According to James Clear, the cardinal rule of changing behaviors goes as following: What is rewarded is repeated, and what is punished is avoided. To reach goals, we rely on repeating positive behaviors and being rewarded for them. Whether you are trying to learn baseball, get a graduate degree, lose weight, become more mindful, read a book, or study a language, repetition is the key to get there. To learn baseball, you need to practice. Graduating with success requires you to learn for a range of different exams. If you want to lose weight, you need to make many healthy eating decisions, etc. So what makes it so difficult to stick to these everyday positive behaviors? What makes it so hard to reach such long-term goals? The simple answer is that the everyday rewards you receive for your behaviors do not match the gratifications you want nor expect. Let me explain.
Hyperbolic discounting or "time inconsistency" is the phenomenon that your brain evaluates rewards inconsistently over time. A reward that you receive right now is worth much more to your brain than a (bigger) reward you might receive in the future. Our brains have evolved in an immediate-return environment, where our actions delivered clear and immediate results. Our ancestors were mostly thinking about what to eat next, how to avoid immediate danger, and where to sleep. We placed a high value on instant gratifications and did not worry much about the future. Our brains are still wired this way: Research shows that when you are asked if you would like to receive 70€ now or 90€ in a month, most of you will prefer the first choice. Another example: Imagine you are 30 years old and you win 1 million in the lottery. You are then given the choice to either receive 1 million immediately or receive 50'000€ each year. What would you choose? Research shows that most of you would opt for the first choice. It is in fact a cognitive bias, making you prone to impulsive and irrational decisions, which can also prevent you from reaching your goals.
Today, we no longer live in the immediate-return environments that our brains are still programmed to: Society has shifted towards a delay-return environment. Our everyday decisions, such as the actions towards our goals, are often about the future. You are working right now to get your paycheck in a few weeks. You are learning new words in Spanish to become fluent in a few months. You are learning for next week's exam to graduate next year. You are practicing baseball now to become fairly good in a few months. Most of the time, the immediate gratifications that your ancient brain is craving are missing in the actions towards your goals. In these cases, it will try to nudge you towards the things that bring you immediate rewards, but do not contribute to your goals. The immediate satisfaction you get from a chocolate bar usually wins in competition with the healthy apple that would get you one step closer to your target weight. The entertainment reward of Netflix wins when competing with the Spanish vocabulary.
Most of the time, the only perceivable reward you get from these positive behaviors is the tiny amount of visible progress you make towards your goals, at each repetition. However, another fallacy plays into hyperbolic discounting, which increases the difficulty to enjoy our reward of progress: Our experienced progress is not proportional to the time and effort we invest into the actions towards our goals. When starting a new behavior, we think that progress will be linear, or at least hope that it will come quickly. Yet, even the progress we make is often delayed from our actions, especially in the beginning. This results in what James Clear calls a "valley of disappointment", before seeing considerable progress later on. When you exercise for the first time, you are not going to see your weight drop immediately. You might have to exercise regularly for a couple of weeks until you see real progress.
This kind of short-term thinking that makes it hard for us to reach our goals, is also a greater problem to society as a whole. Since all our brains are wired this way, we have difficulties making meaningful changes to tackle the climate crisis, governments prioritize individual political gains over long-term strategies, and too many people make risky financial investments instead of careful, but safe, long-term investments.
There are numerous possible ways to overcome this cognitive bias of hyperbolic discounting. The first one, which helps to establish any kind of behavior, is to make it part of your identity. When trying to achieve a new goal, many people start from the outside of "the Golden Circle" by Simon Sinek (shown below). They begin by defining the outcome (such as losing 10kg), then search for ways to get there (exercising twice a week), and finally, when these two latter phases have happened, it becomes part of their identity. However, when you start from the inside, behaviors are much more likely to stick. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when an activity becomes part of who you are. So the goal is not to lose weight, but to become a sporty person. The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. Thereby, rewards become almost needless, and hyperbolic discounting becomes less of a problem.
"True behaviour change is identity change." -James Clear
Another way to overcome hyperbolic discounting is by introducing a way to see progress more clearly, during or after an activity. The tracking technologies of today provide us with a very accessible way to do so. Research has shown that people who track their eating behaviors eat up to a third less food. I, for example, use Notion to keep track of the books I read or use my Apple watch to get insights about my exercising habits.
If you are serious about reaching your goals, you can set yourself more accountable by e.g. relying on an accountability partner. It is easier to stick to a common goal together. It also puts some pressure on you: not doing the activity is opposing your self-established image towards your accountability partner. The activity is becoming part of your public identity. Thomas Frank has even gone a step further: He has used his Twitter following as an accountability "partner". Since his goal was to wake up before 6 a.m. every morning, the following pre-written tweet was posted automatically at 6:10 if he was not awake in time to prevent it.
While all of the above methods help to create more motivation while relying less on mental strength, there is also good reason to try motivating yourself without any kinds of tactics. Willpower can and should be trained if you want to reach your goals. Willpower is defined by Ainslie as "the psychological function that resists temptations" or as a "bargaining situation with your expected future self". It is a function that can be trained just like a muscle. The more you overcome hyperbolic discounting by relying on your willpower, the easier it will be in the next bargaining situation between an immediate and a future reward.
James Clear. Atomic Habits. 2018.
Winifred Gallagher. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. 2009
Simon Sinek. Find your why. 2017.
Ainslie G. Willpower with and without effort. Behav Brain Sci. 2020 Aug 26
Thomas Frank. Twitter Screenshot. 2014