGAINST YOUR ELEPHANT
Our brain, like the rest of the body, is the result of a long evolutionary process. Simplifying, we could say that this evolution has given rise to two connected but separate brains .
Initially we developed the so-called mammalian brain or limbic system , where the emotions and many instincts that we share with other animals originate. Emotions represent a kind of rudimentary operating system that guides us toward reasonably good decisions in a wild world. It motivates us, for example, to eat, procreate and protect our offspring.
Subsequently, the rational brain evolved , concentrating especially on the prefrontal cortex . This piece of gray matter represents the main mental difference with the rest of the animal kingdom. It gives us the ability to plan the future and control our impulses .
An analogy used by many specialists is that of a rider riding on an elephant :
The elephant is powerful and ancestral , but also impulsive and irrational (limbic system) . He wants immediate gratification, seeking pleasure and fleeing from any hint of discomfort. He only cares about here and now.
The rider, on the other hand, is cold and calculating (prefrontal cortex) . Think long term and you can plan each step, but it requires more time and effort to act.
Different brain areas perform different functions, and compete with each other to determine what decision to make. One zone is more impulsive and emotional (elephant) and another more reflective and rational (rider)
The elephant and the rider are not enemies, but they must live in balance . The elephant is a specialist in making quick decisions in extreme situations, where there is no time to consult our rational brain. If we had to wait for our rider to decide to escape before a noise in the brush, our species would have been extinct a long time ago.
But in the complex modern world, making decisions based on our emotions is a recipe for disaster . By living surrounded by artificial stimuli, which constantly appeal to our animal instincts, we are dragged by the elephant . No matter how good the rider’s intention is , he is unable to control a runaway elephant , distancing us from our long-term goals.
In finance, the discount rate allows estimating the current value of a future payment. Imagine someone offering you 1,000 euros within a year or a lesser amount right now. How much would you accept to receive now to give up the future 1,000 euros?
If your answer is 990 euros (or more), you have a low discount rate. Prioritize major rewards even if they are still far away (your rider controls the situation). If instead you give up 1,000 euros in the morning for just 50 euros now, your discount rate is very high (your elephant wins). This concept can actually be applied to many behaviors, since our brain constantly performs similar calculations to make decisions.
A famous example is the marshmallow test (or cloud test). In this experiment, they left children alone in a room with a treat, and they were given the option to eat it immediately or wait a few minutes for the supervisor to return. If they waited, they received a second treat.
This experiment is a clear example of the fight between the rider ( Hold a few minutes and we will double the benefit! ) And the elephant ( Have you seen what good looks? Eat it now.
The original version of the experiment was carried out in the 70s, and by following the lives of children during the following decades it proved to have a great predictive power . The small ones with lower discount rate (they preferred two clouds within a few minutes than a cloud at the time) were more successful in different areas of their lives ( revision ), in addition to suffering lower rates of obesity.
Similar studies find the same results: people with high discount rates have worse habits in general, and therefore suffer from worse health .
1. CLARIFY YOUR OBJECTIVES
If your rider does not commit to anything, your elephant will be distracted with everything . You will be like a boat adrift in the sea, and you will only reach your destination by chance.
Many times, what appears to be elephant resistance is actually lack of clarity of the rider . If the rider himself is not clear about where he is going, he is more likely to get carried away.
Most live a large part of their lives acting impulsively. They imitate others and make decisions based on their emotional state, on what they want at all times.
On the contrary, having clear objectives will allow you to use your purpose as a guide, instead of your desires . You will make decisions based on your long-term goal, regardless of your immediate mental state. Motivation strengthens the rider .
The next step is to write your objectives . As Stephen King said: ” I write to know what I think “. The fact of putting our goals on paper clarifies them and makes them more real, increasing our commitment. In this study , those who wrote their goals reached them more than those who simply kept them in their heads.
2. HAVE A PLAN AND FOLLOW UP
A goal without a plan is nothing more than a desire. The objectives represent a destination, but they do not necessarily lead the way. After deciding to ” lose 10 Kg before summer “, you should know what actions to take daily . At the end of the day it is the actions that really count, not the dreams.
When the rider does not know what action to take, he will delegate the elephant most likely , and you know how he will respond: ” Eat the donuts now! “Or” Why run if nobody chases us? “
If you have a meal plan to follow or a specific exercise routine , it is much easier for you to make correct decisions. When the rider has clarity, the elephant offers less resistance .
It is not about being a slave to an inviolable plan, and you can deviate from time to time without feeling guilty. But it is much better to have an imperfect plan than to deviate at times than to have no concrete plan.
As an additional element to your objectives and your plan, you must adopt some visual progress metric . Observing how you approach a goal increases motivation, facilitating adherence. In the previous study , those who made “progress reports” (in addition to having written objectives) achieved the best results.
3. BE AWARE
The first step in solving a problem is to be aware of its existence. And for most, getting carried away by the elephant is not perceived as a relevant problem.
For example, those who still do not know the power of real food , go to the supermarket and buy the products they grew up with, which their palate is used to : Kellogg’s , nocilla, cookies María … When they start reading the labels and understand The enormous amount of sugar that these products contain (among many other problems), they are forced to reevaluate their choices.
The rider is now conscious, and when the elephant tempts him with the usual products, a conflict is generated , which is perceived as an internal threat. Unlike external threats, which generate a ” fight or flight ” response, the response to an internal conflict (rider against elephant) must trigger what experts call ” pause and planning ” ( detail ).
Before a temptation, stop and reflect
The goal is to create a space between temptation and response , giving time to activate the prefrontal cortex to raise the capacity for self-regulation.
If you have a craving, wait ten minutes before giving in , occupying your mind with another thought. In many cases, the desire will have vanished.
If you buy compulsively at Amazon , add the object of your wish to the shopping cart and create an alert within two days. At that time, buy it only if it still seems really necessary.
Of course, this strategy does not always work, but you are more likely to do the right thing if you reflect a few seconds on a process that is totally unconscious in most people .
4. SIMPLIFY THE FIRST STEP
A trick of the elephant to manipulate you is to amplify, in advance, the pain that the right action will cause you : ” Do you really want to put you now to train and sweat? You’re going to suffer a lot, better let’s rest on the couch . “
For example, if you find it hard to train, plan to dedicate only 5 minutes . By minimizing compromise, the elephant will be reassured, reducing its resistance. On the one hand, training five minutes is better than not training anything, but in addition, you will often feel that once you have started it is not so hard for you to continue .
It is the first law of Newton applied to human behavior: objects at rest tend to remain at rest, but if you create a bit of initial inertia the movement will be maintained more easily . In addition, movement increases motivation , and when we start an activity we feel a certain need to complete it.
In this sense, determine which is the smallest action that will take you in the right direction, and start with it. Any ideas:
Instead of trying to change all your diet, simply improve the breakfast .
Instead of trying to optimize all aspects related to your circadian rhythms , go half an hour before bed.
Instead of running frequently, park a little farther and use the stairs instead of the elevator.
5. EARLY REWARDS AND PACKAGING OF TEMPTATIONS
Reaching any complex goal will take time, but if you indefinitely postpone any kind of reward, the elephant will increase its resistance , hindering adherence. Just as you must make the first step especially small, you must incorporate small rewards during the process .
It will be easier for you to master the elephant if you offer small rewards along the way
One strategy to achieve this is called Temptation Bundling or “Packaging of Temptations”, and has been validated scientifically ( study ). The implementation is simple:
Step 1: Make two lists , one of things you should do (in which you tend to procrastinate) and the other things you enjoy doing (but do not contribute to your future goals).
Step 2: Create a package with a task from each list, something you should do and something you would like to do.
Step 3: When you do what you owe, you can do what you want.
In this way, doing something that will improve your future has an immediate reward in the present , reducing the opposition of the elephant. Some examples:
Watch TV series only while doing mobility exercises .
Take a delicious shake (of your favorite flavor) only on the days you train.
Listen to your favorite music only while you are in the gym (or go for a walk).
Eat your favorite dessert after five days following the diet to the letter. Or if you can not wait so long, include small daily cravings only when you meet your caloric goal .
Evidently restrictions apply. If the damage in the present surpasses the future benefit the net result will be negative, but with a little imagination you will find many favorable combinations.
6. THINK OF YOUR “FUTURE SELF”
We behave worse when others pay the consequences of our actions. And strange as it may seem, we see our future self as a different person .
One study compared the brain response (within a functional magnetic resonance machine) of different subjects by thinking about themselves and thinking about third parties. Brain activation had clear differences, as seems logical, but the interesting thing came when they were made to think of themselves in ten years: At the brain level, the response was similar to thinking of a different person .
This disconnection with “the future self” partly explains our bad habits. As Homer Simpson said before getting drunk: ” That’s the problem of the future Homer, and I do not envy that guy “.
Multiple studies show this effect. If they ask us how much money we will save or how much time we will spend training in a year, the answer is greater than when they ask us the same thing in relation to the present. We carry our distant self with more responsibility than our current self is willing to accept .
Knowing this irrational behavior, different strategies have been tried to shorten this mental distance, thus strengthening the connection between our future self and the current one. For example, realistically but positively visualizing our future self increases our empathy towards it , improving behavior in the present ( study ).
To enhance this visualization, some studies used digitally aged photos of the participants. When faced face to face with the people whose behaviors were harming (themselves in a few years), the subjects saved more and adopted better habits in general ( study , study ).
To apply this technique, you can do the following:
Visualize yourself mentally in ten or twenty years . Thinking about the future increases the activation of the prefrontal cortex, strengthening the rider and reducing the discount rate ( study ).
Use some application, such as Oldify , to create a simulation of your future self . Seeing your photo as an adult creates an emotional response, making the elephant also want to get involved. Remember that your elephant moves primarily by emotions, and this is a way to put it on your side.
Write a letter to your future self , for example with FutureMe , telling you everything you commit to do today to improve your situation (that is, your future situation). The simple fact of writing your commitments will improve your behavior ( detail ), and you will also get a big surprise when in a few years you receive an email from your past. It is the closest thing to a time machine.
7. DO NOT SUPPRESS TEMPTATIONS
Do not think of a cookie! If you’re like most, a cookie is just what you have in mind now. Paradoxically, trying to suppress a thought reinforces it ( detail , study , study ). Nothing like thinking about sleeping to stay awake.
In this study , those who tried to suppress the temptation to smoke ended up smoking more than those who openly expressed their desire ( study ), and the same thing happens with food ( study , study ).
Therefore, if a temptation appears in your head, you should not try to suppress it, but examine it . For example, we often use food as self-medication, as an attempt to manage some emotion, and understanding this is the first step in improving our self-regulation. We must remind ourselves at this moment that a thought does not necessarily have an action associated with it .
On the other hand, several studies indicate that proposing an alternative thought diminishes the obsession with the previous one . It is about replacing the thought we want to avoid with a less harmful one, instead of trying to suppress it.
As a concrete recommendation, thinking more about how good you want to achieve will make you think less about how bad you want to avoid:
Instead of thinking about eating less ultra processed, think about eating more real food.
Instead of thinking about watching TV less, think about the books you would like to read.
Before a temptation, do something that distracts you, like training or going for a walk. In the video of the cloud test , several children use different techniques of distraction, thus avoiding falling into temptation.
SUMMARY AND NEXT STEPS
Everything has a price. You can pay the price of discipline today or the price of repentance tomorrow . And generally the latter is greater.
Although will power has a genetic (and epigenetic) component, we can improve it using strategies such as those described above. But there are also two very important additional factors that influence our decisions, and that we will explore in future installments: your physiology and your environment .
Note: The second part is already available , where you will learn to design your environment so that you do not depend so much on your discipline .
If you work on it, it will be easier for you to do the right thing, instead of the easy thing.