Why don’t we do the things we know are good for us?
‘I know what I should do I just don’t know why I don’t do it.’
Does that sound like something you have said? If so, then you may have wondered why it’s so easy to let yourself down and not do the things you say you will do, even when you know they will help you achieve better results?
- Why is there such a gap between knowing what we need to do and actually doing it?
- Why is it so easy to hit the snooze on the alarm rather than going to the gym?
- How come it’s easier to select the chocolate cake than the apple?
- To turn on Netflix instead of studying, or to say, ‘I’ll start walking tomorrow?’
So, why don’t we do the things we know are good for us?
Why is there such a gap between knowing what we need to do and actually doing it?
The short answer is that we are humans and we have emotions, feelings and a head that seeks meaning, which takes time and tends to overcomplicate things.
The longer answer is more tricky. Your mind works according to what it thinks you want, and here lies the difficulty. It actually does want you to succeed, but it gets mixed messages. You have two different parts to your mind, like having different software systems for the brain (the hard drive). A subconscious and a conscious mind. Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, offers an enlightening exploration of the gap between what people know they should do and what they actually do. He calls them System 1 (fast, short-cutting) – the subconscious mind, and System 2 (slow, methodical), Conscious Mind. I will call them Speedy and Steady.
Speedy is around a million times more powerful than Steady
Now, this is important. Speedy is faster than steady and is around a million times more powerful. It remembers everything you have ever done and drives around 95% of your behaviours. Anytime Steady is distracted, with tasks, too much to do, stress or lack of sleep, Speedy jumps in and takes over.
Think about all the things you do each day; the extra things you would like to do but don’t have the energy for. Then there are the increasing demands from others on your time and energy. Exhausting to think about it isn’t it? To help preserve your energy and free you up to create and innovate, Speedy takes over. Speedy is in charge of your habits – behaviours that you have repeated several times. Remember when you learnt to drive? It was probably challenging, difficult and tiring. You probably couldn’t talk while driving back then. Now, you can talk, listen to the radio and drive competently all at the same time because driving has become a learned habit.
This is what sets humans apart from other species. With the executive functions of our brain, it has allowed us to create, build and achieve incredible things – marvellous engineering designs, inventions and technological wonders. However, the downside of this is that you run on auto-pilot around 50% of your day. And Steady needs lots of energy and gets fatigued quickly, so Speedy tends to take over.
Why do you select a takeaway rather than cooking a healthy meal when you are tired?
Remember a day when you got back from a hard day at work and you were tired? You are hungry but you’re tired so you don’t feel like cooking? It’s times like this, that Speedy jumps in and before you know it you have selected a takeaway rather than cooking a healthy meal. Later, you are mystified as to how this happened again when this morning you promised to eat healthily.
When we are fatigued, we tend to make less healthy choices. In one research study, a group of people were asked to memorise a string of numbers at the same time as they were offered a selection of healthy and unhealthy treats. Most people chose the chocolate rather than the healthy fruit. When they were asked to resist the cake they were more likely to give up memorising. It’s hard to find the energy to focus on two tasks at once. Steady gets tired and decision fatigue sets in.
Our brain is also motivated towards pleasure and away from pain.
Consequently, immediate pleasure exerts a stronger influence than concern for long-term health – delayed gratification. Chocolate now is more appealing than weight loss later. Watching your favourite series on Netflix instead of learning French is much more pleasurable now than when you travel to France in six months time and can converse fluently with the locals. Speedy jumps in before Steady!
When you realise you have chosen the pleasurable and comfortable choice, but one which is not congruent with your long terms goals, you probably berate yourself for failing again? Wrong thing to do. Being hard on yourself makes the situation worse. You give more power to speedy, creating a bigger gap and you lock in the negative programs that keep pulling you further away from success.
Why don’t we do the things we know are good for us?
Remember, your mind acts according to what it thinks you want.
Let’s imagine you want to learn French but tell yourself you aren’t good at languages. If you want to lose weight but love eating chocolate cake, guess what happens. Speedy jumps in and follows what it thinks you want – the overriding thought of not being good at languages and loving chocolate cake.
When we pursue our goals, we face the prospect of change. Speedy’s job is to keep us safe. Change involves stepping into the unknown, the unfamiliar, which can be scary and equals danger to Speedy. Our current situation may be familiar and comfortable even if we aren’t particularly happy with it, so it’s easier to stay here.
Even if you can navigate around all of the above, now you know what happens, the biggest hurdle of all is your beliefs and conception about yourself. Much of the stuff you were told when you were young has been hard-wired into Speedy. Like well-worn ski tracks, it’s easier to follow the existing hard-wired neural networks of these beliefs than creating new ones. Creating new tracks takes effort and a lot of consistent repetition.
Doubt fuels excuses and creates less of a desire to persist.
For example, if you were told when you were young it’s bad to be selfish and you must consider others first, you might find it hard to take time out for yourself as an adult. If you had a workaholic parent, you might be driven to put work above your family, even though you aren’t aware why you do this. If you ever succumbed to that nasty virus called ‘not good enough’ or ‘not worthy enough,’ this virus may be the thing that stops you taking action. There’s a constant stream of doubt fuelling excuses and less of a desire to persist. Because Speedy is the storehouse of all your memories, beliefs and experiences, and is faster than steady, and works in the now, it often runs these programs, presuming they are current. It doesn’t understand that they are no longer serving you.
So now you know a few reasons why you don’t always do what you want.
How do we change?
It probably all sounds rather hard to change doesn’t it? Well, the good news is, there are simple steps to change. Simple but not always easy. The key is to re-train Speedy to run the same programs that Steady wants. While this takes time, persistence and often some expert help, when you learn to do this, anything becomes possible.
- The first step is to become more aware.
Become aware of what you are thinking and saying to yourself habitually. We all have over 50,000 thoughts a day, so while you won’t remember them all, the more you can observe your thoughts, the more you are bringing them into your conscious mind, into the realms of Steady. This is critical. Without awareness of your deeper programs that Speedy is running, you cannot change your habitual patterns.
“A habit cannot be tossed out the window. It must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.” Mark Twain
As you become a master spy on your thoughts, you may be surprised at what you uncover. Words, thoughts and language patterns that may not be in alignment with your goals.
And remember, your mind does what it thinks you want.
In the second article, I will share a simple strategy to help you bridge the gap between Speedy and Steady so you can start to program yourself for doing more of what you know is good for you and your goals.
By the way, if you are looking to be consistent in the area of food and eating, or even shedding a few kilos, I have researched and written a short report on three ways to free yourself from the agony of dieting. Want to check it out? Download my free PDF guide “Free Yourself From The Agony Of Dieting” here.
Prefer to discover more about your amazing mind and how you can harness its powers to be more consistent? Grab a copy of my other free PDF guide ‘Your Hidden Mind’.