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Why We Choose the Short-Term Over the Long-Term

This story might sound familiar.

You decide to make a change in your life, so you start to replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy behaviors.

You eat healthier. You start a walking program. You start to see the results, and that makes you feel good about yourself. And then one Friday afternoon, you’re planning on leaving early for a long weekend out in the country and your boss walks into your office and dumps extra work on your desk—to be done right away.

Beyond irritated, you stomp down to the breakroom to grab some coffee and, before you know it, you’ve consumed three rather large nasty looking doughnuts. In that instant, your good intentions and hard work evaporate. You walk back to your office lamenting the fact that you are weak and once again have succumbed to temptation. You might even be so frustrated with yourself that you give up on getting healthy altogether.

Why do events like that happen so frequently in our lives?

It’s simple. You came into this world with an ancient mind that’s being asked to function in a modern world. Our survival mechanisms were built to address an incredibly dangerous world where predators might be around every corner and where meals might be difficult to find. Our ancient ancestors did not think about what retirement would be like. Each day was a battle for survival, making the now—the short-term rewards—the most important part of their lives.

That’s not the world we live in today, yet our ancient programming persists, and that’s part of the reason why you find it so difficult to ignore the temptation of immediate gratification even when you know that it is counter to your long-term goals.

The whole of the Habits of Health System is designed to counteract this programming, helping you to rewire your brain to make the choices that move you closer to optimal wellbeing. Here’s what you can do today, right now, to start harnessing your brainpower for the good of your health:

  • Stop. Before you make a choice, force yourself to pause. Use this timeout to take a few slow, deep breaths. Take a big drink of water if you want to buy yourself even more time.
  • Challenge. Take an inventory of your goals and what you want to achieve in life. Does this choice support or hinder that goal?
  • Choose. Pick the path that supports your goals by making the choice that gives you the reward you seek without compromising your health.

This method has become a cornerstone of our system, and it has helped so many people that we turned it into a free e-book. The last step, Choose, is your opportunity to still get the reward you want but from a healthy source instead. If we return to our workplace stress story that started this article, running to the breakroom to eat a donut is a coping mechanism. Many of us use food to relieve stress, but if we recognize that, we can choose another source of stress relief instead. In this story, the better solution might be to go for a brief walk around the office while taking slow, calming breaths. Or perhaps you close your eyes for a few minutes to meditate. You can relieve the stress—still giving yourself the ultimate reward you seek—while continuing on your journey to optimal health.

The obstacle of how we process short and long-term rewards can be a complex problem, but with some practice and the support of both our tools and our community, you can make the healthy choices that will take you where you want to go.

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