Why Doing the Right Thing is Hard

My column on why I’m losing weight struck an unpleasant chord with some folks when I first published it. It’s common to hear stories of people trying unsuccessfully, sometimes for years, to lose weight.

Another angle on the same issue: When your income gets an unexpected and temporary boost, through a bonus at work or a project you hadn’t expected, do you bank the money, or reward yourself with a new toy or dinner out?

We experience it every single day of our lives: even though we know what’s good for us, day after day we do what’s fun, what’s easy, instead of what’s healthy and rational and good for our future self.

Do you ever stop to wonder why?

red thoughts

The Question Not Asked

When an experience is both frequent and widespread — when it seems we all experience it all the time — it takes a particular curiosity to ask, “Why?”

Why is that? (We’re into nested “whys” now: why don’t we ask why?)

We are, by nature, mentally lazy. That’s not an insult, it’s biology.

Our brain uses a preposterously disproportionate amount of the energy in our body. Our systems conserve energy whenever possible. We go through life on autopilot most of the time, because that’s what conserves energy.

Autopilot is fine, most of the time. You don’t need to be fully present to engage in activities you can perform automatically. If you drive a car regularly, you’ve had the experience of arriving at your destination and not remembering the trip.

How do you do that? Why aren’t the streets littered with battered cars?

Our Two Minds

Our struggle to do the right thing today, to benefit tomorrow.

Our ability to drive without thinking.

Our difficulty saving money instead of spending it.

They’re all explained by our brain’s conservative nature, and the fact that we have, in essence, two minds.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman speaks of our experiencing self and our remembering self. They might be thought of as our present self and our future self, the one who’s going through it now, and the one who looks back on it later.

Our mind also has two operational states: conscious and unconscious. Some things we do with intent, like hitting a baseball or programming a computer or learning to dance. Other things happen with little or no intent, like beating our heart or driving to work.

Hard —> Easy —> Automatic

When you first learn something, it’s hard. Driving. Chopping vegetables. Algebra. Dancing.

With practice over time, things get easier. (Even algebra. You just didn’t give it enough practice over time.)

Our naturally conservative brain wants to reduce energy consumption however it can. One method is to hand off routine functions to parts of the brain designed to handle routine. Doing things automatically takes less mental energy than focused concentration.

The first time you got behind the wheel, you were overwhelmed by the complexity of watching for other cars and pedestrians, turning the steering wheel just the right amount, pressing hard enough (but not too hard) on the accelerator or brake. You probably didn’t have the radio on and a car full of friends yapping at you when you were learning to drive. It takes immense focus to successfully operate a motor vehicle.

At first.

Gradually, these processes become rote. They’re handed off from your conscious effortful mind to your unconscious automatic mind where they won’t use up so much energy.

What Does This Have to Do with Losing Weight?

Remember Kahneman’s experiencing self and remembering self, the “you” now, and the one in the future?

When you look back, remembering past actions, it is done with intent. Your remembering self is highly conscious.

Your present self is highly unconscious. Your pattern of life becomes habitual, gradually shifting from conscious to unconscious, from focused intention to automatic repetition.

Our lazy brain ensures that we’re saving lots of energy, but it doesn’t automatically ensure that we’re doing the right thing. It’s our nature to do what’s easy, mentally, and even that isn’t a conscious choice, it’s how we’re wired.

Doomed, Doomed, We’re All Doomed! (…Not.)

Despite our brain’s conservative tendencies, we’re not doomed to a life of unconscious disregard for the future. We all make intentional changes, loading the desired actions from our conscious to our unconscious, satisfying the brain’s laziness while still getting the job done.

Remember a time when you couldn’t drive? But now you can. How did that happen? You learned skills which you practiced repeatedly.

Effecting change in our life is really that same pattern: learn new skills, and practice them until they become habits.

Yeah, I know. It’s an unsatisfying answer for anyone trying to break a habit, or create a new one, or (as is often the case) both at the same time.

This is where affordances come in: the concept of making the right thing… the easy thing.

That’s what we’ll talk about next time

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