Why It’s Hard to Do Things That Are Good for You



Remember when you were a little kid and your parents told you to eat your vegetables? I certainly do. And I also remember just how much I hated eating them.

Everyone knows just how important it is to eat a balanced diet. In addition to that, people know how important it is to exercise regularly, cut out junk food and stop procrastinating. But despite knowing just how beneficial all these things are, most people struggle to do them. So why is it that some of the best things you can do for your life are also the hardest?

Why It is So Hard to Do Good Things

This is an important question to ask. After all, you’d think that people would naturally do things that are best for them. People should want to work out, eat their veggies and avoid fatty foods. Yet obesity is a big problem. Procrastination shouldn’t exist, except it does.

The problem isn’t that people can’t tell the difference between what’s good for them and what’s bad. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks an all-fat diet or smoking is good for them. No, the problem comes down to how people think through what benefits them in decision-making.

Let’s take a look at the decision-making process between exercise and remaining sedentary. The benefits of exercise are obvious – you’re healthier and look better. But you’re also giving up some benefits when you do it such as the energy you expend, aching muscles and the time involved.

Every good thing that benefits us comes at a cost. No matter what it is, you have to give up something to do it. You trade some good things (time, energy) to get other good things (health, looks).

It might not seem like too hard a problem to overcome. That is, until you realize that people don’t analyze what’s good for them well. People see benefits in the present differently from benefits in the future. Humans naturally place a premium on immediate benefits over future benefits. We see immediate benefits as more valuable.

To illustrate this point, let me ask you a question: Would you rather have $50 right now or $100 a year from now?

According to several studies, most people will take the $50. That means you’re willing to pass up another $50 just to get something right away. Immediate benefits are seen as better than future benefits.

So when you’re sitting on the couch and deciding between the future benefits to exercise (health, looks) and immediate benefits (time, energy) of not going, you automatically see the immediate ones as more valuable.

This applies to all those good things you could be doing for yourself:

• Instead of eating vegetables for a healthy future, you eat candy that immediately tastes good.
• You procrastinate to play video games immediately and put off homework for later.
• You’ll drink too much at night for fun at the expense of tomorrow’s hangover.

Overcoming that Difficulty

So how do people actually work around this? There are two methods you can use to overcome this built-in preference for immediate benefits.

1. Build a commitment device

This is the simpler, but less effective method. A commitment device is something you use to make sure you stay on task. It’s usually a self-imposed cost you add to make not doing what you want to do more painful.

One example of a commitment device is to set a specific number of days a week to go to the gym and pay a friend $5 each time you don’t go. It’s that little added incentive of avoiding a penalty that gives you the motivation to go.
Commitment devices can work, but I tend to stay away from them. Often you’ll find that your focus moves from the benefits of doing those good things towards avoiding the penalty. And it’s definitely not a long-term solution.

2. Weigh down your future benefits

This is the harder, but more effective method. The basic idea of this method is to think of as many future benefits as you possibly can. What you’re trying to do is overcome that built-in preference for immediate benefits.

Look back at the study above. People had a hard time picking the $100 in a year over the immediate $50. What if the $100 was raised to $200? Or $300? You’d find more people willing to wait for that extra cash.

Pile on as many future benefits as you can think of. Don’t exercise simply to become healthier. Exercise to look better, to feel better emotionally, to feel better physically, and to socialize too. Stop smoking for several reasons not just one.

The good thing about this method is that it builds intrinsic motivation. You’re not just doing something to avoid a penalty; you’re doing something because you want to. That works much better as a long-term solution.

Doing Good Things For Yourself

No matter what good thing you want to do for yourself, you’re going to face resistance. Even when I was going to the gym three times a week, I’d still have to fight the urge to take the day off. But I think understanding why you face that resistance helps in overcoming it. Even if you just go to the gym a few more times or eat a few more veggies, it will be worth it.

How do you do things that are good for you? Would you take the $50 now or $100 later?
photo credit: Evil Erin

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  1. I would take the $50 and invest it wisely so that it is worth more than $100 next year. I would try to anyway ;o)
    ps. How’s Morroco Steve?

    • Awesome. Way to think outside the box on the money. There are probably a few great ways to turn double that money.

      By the way, Morocco is great. it took me a while to get adjusted to life here. I’ve traveled abroad before, not worked. The school is made up of about 90% Moroccan students and the rest are expat students living with their parents in the area or related to staff at the school.

      The students are amazing. They can speak 3-4 languages fluently. They’re super smart (and rich). All the staff get picked up and dropped off in school buses while the students are picked up in fancy cars. It’s certainly a different world from back home.

  2. I like your #2 reason, but what about the emotional meaning behind it all? What I mean is a way to Feel something meaningful about the benefits that gets it into our heart/passion and goes beyond the logical side of our mind. Would love to hear your comments on this line. Thanks!

    • You make a great point. There certainly is emotional meaning behind a lot of the things that are good for us. For instance, we want to feel good about ourselves by working out. It can make you feel good about yourself in ways other than health.

      I think it would be great to find all those emotional reasons to do something. Often they can push you more than any logical reason.

  3. With #2 you’re encourgaing us all to develop that old fashioned discipline of delayed gratification which seems to be out of fashion. As you say making it weigh more is vital. I think that this can happen when it’s something we really want and we can gain satisfaction from taking a step towards it – such as each exercise session is a step towards fitness. But we also need to take pleasure in the steps and find joy in the hard work. In the end it’s about breaking free from hedonistic pleasure and finding a bit more depth.

    • Yes, delayed gratification is key to all this. You are right that it is a little out of fashion. After all, we live in a quick, immediate gratification, fast-food world. But delaying gratification has its uses.

      They did a study once about delayed gratification. They left two year olds in a room with a marshmallow. They told the kids that if they didn’t eat it by the time they came back then the kids would get two. Of course those who grasped delayed gratification could wait.

      It turns out that those kids who could wait often did better on tests and exams later in their life. There are real world benefits to being able to wait for things.

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