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Why willpower and motivation don’t matter as much as you think?

How separating the planning from the doing can help you make decisions that your future-self will appreciate.

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Photo by Trevin Rudy on Unsplash
Photo by Trevin Rudy on Unsplash

I’m reading a fascinating book right now called, “The Biggest Bluff”, about what poker can teach you about decision making in the rest of life.

I was struck by a particular quote in this book because it so accurately provides a window into a central tenant of my philosophy around getting things done: that we need to separate the planning from the doing.

“You need to learn to anticipate how something will make you feel in the future, and act accordingly in the present.”The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova,

I am pretty much always talking about the importance of separating the planning from the doing. And what Maria wrote above is why. Humans are bad at making accurate decisions in their own, long term, self-interest— in the moment.

In the moment, we’re at the whim of our emotions and energy levels.

In the moment, we rarely make the decision we should make, that our future self would want us to make, the “right” decision.

This plays out in a number of different ways in our lives.

Removing Temptation is Easier Than Resisting Temptation

Think about those notifications on your phone. Once you’ve seen the notification it’s like a siren call. You literally can’t stop thinking about it until you’ve checked it. Trying to increase your willpower to not check the notification is basically futile.

But you know what you can do? Just turn off the notifications now and you won’t need to resist them later

In fact, when I was recently watching “The Social Dilemma”, Justin Rosenstein (co-founder of Asana) put it so succinctly when he said that the reason he turned off notifications on his phone is “for the same reason that I don’t keep cookies in my pocket.”

It is SO MUCH easier to remove temptation than to resist it.

This is why, if we want to stop eating junk food, we should not keep it in the house. This is why you’re told not to grocery shop while hungry.

Develop Habits With a Simple If/Then Plan

Anticipating how you’ll feel in the future and acting accordingly now also applies to habit building and habit breaking. One of the most successful strategies for both is to develop a clear if/then plan. If you decide, in advance, what you’ll do in a particular situation or context, or as a reaction to a particular trigger, then you don’t have to make a decision in an emotionally heightened moment, when you’re stressed or not at your best. You can sidestep willpower.

If you are trying to stop biting your nails, your if/then plan might be: if I start to feel nervous and want to bite my nails, instead I’ll use my fidget spinner. (And then go put a fidget spinner in your pocket/purse.)

If you are trying to eat more healthily, you might decide: if I am hungry, the snack I will grab is fruit. (And then make sure that you’ve got fruit in the house.)

The Fallacy of Valuing Now Over Later

There’s another way to look at this is what psychology calls “temporal discounting”. In short we value something we can have right now, more than we value something we can have later. When offered $100 today, or $150 in a year, people consistently take the $100.

This is why we go out for a fancy dinner today, instead of saving that money.

It’s immediate gratification vs. delayed gratification.

We do this with our time as well. It’s one reason we procrastinate on the big important project and instead answer the email that just came in. (You know, that one whose notification you just saw, that interrupted you from the big project.)

Our lizard brain thinks that because this thing is happening now, it has more value than the thing that’s due “later”. And usually, we couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s conflating the (perceived) urgent with the important.

Sidestep Motivation with Planning

Where I find the biggest gains from understanding that in order to make the “right decisions” we need to anticipate how we’ll feel in the future is around our task-lists and work load.

Oftentimes people will come to me with questions about motivation. What should they do when they just aren’t motivated to do the work? Well, this might be a cop-out, but I think we can sidestep motivation altogether by separating the planning from the doing.

If you’ve pre-decided what to do today, in the relative order that you need to do it, then you don’t need motivation. You just start doing. You have a (curated) list, you’ve decided what’s reasonable to accomplish today and what needs to be done. And then tomorrow you can just start executing, without asking yourself questions about what or why or when. You’ve already answered those questions.

(I will caveat this by saying that your list for any given day needs to be realistic; you need to actually have time for what you’ve decided to do, or you’re going to be right back in the position of needing to make decisions in the moment.)

I once had a client excitedly tell me about a breakthrough she’d had. Here’s what she said: “I realized I should never ask myself “do I want to do this now?”, because the answer will always be no.” And she’s right. Nope, you’ll never want to do the dishes, or the laundry, or your taxes. But they have to be done. And if you can anticipate that, no, Friday night at 10pm is not when you’ll be feeling mentally ready to do your taxes, then you can plan for a time that makes more sense.

So how can you start prioritizing your future self?

  1. Think about the types of decisions you typically regret. Or just start a list of them as they come up.
  2. Write down any patterns you see.
  3. Implement strategies right now to prioritize your future self. These might be:
    • Turning off notifications on your phone and computer so you’re not distracted as often.
    • Doing a little “end of day” planning so that you have make fewer in-the-moment decisions about what to work on tomorrow.
    • Locking your TV remote/video game controller in a drawer so you won’t be tempted to indulge while you are working from home.
    • Tossing out junk food, or moving it to a very high shelf in your kitchen.

Any great strategies you’ve tried already? Let me know!

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