In my day job there is one question I am asked more than any other and that question is, “Why is it so difficult to change …?”
The question is always in reference to a specific lifestyle change being sought by the person posing the question.
The change invariably involves something that we have habituated into ourselves and would now like to change the way we do things in order to bring about a different result.
I am asked this question by people wishing to quit smoking, lose weight, get in shape, reduce alcohol intake, cut back or quit the use of certain or non-prescribed drugs as well as by those wishing to increase responsibilities by adding additional activities to already busy lives, e.g., going back to school.
Over the course of many blogs we have discussed the role that our habits play in producing results in our lives. We have talked about being ritualistic and how over the course of many years we have acquired deeply held habits that are extremely difficult to shake off.
We discussed how habits cannot be eliminated but can only be replaced and we’ve talked about many different ways of doing so.
The particular, “Why is it so difficult …”, question is really an acknowledgement that comes about when our experiences have taught us how powerful a hold our habits have on us and we are struggling to understand why this hold is so powerful.
Research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel helped shed light on this question.
He led the well-known Stanford Marshmallow Experiment which cleverly, and in humorous fashion, brought understanding to this very difficult question.
As many of you know, young children were offered the choice between an immediate reward – eating usually a marshmallow, pretzel or some other treat right now or a larger reward (multiple marshmallows pretzels etc.) at a later time.
What was interesting was not the short-term observations but rather the multiyear, long-term observable results.
Those young children who were able to resist succumbing to the temptation of immediate reward also achieved greater rewards throughout their lives This included greater accomplishments in areas like SAT scores, educational results, healthier body mass indices, more successful careers, longer lasting relationships and many other life measures.
Thus was born our understanding of Delayed Gratification.
While I’m sure there are many answers to the question of “Why is change – particularly long-term, sustainable change – so difficult to achieve?” I truly believe the single biggest contributor to this challenge is driven by our societally promoted need for instant gratification.
Much of the advertising we are subjected to highlights immediate and positive transformation that will occur in our lives if we buy certain products, or select certain lifestyles.
Our desire for instant gratification often causes us to trade what we want for what we want NOW.
We want to lose weight, which occurs slowly over time and concludes at some point in the future.
This is what we say we want.
Someone brings a cake to the office. It’s our favourite chocolate cake. We can see it, smell it and even salivate at the thought of tasting it.
The weight loss is in the future. The cake is in front of us, right here, right now.
Losing weight will give us tremendous gratification – at some indeterminate point in the future.
The cake will give is immediate gratification. Instantly.
It’s a conundrum.
Many of us have developed a finely tuned ability to repeatedly delude ourselves into believing that the negotiation we constantly have with ourselves – the one in which we, in the moment, agree that by allowing ourselves to succumb to the immediate temptation, we will subject ourselves to corrective measures immediately afterwards. We will just have “a taste, a tiny sliver” of the cake right now and then we won’t eat for 2 days.
Which, of course, won’t happen.
And we should know that because we have done this before.
Much has been written of the traits and characteristics that appear to be borne by those who strive for and reach high levels of success.
Many attributes are granted to those folks who are extremely successful folks but there is one that seems to be common to all of them.
They have an innate ability or desire to endure immediate pain and discomfort in order to reach a loftier goal in the future.
They have taught themselves to “suck it up” when faced with choices that could derail them
In the 1940’s Albert Gray a very successful life insurance salesman penned a paper called “The a common denominator of success” in which he boldly proclaimed that “The common denominator of success — the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful — lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”
I’m sure most of us would agree that his message bears the truth and perhaps some of us see ourselves contained in those words.
Every behaviour is preceded by choice and it is the choices, in the moment, we have made that have brought us to where we are today.
We choose immediate gratification over delayed reward or we choose to forego what we want now in order to have what we truly want at some point in the future.
When I am asked that question my standard response has been modified over many years and now simply states “If you commit to doing everything you already know needs to be done in order to get to where you want to be and then, without exception, reason or excuse live up to every word of you that commitment you made to yourself that question will have answered itself.
I attended a meeting yesterday and talked with a man I have not seen in three or four years. He works for a company that provides services to the condo building in which I live and I did not recognize him when I walked in to the room for the last time I saw him he was more than 200 pounds heavier than he is today.
He looked terrific and I’m sure he felt the same. We had only few moments to chat before the meeting began and I got the sense that this is a man who understands sticking to the commitment you make regardless of the temptation to do otherwise may cause short-term pain and discomfort but will provide a long-term rewards more gratifying than anything you could ever have imagined.
So if you truly want to change your life you MUST (not should) master the art of delaying gratification for by doing so you won’t have to delay any longer the life you’ve always wanted.
And that is a terrific trade off.
Till we read again.