Does this sound familiar?
You wake up nice and early and tell yourself to get ready to hit the gym. Today is the day you are going to hit the weights hard. Before you go, you fire up the coffee maker—I mean, we all need coffee of course. Better check the email too just in case. While you are on the computer, you check out Tim Ferris’s blog. Everyone who is anyone reads it. As you grab another cup of coffee, you notice he has a new podcast, and you must give that a listen. Man, he’s good. Whoa, where did the time go? Two hours have flown by, and you have to get ready for work. Damn, that gym workout will have to wait another day.
This is a classic case study. Consider how we humans develop routines. A hot cup of coffee with its alluring taste and aroma can start a day just right with a combination of homespun warmth, familiarity, and a nice bolt of caffeinated energy. The internet gives you access to your favorite blogs and podcasts, entertainment and news sites, and that endless supply of new emails to peruse. You can spend a few hours enjoying a couple cups of coffee and surfing the web somewhat mindlessly—or you could have hit the gym, burned a bunch of calories, released a bunch of endorphins, and accomplished what you originally set out to do.
You, like most of us, discounted your future.
Don’t be surprised. You are hardly alone.
Most of us are primarily interested in gratifying the present—heating it, so to speak—while discounting the future. Sitting with our coffee and reading emails while blowing off the gym, we are following our evolutionary blueprint, a tendency psychologist Walter Mischel discussed in his book “The Marshmallow Test”.
In his studies, he sat a preschooler at a table with three marshmallows and a bell. One marshmallow would be within the child’s reach while the other two would be farther away. The child was given a choice: eat the single marshmallow immediately or remain seated and wait twenty minutes, whereupon the child could enjoy the two distant treats. At any point during the test, the child could ring the bell to alert the researcher that he or she was tired of waiting and wanted to eat the single marshmallow. The results of the tests had profound implications.
The ability to delay gratification in the preschoolers acted as a predictor to higher SAT scores, increased cognitive functioning, and greater self-worth. It would seem the brain is pre-wired when self-gratification is at play, but that observation is not so cut and dried. “To be able to delay gratification and exert self-control is an ability, a set of cognitive skills, that, like any ability, can be used or not used depending primarily on the motivation to use it.”
What must be included is how we perceive the activity we are avoiding (going to the gym), the probable consequences of not going, our motivation and our goals, and intensity of the temptation of staying put and leisurely enjoying our coffee.
What Mischel observed and what we experience every day is a truly complex activity. Your brain is engaged in a constant dance between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Now the limbic system is the center of your emotions and memories while the prefrontal cortex is your decision maker and orchestrator of thoughts. Drink the coffee, surf the web, and you are heating up the limbic system. Bring the prefrontal cortex back online and it will cool off the heat of immediate desire and allow you to make a new choice based on what your actual priorities are.
Another powerful thought technique comes into play here. We have a psychological immune system that swings into action right around now. Its primary purpose is to keep us feeling good about ourselves when we don’t do what we say we are going to do. Any regret we feel will be countered by the great peacemaker: rationalization. Drank coffee? Read a blog? Missed the gym? Gosh, it’s too late now. I didn’t have enough time anyway. I’ll do it tomorrow. Ouila! Problem solved. No regrets.
For a pretty important part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex barely stands a chance against the limbic system. We humans are predisposed to embrace the value of an immediate emotional hit rather than listen to the prefrontal cortex and seek future rewards at the expense of the present. Many of us just aren’t wired that way. And, therein lies a lot of our problems—and a lot or our answers.
When we are in a position that the limbic system is heating the present—and, as you know, the little rascal can do that in a hurry—we need to bring the prefrontal cortex online and into the equation. Cool the present and heat the future. You can do that by bringing the future in more closely and imagining the consequences of the actions you are undergoing in the present moment. At the same time, you are pushing the current activity father away making it more abstract and less desirable.
A cigarette smoker can help lower the craving by focusing on the long term effect of getting cancer. It is a simple strategy—cooling the present and heating the future—but it has proven to work well in dampening any number of cravings. The technique allows you to bring true awareness to exactly what it is you are doing. Make a choice in the present that will reflect your plans and desires for the future by decreasing, in your mind, the distance between the two.
Think about the present a bit more abstractly, and you will create enough distance to cool that activity (and that pesky limbic system!). Then consider the consequences of not honoring your commitment to taking care of yourself by going to the gym and working out, or not eating that extra helping, or not lighting that next cigarette. Heating the future can cause some real discomfort, especially if you visualize concretely what your future will be if you don’t exert self-control. Imagine yourself a lung cancer patient preparing for another round of chemo, or a diabetic facing a limb amputation. As you heat up the possible future consequences of your actions, you will cool off those present, destructive cravings (kudos to the prefrontal cortex!).
So it may be a long way from kids with marshmallows to your breakfast hutch, but cool that temptation, give it some distance, while you heat the future by making it vivid and real. In other words, put down the coffee, shut off the computer, and head to the gym.
You are at the beginning of performing a rewiring job of no little effort and consequence. Remember: in the real world when temptation rises, there is only one person who will tell you to heat the future by visualizing the long term consequences of your actions. That is you. Know that your limbic system can heat quickly and override your prefrontal cortex, making the drive for immediate gratification all the more powerful. But also know that you can learn to heat the future with vivid visualization and cool off that limbic system.
Now we actually have to want to improve our ability to use this skill. How naturally we think about the future and the future self that we are becoming is represented in the brain. If we are less inclined to care about what happens to us in the future, then we may be less apt to practice this skill of self control with regard to long term consequences. Take a moment to consider how you imagine yourself in the future. How vivid are you able to make that representation? If we feel greater continuity to that which we are becoming, we might also be more willing to sacrifice some of our present pleasures for the sake of the future self.
Motivation is also critical factor as to whether you are willing to exert self control. Aligning our long term goals with our actions in the present asks for constant reevaluation to assess consistency with what we really want. We set our priorities based on that which is truly important to us and when something is a top priority it seems to happen with a lot less effort. If your priorities shift, so will your motivation and subsequent behavior.
Not everyone likes exercising or going to the gym. If you believe that this is important to a wellness goal you have set, try imagining the benefits of the good feeling it gives you when you are done exercising. The more vividly you can use your imagination the more quickly you begin to warm up the feelings about going and getting it done!
If you continue to struggle than you may want to reevaluate how important the task that you are resisting is to you. Maybe you believe that the exercise program you committed to is not really working, which will surely stall your efforts at every turn. Insight is far more valuable than rote discipline.
If you are truly vested in making your plan work, then rehearse the activities that you know may hinder your progress towards your goals. Devising a plan and rehearsing it in your mind will take out the effortful nature that makes self control sound arduous. Implement an If Then strategy. If the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. then I will get up and go directly to the gym. If I pass my computer, then I will not check my email, if I begin making excuses, then I will remind myself of the long term consequences.
Learning to employ your basic nature and align it with your true desires takes some time and effort but it can be done. Regardless of what hand you may think you have been dealt, you can be an active agent in the change of your own behavior. If you choose growth and transformation over typical reactions and the same, old rutted road, you begin to experience the joy of satisfaction over the quick hit of a short term pleasure. That is not to say that enjoying some instant gratification is not also important, it is just knowing the difference when it is, or, when it is sabotaging something greater.
At this point, we pause for an important reminder: recall that you are on a journey. Tamping down the limbic system and heightening the prefrontal cortex may sound like a complex effort, however just consider it as a tool to get you where you are trying to go. Take joy in the journey and celebrate the progress. Most of all, accept where you are in the journey and believe it will continue—because if you want it to, it will.
 Walter Mischel The Marshmallow Test page 266
*Another great collaboration with Patrick Brennan!