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Challenging the shortsighted me

Resisting impulses is hard. We all have such impulses: like mindlessly scrolling social media in the morning, eating junk food, or too many coffee-breaks at work. They can be manifold, but they are so enticing in the moment, because they temptate us with immediate pleasure or stress release. It’s when our primitive, short-term thinking mind tries to get control. In the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking:

  • “System 1” = The instant, unconscious, automatic, intuitive thinking.
  • “System 2” = The slower, conscious, rational, deliberate thinking.

The primitive impulses come from System 1 and when we don’t deliberately observe ourselves, we follow them. In short: System 1 is the default, System 2 needs attention.

System 1 in action

It’s System 1, when I come home late exhausted from the day and give in to an eating crave. System 2 knows it’s bad, but when my energy is low, it becomes hard to think; hard to resist. It’s also System 1 that tempts me to eat 5 pieces of cake, although System 2 knows that I won’t feel good afterwards.

It’s System 1, that when getting my phone to find something, urges me to check for new messages. System 2 knows it’s bad, because I become distracted, sometimes agitated, and forget what I wanted to do.

It’s also System 1, that entertains itself with daydreaming or grooving to music while doing boring, mundane activities such as packing things. System 1 works well, when it’s habitual, when we don’t need to think. But slight deviations, such as things not being in the exact same place or something additional that needs to be thought, let the system fail.

Dealing with impulses

Save energy with routines

Always being in System 2 mode is too expensive and we wouldn’t get things done. Willpower is limited. So it’s crucial to focus System 2 on the important. Routines help to take the burden of System 2, so it pays off to routinize reoccurring problems.
If I make it a rule to brush my teeth, when I get foot in the door late, it makes it a bit easier to resist the food craving. When I turn off notifications or use my laptop instead of the phone, it becomes easier to avoid distraction.

Mastering Self-control

Fortunately, our lifes are not just montonous routines. Many situations are unexpected and our feelings vary. The reason we keep doing harmful things is that our System 2 is not sharply observing or is lacking will power to tame System 1. The first step is to step out of automatic mode and shift the focus to the present. Meditation is good practice for this. By shifting the focus on the breath and not doing anything else, it becomes easier to observe the mind.

After becoming aware of our impulses, the challenge is to substitute something immediately rewarding against some more far-distant and currently non-tangible benefit. The problem is that our lazy-self seeks to maximize present reward.

But how do we work against our lazy pleasuring seeking self to pursue something that pays off long term?

Here comes the power of self-control. Learning to resist, to say no. The key to build positive habits is self-control. Saying no is much more important than saying yes. Saying yes is easy, it’s indulging, gives immediate rewards and avoids problems (in the very moment). Saying no is uncomfortable. Be it external like turning down an invitation or ask for help, or internal like resisting an urge to eat junk food. Most often we / our System 2 knows we should say no, but we lack self-control. We forego the long-term reward of sticking to our high priorities to avoid imminent pain and discomfort. Even if the pain will be much higher in the future.

But saying “No” can be pleasing. Every time we say it, it’s a proof of strength, self-determination, and a clear and focused mind. Isn’t this a nice compliment to yourself? Exercise feels rewarding after overcoming the inertia to go and pushing the body to it’s limits. Work is rewarding after solving a hard, frustrating problem. We constantly pursue comfort in all aspects of life, but comfort is not fullfilling, it’s not rewarding. We should instead associate discomfort; that is saying no with rewards.

Self-control unlocks positive change by letting us focus on the important, but more importantly by steering us away from the harmful. And like everything else, we can practice it. So I invite you to find your impulses in your day. Find small things, such as not checking the phone, or not eating the first time you feel the urge. Dr. Huberman coins these NO-GO’s and tries to find 15 small NO-GO’s every day. But it’s better to start small than not at all. My big NO-GO are sweets this month. What’s yours?

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