“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality, he will remain subject to it all the while.” Jeremy Bentham
At the most fundamental level, PAIN and PLEASURE are the two forces that motivate us to do anything. Every motive can be boiled down to an effort to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Our desire to avoid pain is powerful, even more, powerful than our desire to seek pleasure. It is more closely linked to our survival.
From a survival perspective, avoiding pain is a higher priority than seeking pleasure. Whenever we experience pain, our mind immediately analyzes the situation and determines the cause and creates a linkage; the same is true for pleasure. When we experience pleasure, our mind will determine the source and associate it with the pleasure it produced.
Our mind is constantly making linkages of pleasure and pain. These linkages can occur at the conscious or the subconscious level of thought. What separates us from animals is our ability to exert control over these linkages. Our success in life is dependent on how often we exert control over these linkages.
When we make linkages that go beyond our instincts to do what is immediately gratifying, we make better decisions. Over time these better decisions become habits that produce better results. Success is the accumulation of small decisions made correctly over time. We are successful in those areas of our life that we create productive routines. Our areas of weakness are where bad habits were permitted to take root. Our ratio of good habits to bad habits ultimately determines the quality of our life.
Our minds are constantly linking our behavior with either pleasure or pain, with or without your conscious input. This is critical to understand. Awareness is the beginning of transformation. Most people are unaware that this is occurring, which is why these linkages are so often made at the subconscious level. If we understand these linkages are constantly being formed, we can begin to exert our control over them; if we don’t, bad habits will form. In the absence of light, there is darkness. In the absence of diligence, is neglect. Now you know it is occurring, but knowing is not enough.
We must exert our will over these linkages. We must equate massive PAIN with poor decisions and massive PLEASURE with good decisions. Ask yourself, “what is the behavior costing you?” The more pain you can associate with the behavior, the sooner you will quit the behavior. The association of pain with bad behavior will help you to stop doing it, while the pleasure you associate with the new behavior will help you sustain it.
Find pleasure in the new behavior. This is crucial to permanent change. Imagine your desired outcome and link it to the new habit. This linkage of pleasure is real, but it is being made at a higher level than our primitive instincts to equate pleasure only to things that produce immediate gratification. Ask yourself, “how will my life be better if I did this every day?” The stronger your association, the better; the easier it will be to stay motivated. The stronger your desire to do it.
When we do something that we know is good for us, we need to congratulate ourselves for taking positive action and linking it to achieving our goals. Congratulating ourselves for a job well done; celebrating each small victory will give us a sense of accomplishment. It will cause us to link the activity to the pleasure it gives us. It releases dopamine, which motivates us to pursue our goals and is closely linked to long-term happiness.
Animals act out of instinct, but as human beings, we can choose our actions based on our ideals. When we make decisions based on our ideas, our ideals become in-line with our values. Ideals reside in our heads, they are our concept of what is perfect. Our values are our standards; based on our decisions. Values can be observed and evaluated by others. It is easy for us to say we want to get promoted, but if we aren’t showing up early, working hard, and getting better at our profession every day, our values are not aligned with our ideals. Values have nothing to do with what we say. Values have everything to do with our actions. We cannot fake our values. We can’t fake showing up. We can’t fake doing the work. We cannot fake getting better.
The ability to override our instincts in pursuit of an ideal is what separates us from animals. We are able to project and link our behaviors with the long-term results they will produce. For example, the student that links studying hard each day to the pleasure of becoming smarter, earning higher grades, getting into a good college and eventually pursuing a fulfilling career will form the habit of studying hard every day. The student that doesn’t make these linkages will not form the habit of studying hard. They will only link studying with the discomfort involved with developing their mind. They will gravitate to activities that produce instant gratification, like playing video games.
Show me your schedule, and I will tell you what your values are. We beat ourselves up when our ideals and values aren’t in alignment, as well we should. We have neglected to live up to our ideals. We are not operating up to our potential as human beings. Getting better is a never-ending struggle. When we give up the battle, we are forever lost. No one is perfect, but we should strive for perfection if we want to be successful.
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” – Vince Lombardi
The teams Vince Lombardi coached achieved extraordinary success. If we want to be more successful, we should become our own life coach. Praise yourself each time you live up to your ideal. Promise yourself that you will work out every day for a month, even if it is just taking a 10-minute walk; then reward yourself for hitting your goal. What gets rewarded gets repeated. We must motivate ourselves like a good coach or business leader would her team.
A great coach knows when their team is giving their best effort and when it is not. When a coach knows that their team isn’t performing to the best of its ability he lets them know that it is unacceptable. When a coach knows his players are doing their best, but not experiencing success, they tend to encourage more and criticize less. We should adopt the same mentality. We know our capabilities. We know when we are giving our best effort and when we aren’t. If we are getting better, we should recognize that we are improving. When we start repeating the same mistakes, we need to make the behavior painful. We need to put it on ourselves that this isn’t who we are.
When we fall short of our ideal, we need to identify how we can avoid making the same mistake in the future. We should make mistakes painful, but we should avoid being overly critical of ourselves. To err is human. Your willpower lapse doesn’t reveal a flaw in your character. It shows that you are human. It might seem counterintuitive, but being excessively critical will lead to additional willpower lapses. When we are too harsh on ourselves, it leads to stress and depression. To overcome our anxiety, we reach for our preferred coping mechanism, which in most cases, is eating, drinking, or smoking. We should critique ourselves like a coach and not like our worst enemy. Say, “I am disappointed in me, I can do better. I will do better, starting now. Tomorrow is a new opportunity to do better, and I will. I am not perfect, but I am getting better. Each day I win, I am one step closer to becoming the hero of my life. Tomorrow I will take another step.” The key is never to give up. There is a victory in the struggle. As human beings, perfection is forever out of reach, but improvement is always within our grasp. Keep striving for perfection, and you will undoubtedly improve.
The higher our standards are, the happier we will be because we are living up to our ideals. The more our values match-up to our ideals the better we feel about ourselves. Nothing makes us happier than progress. For those that are hard on themselves, life becomes easy. We shouldn’t wish it were easier, we should wish we were better. The harder the challenge, the sweeter the reward. The best reward for achieving our goal isn’t the accomplishment itself, but the person we are forced to become in the process. Success is always intentional because getting better; becoming the person that success requires is always a result of consistent, deliberate practice that pushes the limits of our capabilities.
When linkages of pleasure and pain are made at the subconscious level, the linkages focus on the immediate pain or pleasure, the activity produces. This is the low-level thinking that allows bad habits to form. Every bad habit provides immediate gratification. If we allow this linkage to form unconsciously, without thinking, pain and pleasure become our masters. We are operating at the level of our instincts and not our ideals.
When we neglect to exert conscious control over these associations, we become a slave to pain and pleasure. Our feelings control us. We are operating at the lowest level of our existence. We are allowing our primitive programming to control us, unfettered by higher-level consciousness. Allowing these linkages to form mindlessly, is a recipe for disaster. This is how we form bad habits; through neglect.
Good habits are never formed by accident. They are always intentional. Good habits require motivation and discipline to form. We must override our minds primitive programming which results in poor decisions based on immediate pleasure and comfort. The more pain we can associate with poor decisions and the more pleasure we can link to good decisions, the easier the process will become.
In time, good decisions will produce good results. These positive results will encourage us to keep making good decisions. Nothing makes us feel better than making progress and living up to our ideals. In time the good decisions become good habits. Good habits require much less effort to sustain than to start. We thrive on habits and routines because our minds are not forced to make decisions on the conscious level. Our conscious mind fatigues very quickly when we force it to make too many decisions. Habits allow our minds to make decisions at the subconscious level.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times Best Seller, The Power of Habit; 40 to 45% of what we do each day is out of habit.[i] The basal ganglia (primitive areas of the brain) control the performance of repetitive daily activities which frees our conscious mind from making countless decisions each day, which would lead to decision fatigue and mental exhaustion. The great news is that once good habits are formed, the activity will eventually transfer from the conscious to the subconscious level. We only need to exert our willpower long enough for this to occur, approximately two months.
A useful analogy for our day is a field. Our days are filled with routines that represent the crops we plant. We are the farmer. We can plant whatever we want to grow, but if we do nothing, our field will be overrun with weeds. If we want our days to be productive and produce positive outcomes, we must sow the seeds of good habits. Productive habits require care and diligence to grow and flourish. Neglect allows weeds to grow. The longer a habit is allowed to grow, the deeper its roots will become, the harder it will be to uproot it. Even after we plant, we must work to keep our crops from being destroyed by the weeds that will surely grow if we neglect our linkages of pleasure and pain.
Productive habits are formed at a conscious level. After they take root, we perform them like any other habit, but they are always initiated at the conscious level. Good habits like waking up early, working hard, reading, studying, and working out are all formed through diligence. Once these activities become a habit, they don’t require as much motivation and discipline to maintain.
Neglect is no match for diligence. Darkness can only exist in the absence of light. Everyone can remove weeds and plant a harvest. Weeds can only survive when they can grow through neglect. Everyone forms habits and routines. The difference between success and failure is how many of these habits could form through neglect and how many were formed through diligence.
The seeds of these habits are the linkages of pleasure and pain with the activity. If we want to operate at the level of our ideal, and not our nature, we must exert our will on these associations. If we want to achieve our potential, we cannot be enslaved by our feelings, we must exert conscious control over these linkages. Use pleasure and pain, don’t let them use you and rob you of your happiness.
Exert your will and break the chains. Longterm happiness stems from taking disciplined action; ignoring our weak feelings to satisfy our cravings for instant gratification. Make linkages based on the long-term results the actions will produce, not the immediate pleasure or discomfort they generate. Better linkages produce better decisions. Better decisions produce better habits. Better habits produce a better life!
Better habits, better life!
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[i]Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).