Have you ever wondered why you keep falling off your diet and workout plan?
Have you ever done something you knew was a bad idea, but did it anyway?
Do you ever wonder why we continue to do things we know are bad for us—be it eating sugary food, drinking too much booze, spending money we shouldn’t, skipping the gym or falling off fitness routines completely, or staying up too late?
Part of the reason is that your brain is wired to “trick” you into making bad decisions. It comes down to choosing the short-term—the instant gratification—over the long term. If you know you have tendencies that prioritize the now you over the future you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a pretty often-talked about societal problem.
This TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/ari_wallach_3_ways_to_plan_for_the_very_long_term/transcript?language=en) goes into the concept of what he calls “short-termism.” It argues that short-term-ism is the biggest challenge we face that essentially limits both individual and societal success.
There is some interesting research about why it’s so hard to consider the future over the now, and it comes down to the way our brains are genetically wired: They’re programmed for short term gratification at the expense of our future selves.
This 2011 study (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51738840_Future_self-continuity_How_conceptions_of_the_future_self_transform_intertemporal_choice) explains that when you think about the future, your brain does something neurologically that’s actually pretty odd: It stops realizing you’re thinking about yourself and actually thinks you’re thinking about someone else. Specifically, the part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex essentially shuts off. Generally, when you’re thinking about yourself it’s firing on all cylinders, and when you’re thinking about something you don’t have anything in common with, it turns off. Weird, right?
All this means is your brain thinks of the future you as a total stranger, so it’s no surprise many of us don’t treat our future selves very well, and no surprise many people are bad at saving money for the future and making decisions now for their future physical health.
The good news is with a little bit of awareness and some hard work at consciously changing the way you think, you can learn to untick your brain and make better decisions. Here are three things you can start doing to get you moving in the right direction:
Let yourself dream
Map out your future. What do you want? What do you look like? What do you feel like?
Often times, people who consider themselves realists have a hard time with this. They don’t want to, or are too scared, to picture an unrealistic future so they don’t do it. Over time, they lose the ability to dream. So let yourself be a kid again and dream big. Even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, it’ll help you understand the types of decisions you need to make now to have a shot at that dream.
Learn from the past
Go back to decisions you have made that have negatively affected your long-term. Write them down. Remember them. Let yourself feel the pain the actions caused you in the long term, and then write down how things could have been different had you chose another route. Don’t shove your mistakes under a rug: Remember them and learn from them.
Don’t be too judgey
Perfection is impossible: You’re going to stay up late and miss out on some quality sleep once in a blue moon and you’re going to slide from your diet here and there. Accepting this will hopefully allow you to avoid judging and beating yourself up when you do mess up, and also help you start making better decisions more frequently.
Accept that you’re human and mistakes will be made from time to time, but never lose sight of why you care about your health and fitness to begin with and where you want to be in the long-term.
For those patient, future-thinkers out there, what are your best tips for prioritizing the long-term over the right now?