Why We Don’t Do What We Say We Should (You can blame it on your inner lizard)

You inner lizard would rather bask in the sun than work on a business plan. Image: http://www.todaysplanet.com/pg/beta/lizardlover/

My friend Jim wants to be financially independent. He aspires to build a company that gives him passive income for years so he can spend more time with his family and take extended vacations during the summer when the kids aren’t in school.

It all sounds very reasonable, and totally doable given that armed with a laptop and an internet connection, just about anyone can set up a mobile office. A lot of people start life-style businesses and enjoy “the good life.” Yet, Jim is no closer to realizing his dream today than we was when he first starting talking about it.

Why? He’s letting his inner reptile call the shots.

The Amygdala is the oldest part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective. People call it the “reptilian” part of the brain because it’s the only part of brain structure we share with lizards and snakes.

The Amygdala regulates fear and many other emotions. It is the source of our preference for pleasure and avoidance of discomfort. It’s the part of the brain that triggers instantaneous fight, flight, or freeze responses.

And it’s also why most people never lose weight, never save for retirement, and never start businesses that provide them passive income.

Let me explain…

Your Amygdala prefers guaranteed short-term gains over uncertain long-term gains, even if they may be greater. It’s why in the famous marshmallow kids experiments, many kids took 1 marshmallow now instead of waiting for 2 marshmallows in 10 minutes.

Instant gratification almost always wins. Most of us would rather have a sure thing now than roll the dice and shoot for something even better down the road. We get more primal enjoyment out of the sugar high of a cinnamon roll today than we would looking great in a swimsuit this summer.

Jim really knows he needs to get past this, but it’s hard. Seeking instant gratification is not just an old habit — he’s also hard-wired to do it.

Thanks, Amygdala.

Basically, whenever we face delayed gratification, we are looking down the barrel of what I call an Enjoyment J-Curve. If you know anything about investing, you know that the payoff of investing normally follows a J-Curve. There’s an outlay of capital at time zero, followed by a diminishing value of the investment for a period of time, and then eventually (you hope), the value of the investment matches the initial investment and moves past it in the long run.

The same thing happens with most reorganizations in large companies, as described in the graph below:

Investing in ourselves often follows the same curve. Jim sets out to build a company and thinks it will be the red-dotted path. But it’s hard, and he doesn’t make any money in the beginning, and it feels instead like the solid blue path. So, most often he bails on the endeavor and goes back to the current state or status quo.

So, the question is: How can Jim (and the rest of us) withstand the uncertainty and lack of payoff of the “period of disruption” above, so we can follow the dotted green path and push through to enjoy the “tangible benefits” of the desired state?

Here are a few ideas that have worked for me, for MD residents and second year lawyers, and for many successful entrepreneurs. You’ll notice there are two super healthy options, and two options that can become unhealthy if overdone.

  1. Choose a Path You Actually Enjoy: If the near-term investment of time and effort with no “tangible benefits” is actually deeply satisfying and enjoyable (i.e. it triggers enjoyment sensors in your brain today), your inner lizard will comply and you’ll be much more likely to continue. Many people make the mistake of setting out on a path of doing something they don’t actually love doing, so they quit. Which explains the massive dropout rate of burnout career paths like investment banking.
  2. Learn to Enjoy the Struggle: Believe it or not, there are some people out there who literally enjoy getting knocked down just so they can get back up. These people have what UPenn researcher Angela Duckworth calls Grit. By making “becoming more resilient” the goal, you actually feed those pleasure sensors every time you face an obstacle over overcome it. When resilience itself becomes your new cinnamon bun, your inner lizard begins to lose its taste for the sugar hits of old.
  3. Move SOME of the Long-term Tangible Benefits into Today: Ok, this might be controversial, but it works. Basically, the idea is to go into debt, but, minimal debt. Just enough to give you a taste of your longer-term success, without overdoing it. This is why you see junior associates at law firms walking around with brand new Gucci shoes and handbags. They can’t REALLY afford that lifestyle, but the only way to get through the slog of working 90 hour weeks is to give themselves a taste of the lifestyle they will enjoy when they make partner.
  4. Develop a Healthy Fear of Failure: Wait, did he just say fear is the answer? To a small degree, yes. If you begin to see NOT achieving your long terms goals as complete and unbearable failure and betrayal of yourself and your family (is that going too far?), you can trigger your Amygdala to override its instant gratification tendencies and get down to work. When failure begins to feel like death, your self-preservation tendencies take over. But again, this has to be monitored. Take things too far, and you end up as a workaholic who is never satisfied with any measure of success.

Following through on big plans requires learning to dance with our inner lizard. The more you anticipate and adjust for his rather predictable subterfuge, the more likely you’ll be to follow through and reach your goals.

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Edward Sullivan is the founder and head coach at LeadWell.co — a boutique coaching and training organization. With offices in San Francisco and New York, LeadWell helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at edward@leadwell.co.