Why is it sometimes so hard to do what we know is good for us?
I was thinking about this while trying to coax my daughter to do some music practice. She is determined to join the school orchestra, but despite knowing she needs to practice, she avoids it. “Just 10 minutes” I encourage, with a smile, “…imagine how lovely it will be to play in the orchestra…” my words tail away as she stomps off grumpily, but I know that more often than not, I will find her later absorbed in her playing, bright and happy!
“I don’t know why I don’t go and practice,” she puzzled last week, “because I really enjoy it when I do!”
It’s odd isn’t it that we won’t do something even when we are passionate about the end goal, or we know it’s the best thing for us! Why do I resist the apple that I know is good for me, but can’t resist the biscuit which I know is not? It happens to us all, with all kinds of things.
Investigating this further, I find that “akrasia” is to blame! Greek philosophers used this word to mean “acting against our better judgement” or “lack of self control” – so as you can see, this counterintuitive behaviour has been part of being human for some time! But what’s the sense in going against our own best judgement and why do we do it?
Part of the answer can be found with the help of a marshmallow. In the 1970s, psychology professor Walter Mischel carried out a study with young children to see if they could resist the immediate temptation of a single marshmallow for a bigger reward later… two marshmallows!
Each child was put in a room with a marshmallow on a table. They were told that the researcher would leave the room for a short time and if they didn’t eat the marshmallow before the researcher returned, they would be allowed a second one. Some ate the marshmallow straight away, some held out but then ate it, and a few staved off the temptation and got their second marshmallow reward.
This isn’t about how hungry they were, but about whether they could delay instant gratification for the bigger reward of twice as much enjoyment later. This battle of immediate enjoyment versus long term gain is tougher than you might think because science shows that our brains are wired to value instant gratification more highly than a future reward. When we decide to learn something new, save for a holiday or lose weight, the reward is big but far in the future, so it’s more satisfying right now to relax on the sofa, spend money on nice shoes, or eat cake.
It’s not clear whether we are born as a one or a two marshmallow person, but the good news is that we can learn ways to make the best decisions for ourselves in the moment, to overcome the draw of instant gratification for a better reward later, and to stop self sabotage.
There are many articles, books and courses on self motivation, and different methods will work for different people, but I think that choice and emotion are the key factors. We know that our emotions drive our behaviour, so noticing how we feel about the choices we make can encourage us towards better decisions.
Often when we avoid doing the thing we know is best, we experience feelings of nagging guilt, pressure, annoyance, frustration, weakness or stress. We see the long term benefits, but to get there, we need to do things that are less rewarding right now, like playing scales or running on a treadmill, and that’s when we falter. Avoiding it usually makes us feel worse than doing the thing we didn’t want to do in the first place.
Conversely when we do what we know is good, we feel a sense of achievement, pride, relief, confidence and happiness which is great for our wellbeing. We have a choice as to how we make ourselves feel and when we do achieve our small successes along the way, our body releases dopamine as a reward which makes us feel good and motivates us further.
Noticing what we are doing also helps our choices. Notice yourself reaching for the biscuit tin… engage the services of your inner voice… Ask yourself do you really need that biscuit?… how does it fit in with your long term health goal? How do you want to feel… good or guilty!?
What do you feel about choices you’ve made? Focus on the ones that have made you feel good, explore why they made you feel like that and remind yourself of it when you next face akrasia. Remember that rewards are powerful motivators, and there is no greater reward than feeling good about ourselves.
We’re never going to enjoy everything we do, but knowing that we have a choice about how we want to feel about the decisions we make, allows us to make the choices that work best for us…
So will it be one marshmallow for you or two?
And there’s something else too…
We often do better if other people are involved. We are less likely to miss a gym class if we go with someone else and more likely to stick to a goal if we’ve told someone we’re doing it.
As humans, we thrive on challenge, praise, admiration and appreciation. My daughter found it tough to practice dance on her own in lockdown. “It’s not the same… “ she grumbled, “I want someone to tell me what I am doing wrong, to put it right, and to tell me it’s good.” Unless you are extremely determined and single minded, it’s this kind of engagement that can make all the difference.
When self motivation isn’t enough, having a cheerleader or two to help along the way really helps and I recently experienced this myself. You may remember from a previous blog, that a casual remark I made one evening turned into a one hundred lap fundraiser! So to tie up a loose end, I am proud to say I did it, but what was amazing and gave me the drive to complete it, was the support I got from friends and family.
Throughout the challenge they asked me how it was going, told me how well I was doing, and encouraged me. They celebrated mini milestones, texted me, and (metaphorically) cheered me on. Those who could, came and walked a few laps with me. On days when my legs ached and I wanted to stay inside because or it was freezing cold or pouring with rain, it was the incentive I needed to remember the long term goal and get out there for a few more laps.
Other people’s input makes a difference… It was really up-lifting and I was surprised how good it made me feel. I know the experience will help me when I’m struggling again in an instant gratification vs long term gain moment!
So whatever you are trying to achieve this week, go and do something towards it… now… yes…NOW… Don’t put it off – think of all those lovely emotions coming your way…
And now I’m off to have a marshmallow, biscuit … APPLE!
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email email@example.com
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us