Stop trying so damn hard!
If you’re somebody who has tried to lose weight and exercise more, spend less time watching TV and more time reading books, or eat less candy and more real food – you’re not alone.
However, if your solution for any of those problems above is to “try harder” or “do more,” I’m here today to smack you in the mouth as if I were Neil Diamond.
STOP beating yourself up for lacking the willpower and motivation to make changes, and instead realize you need a new plan.
After all, you’re reading a site called “Nerd Fitness,” a community composed of computer programmers, rocket scientists, doctors, engineers, and everything in between.
We need to stop trying harder and instead start trying smarter.
It turns out that the part of our brain that allowed us to survive as a species for hundreds of thousands of years is the same part that can make us overweight, unfit, and unable to get ahead in life.
It’s just like The Force: Once we have the knowledge, we can either use this decision making process to push us further down the path to the Light Side…or we can become a slave to it and head further down the path to the Dark Side.
In today’s post, we’re going to discuss the importance of delayed gratification in getting healthy, and how we can use this information wisely, for the good of the Galaxy.
Why our brains are stupid
Within our brain, there is a built-in reward system involving a hormone called dopamine that has allowed us to survive for hundreds of thousands of years. Think of it like an achievement system for this giant game called life (where have we heard that before?).
As cavemen and cavewomen, our brains were rewarded with pleasure any time we found things that kept us alive (food!), did things that allowed us to reproduce (sex!), or took part in activities that kept us alive (running from predators!).
When our body encountered anything that was biologically helpful to our survival as a species, dopamine would be released in our brain that encouraged us to continue searching out those things.
For thousands of years, this “lizard brain” was freaking awesome. Like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick, it was these biological systems that kept us safe, happy, and healthy.
Fast forward a few thousand millennia, and EVERYTHING that gives us pleasure but was only available in limited quantities, is now available everywhere. Depending on your “dopamine/midichlorian” stat, these things will affect you in various ways:
- Want food NOW? You can order Domino’s pizza WHILE playing World of Warcraft.
- Want a companion NOW? With a few clicks of a mouse and a credit card you’re good to go.
- No need to run from predators! We’re now at the top of the food chain.
Our brain’s pleasure center can now get all the pleasure it wants without much effort – it’s like getting a participation trophy or earning achievement points just for turning the game on. Everything is out of whack! Stuart McMillen does a great job of explaining this in a comic.
Think about any free-to-play app-based game these days, like Boom Beach, Clash of Clans, and so on. Sure, you can wait four days for your castle to be built…or you can just spend a few measly bucks and get it RIGHT NOW. South Park absolutely nails this point in this must-watch segment below (obviously a few swears mixed into this):
Just as every Jedi is born with a different amount of Midichlorians (damn you George Lucas, for ruining the Force, by the way), we too are born with varying degrees of influence by this reward system.
So what’s the alternative to embracing our lizard brain and chasing dopamine all day?
Delayed satisfaction and gratification.
I can’t get no delayed satisfaction
Imagine you are a caveman named Bonk.
You spent all summer and fall eating anything and everything available to you. You instructed the rest of your family to do the same thing, laughing at the Gronks down the dirt path who only ate a bit and stored the rest.
When winter comes (damn you Ned Stark), your family is shit out of luck and you’ll end up as caveman popsicles, while the Gronks will survive and live to pass on their “put things away for the future, and you’ll have a better chance to survive!” genes. This is natural selection at its finest.
It was this skill that allowed certain members of our species to effectively hold off on the “GIMME PLEASURE NOW” part of our brain in favor of the “THIS WILL MAKE ME A BETTER CAVEMAN LATER” part.
Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? No, it’s not a hipster indie band outta Austin (but I bet there IS a band named this).
Here’s the study:
A child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.
In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the two rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.
While debate still rages about what the study actually means for dopamine regulation and habits, one thing is clear: some of us are better at this delayed satisfaction thing than others. Just like some of us are more likely to get addicted to alcohol/drugs/food/whatever than others.
It’s also explains, at least in part, why some people are more successful and fit than others:
Can you say no to cake (it’s a lie, after all) every day for the ultimate reward of looking and feeling great in your skin?
Can you say no to watching TV all night and instead read a book or get more sleep for the ultimate reward of increased knowledge, a stronger body, or a better job?
Can you say no to drinking with friends or a video-game binge to you hold out for the ultimate reward of building that business you’ve been working on?
Within our brains right now, there is a battle of epic proportions going on: lizard brain vs logic (aka Lizard vs Spock).
Once we understand how the pleasure and happy parts of our brains work, we can start to think like a Jedi and set ourselves up to have a fighting chance against the Dark Side.
Resist the Empire
We’ve said this a few times before on this site, but solely relying on willpower to change habits is like trying to hold back the tide.
Depending on your level of bad habits (aka how strong of a pull the Dark side of the Force has on you), it could be like holding back a tsunami.
So, instead of just “trying harder,” we need to be smarter with our attack plan!
- We need to cultivate a culture of discipline – small at first, but we are legitimately in a battle over our brain, involving hundreds of thousands of stimuli every day. A well-trained army has a much better chance to succeed in this battle!
- We need to believe: Just as there is a Dark Side of the Force, so too is there a Light Side. Start proving to yourself that with each decision made to delay gratification for ultimate satisfaction, you are strengthening that part of your brain. Each decision makes it a bit easier, so show yourself that YOU CAN say no.
- We need to think about systems, and start with identifying the things we can’t stop doing: I am hopelessly addicted to Sour Patch Kids, sunflower seeds, goldfish crackers, and pistachios. If I have just ONE of any of those things, my lizard brain immediately takes over and I cannot think of anything else until I’ve eaten every single one of them. Instead of just “trying harder” not to eat them, I don’t keep ANY of those foods within a hundred yard radius of me.
- We need to remind ourselves of the long term: Just like keeping short term bad rewards within reach is a recipe for disaster, not making your long term reward a consistent part of your daily plan is a recipe to abandon it at the first sign of “gimme gimme gimme.” If you’re saving up money for a house or vacation, keeping a picture of that house as your computer background will consistently remind you to keep saving rather than spending it on stupid crap 🙂
- We need allies in this fight: Employ your friends and family, and get them on your side. They can either pull you closer to the Dark Side unknowingly (“come on, just have one. What’s the harm in that? I don’t want to eat dessert/go out/play alone!”), or they can work on your team to help you succeed.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet or how-to list to overcoming environments that are set up to work against us. This is a BIG question. Hell, that’s why I started Nerd Fitness – to give us Rebels a fighting chance.
Remember, we’re all in this fight together, and we’re constantly discovering new strategies and techniques for overcoming the tricks of the Empire. Although these short-term distractions are at every corner, this group of rag-tag Rebels is here to show you that success IS possible.
Down with the Dark SIde
Nerd Fitness is a site and community built around the long term reward of a healthy, happy life full of the Light Side of the Force.
Every day, we battle the overwhelming propaganda and marketing engine of the Empire to make better decisions, we battle co-workers and friends who unknowingly want us to slip up and join them on the Dark Side, and we battle a part of our brains that so desperately wants short term happiness.
Every day we wage this war, and every day we have the opportunity to get a little bit closer to Jedi, and a little bit further away from Sith.
Eventually, we can break the cycle, and we will defeat the Empire.
Thanks for being here, and thanks for fighting alongside us:
How are you taking a step closer to the Light Side today?
What’s one decision you can make or one change you can manufacture to prove to yourself change can happen?
Let’s hear it in the comments.