Why we do things that we know aren’t good for us
One of my clients recently wanted help with a lifelong habit she’s had that doesn’t serve her:
Leaving things until the last minute.
In many areas of her life, she would put off doing things that needed to be done, only for it to cause a load of stress when she suddenly had to act before it was too late.
Take for example the time she left packing her suitcase for a trip until the last minute, only to be in such a rush that she forgot her passport and missed her flight.
Or the qualification she completed just in the nick of time because instead of doing the work in stages as she went along, she left it all until the last minute, causing sleepless nights in order to meet the deadline.
She was tired of doing this to herself.
Logically, she knew that leaving things until the last minute wasn’t good for her.
And yet she did it anyway.
Because most of the time, we are not driven by our logic.
We are driven by our emotions.
And for her, doing the coursework, packing her bag and all of the other things she puts off doing - were associated with unpleasant feelings, which causes her to try to avoid them.
She didn’t find these tasks fun, quite the opposite in fact, she found them very boring, and they occurred to her as things she SHOULD do, not things she wanted to do.
And when faced with a task she didn’t want to do, her belief was ‘it’ll be alright, I can do them later’.
But my client didn’t want to be stuck with this way of being.
She wanted to set herself up for success.
She wanted to get things done AHEAD of time so that she didn’t face extreme highs and lows when faced with a bottleneck of stuff to do.
But how? How could she suddenly change who she was being in such a subtle but drastic way?
Appealing to her logical side wasn’t going to help - after all, her logic already knew the best course of action, but that didn’t make a difference.
The answer is in appealing to her emotions.
Or as I call it, her inner chimp, the part of our brain that processes and only really cares for our emotions and how we feel.
And as much as we might like to think our human, rational side is in control, it really isn’t.
99% of the time, the chimp is.
Which is why we do things even though they aren’t good for us.
Because on a LOGICAL level we know certain behaviours aren’t good for us long term, but on an emotional level, they are good for us short term.
They bring some kind of immediate benefit to how we feel: either it feels good, or it avoids us feeling unpleasant feelings.
Our inner chimps are rarely concerned with how things are going to feel in the future.
It doesn’t know the future, it only knows NOW.
So we spend pretty most of our time doing stuff that makes us feel good NOW, either by eliciting pleasant feelings NOW or avoiding unpleasant feelings NOW.
That’s why people smoke, despite knowing (on a logical level) the dangers to health long term: it feels good now.
That’s why people eat unhealthy food, or avoid exercise, because to do so feels good NOW, despite the long term impact.
That’s why people stay in toxic relationships, because on some level, it feels better to stay (now) than it does to leave (now). It’s hard to imagine the long term positive benefits and feelings in the face of the immediate unpleasant ones: fear, loneliness, change, etc.
In this case of my client, her inner chimp was being presented with 2 scenarios: pack now and be bored, or do it later and things will be alright.
Of course then, she wasn’t going to pack straight away, because in her mind, it was a win win scenario: avoid boredom and things will still be ok in the end.
Therefore, in order to change this behaviour, one has to see and feel the positive short term ‘gain’ that will be acquired from the behaviour that’s more desirable.
I reminded my client of the marshmallow test that psychologists use, usually on children, to test their ability to delay gratification.
In the test, they say to a child, you can have one marshmallow now, or if you wait 30 minutes without eating this one, you can have 2.
The older the child gets, the more able they are to wait for 30 minutes (usually).
I flipped this example around.
My client said she really disliked Turkish delight, so I told her, well, by doing the tasks ahead of time, you have to eat one Turkish delight now, or, if you leave them until the last minute, you have to eat a whole box later - because she HAS to do the work (or pack) at some point, there’s no avoiding it, so the question is, how much does she want to suffer? Because by leaving it, she will suffer more than if she does it straight away.
To take this one step further, I invited her to associate not just less-unpleasant feelings with doing stuff straight away, but actually PLEASANT ones (i.e. a marshmallow now, or a box of Turkish delight later), and she started to see how making small progress actually felt immediately very rewarding and appealing - AND it meant she could avoid Turkish delight (the congested stress at the last minute).
Sure enough, just after our call, she messaged me saying she’d made progress on some tasks she’d been putting off doing.
So if you are stuck doing things that you know aren’t good for you, ask yourself, what’s the short term GAIN or immediate positive feelings I get out of this (even if it’s just a case of avoiding negative feelings)?
And how can you begin to associate short term PAIN with this UNdesirable behaviour, and more importantly, short GAIN (pleasant feelings) from the DESIRABLE behaviour?
After all, we are all just highly sophisticated monkeys doing whatever we can to feel good (or less bad).
So make sure that the things that make you feel good, are actually good for you.