Your 2 Minds - The Science Behind Short-term and Long-term Motivation

There it is. That slice of cheesecake on the dessert cart that seems all so tempting! Despite your goals of health and fitness, it feels like your entire body is willing you to say, “YES!! Eat the cheesecake!! Get it before the dessert cart leaves!!”

Then another voice comes into the frame. It says, “But wait! This is a new year! And I promised myself that I would resist cheesecake!”

The internal debate ensues. Sometimes we give in to temptation. Sometimes we summon the willpower to resist.

We all face this challenge. The short-term temptation could be unhealthy food, a distraction from work, or staying with friends for another drink. Whatever it is, we face a direct competition with what we want to do and what we should do.

We should resist the unhealthy food to become the slimmer, healthier self that we want to be. 

We should get our work done now so we won’t be stressed to get it done at the last minute. 

We should close our tab, head home, get a good night’s sleep and be productive tomorrow morning. 

However, doing what we should is not always easy. Part of us wants us to be healthy, productive and build for a better future. But another part of us wants us to indulge, kick back and live for the moment. 

A situation like this is a reflection of two different parts of our brain with competing desires, motivations and controls over our final decision. 

THE PRIMITIVE BRAIN 

Millions of years ago, our ancestors had very simple goals:

 1.    Find food

2.    Find a mate

3.    Stay safe from predators

These 3 goals were our key to survival and they were not exactly easy. Back then humans were remarkably weak and vulnerable creatures. We stood less than 5 feet tall. We did not have the strength of a gorilla, the talons of an eagle, or the teeth of a tiger. All we had to defend ourselves was our superior intelligence. Over time, this resulted in our brains developing to give us the energy and motivations to meet our top 3 priorities.  [1]

When we saw a chance of getting food, our brains gave us an extraordinary level of energy and focus to help us hunt that food down.

When we saw a chance of reproducing, our brains gave us a rush of desire to ensure we did not miss the opportunity. 

And when we began to exert ourselves too much, our brains gave us the motivation to rest so that we could conserve our energy. 

These basic motivations were developed in what is called the limbic system – otherwise known as the “Primitive Brain”.

THE MODERN BRAIN

After many years of navigating the wilderness alone, our ancestors came across a novel concept – it will be much easier to find food, find a mate and stay safe from predators if we create a tribe!

So we humans started working together. This added a layer of complexity to our 3 primary goals. Now that we were part of a tribe, we had to learn how to work together. This meant that we not only had to learn to communicate, but we also had to learn how to control our actions. [2]

Now there were socially acceptable rules we had to abide by: 

1. No stealing someone else’s food.

2. No stealing someone else’s mate.

3. No stealing someone else’s shelter. 

To abide by these rules, we had to develop a new level of intelligence. We had to learn how to control the basic desires of our primitive brain to eat as much as we can, sleep with as many people as we can, and stay in the safest possible shelter. Otherwise we risked being exiled from the tribe and left to fend for ourselves.

This new level of intelligence was self-control. It caused us to think about our higher goal – staying the in the tribe – and not let our basic desires compromise it. This led to the development of the pre-frontal cortex – otherwise known as the “Modern Brain”. [3]

YOUR 2 MINDS 

In today’s society, we are still motivated by these 2 sections of the brain.

The primitive brain motivates us to “hunt down that cheesecake” because it still believes that its fat and sugar will help us survive. It will also give us desires to buy things associated with sexual images because we subconsciously believe it will increase our chances of reproducing. And it will motivate us to rest and conserve our energy, rather than going for a jog. 

Then it is up to our modern brain to override these motivations to accomplish our higher goals. Its job is to control our desire for cheesecake so we can be healthy, the same way it was its job to control our desire for others’ food so we can remain in the tribe.

This is why it feels like we have 2 minds. This is why there will always be an internal debate between our short-term desires and our long-term goals. Our primitive brains still believe that food, sex and rest can be a matter of life and death. So it is up to our modern brains to think about the consequences of those desires and control them.

HOW TO HELP YOUR MODERN BRAIN 

Let us assume that if you are on this site, you are looking to enhance your willpower and give more control to your modern brain. 

To do so, I have listed 4 practical ways that you can help your modern brain and accomplish your higher goals:

1. DO NOT SET OUT TO CREATE HABITS

In trying to accomplish goals, many people set out to create better habits. A habit is a behavior that you have done so often that it does not require thought. This is useful for things like flossing and remembering to lock the front door, but when it comes to accomplishing higher goals, habits can actually be dangerous. 

Because habits require no thought, we form them in the primitive brain. If we try to create habits to achieve our long-term goals, we are essentially putting our short-term brain in charge, rather than our long-term brain.

This is like choosing a repeated arsonist as the head of fire safety rather than the fire department chief! The primitive brain's deep-down motivations are completely opposite to what we’re trying to accomplish. Yet, we are giving it more authority than the modern brain who is the most qualified!

2. AUTOMATING GOAL DEDICATION

Instead of automating our behaviors, we want to automate our dedication to our goals.

Automating your goal dedication is about setting triggers and reminders of your overall goal. This can be accomplished by following a plan to write down your goals everydaycreate goal reminders or increase your self-awareness.

What’s the difference between this and habits? Let’s say your goal is to eat healthy so you create the habit of bringing a healthy lunch to work every day. This will work most of the time, but what happens when your colleagues invite you out to lunch? In that case, you now have a full menu of options and your primitive brain is in control of the choice!

If you were to automate your goal pursuit, however, you would make a pre-commitment that you will always choose the healthiest option for lunch. Now it is not an automatic behavior, but an automatic choice. Whether you eat in the office, at home, or at a restaurant, you commit to always choose the healthiest option. Doing this helps guide you while also keeping the decision-making in the hands of the modern brain. 

3.   BUILD THE MUSCLE

One of the best ways to improve your modern brain's power is to practice making the right decisions. It sounds strange, but our willpower is like a muscle. When we face temptations and make a conscious decision to say “no” we literally strengthen our willpower. 

To improve the strength of your modern brain you can follow any of the 10 exercises listed here. You can also simply become more mindful of yourself and your decisions. Much of our life is spent on auto-pilot, so simply taking a moment to pause and think about why you are doing something can increase the control of your modern brain. [4]

4.   MAKE A COMMITMENT TO A HIGHER GOAL

Our ancestors had a higher goal of being a member of the tribe. This goal helped them make the right decisions even when they were the most tempted. They did not need to create a habit, they just needed to have a strong commitment to that goal. [5]

This same principle holds true for our goals as well. In many cases you don’t need to have a specific behavioral response to avoid a temptation, you just need a higher purpose. Whether that purpose is your health, being a good role model for your kids, or a dream to believe in.

Making a commitment to your goal will help you deal with challenges that you could never foresee coming. Scientifically, this commitment calls your modern brain into action when it gets challenged. When you are inevitably tired, stressed, or tempted, thinking about the greater purpose will help your modern brain make the right decision. [6]

THE ULTIMATE SAY

No matter how much willpower you have, your primitive brain will always give you motivations and desires to act on the short-term. But your brain developed so that you never have to follow these desires.

The modern brain developed as the ultimate decider of our actions. It controls our desires and decides what is best for our long-term survival. No matter how much we wanted to steal another tribe member’s food, we always had the ability to control that desire and choose not to act on it.

In today’s society this means that the voice in your head that says “resist the cheesecake”, “don’t procrastinate” and “put on your running shoes!” always has the ultimate say in what you do. 

This does not mean that it is going to be easy to resist those temptations. If it were easy, we would not have an obesity epidemic and 95% of the population would not admit to being procrastinators [7].  

But it is empowering to know that no matter how much you feel like you cannot resist a short-term temptation – you can. In those moments when you feel like you are helpless to give in, remember your brain evolved to make sure that you always have the willpower to do what is right. [5]

CONCLUSION

It seems that whenever we come across a temptation, our mind splits in 2. Part is motivating us with all of the reasons that we should give in, the other giving the rational reasons why we should resist.  

This phenomenon occurs because of the desires of 2 different parts of the brain – the limbic system (primitive brain) and pre-frontal cortex (modern brain). Each will give us different desires and motivations, but the ultimate decider of our actions is the modern brain.

We may be tired, we may be tempted, and we may feel helpless to give in to our short-term desires. But we are always in control of our ultimate actions. It may not be easy, but your modern brain will ensure that you always have the willpower to make the right decision.

*Sources

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