The old I-want-to-do-it-but-I-won’t dilemma (and a way out)

Hi there,

I’m obsessed with why we do what we do. And why were so good at not doing what we need to be doing. What makes doing what’s best for us so hard? Why can’t we seem to stop doing the things that aren’t good for us in the long run?

There are tons of books out there on the power of habit and the existence (or the illusion) of free will. Fascinating stuff – but what’s often missing is the link with our daily lives. 

I analyzed how this works in my own life, and would like to share four practical strategies. And a matrix. Got to have a matrix. 

Refine what’s going well

The first quadrant is for things you already do that you know are good for you in the long run. We don’t stop to think about this category often enough, but it’s great that you do these things.

You want to reinforce and refine these kinds of practices, to really root them in your routine.

In my house, we’ve made it a habit to start the day with a fresh smoothie. That means more prep in the mornings than a quick bowl of cereal, but I know it’s good for me and I enjoy it more. It sounds a little crazy, but I’ve turned the prep work into a sort of game or dance. I try to carry out all the steps of making our smoothies in one fluid motion, like it’s choreographed. I love when I manage to get all the ingredients out of the cabinets in one go, in a single pass around the kitchen. 

Refining this kind of practice can also mean investing in the ingredients or the tools you use, to further solidify a rewarding activity as part of your daily life.

Prioritize what’s good in the long run

The second box: Things you don’t yet do but would like to and which are good for you in the long run. Like getting in shape by exercising and eating well. This works for me:

  • Start small. Don’t get fixated on your end goal, but focus on taking small steps in the right direction

  • Try not to take on more than one thing at a time

  • Get into a reliable rhythm of weekly recaps and quarterly goals

  • Get your friends and family involved, as a support network

  • Read Atomic Habits

Want to stop doing something? Put it on the chopping block

Number three: Things you do that aren’t good for you in the long run. An overly demanding job or unhealthy habits that strain relationships. That kind of thing.

A couple years back, I came across the idea of the chopping block. That’s a place – in your head or on paper – where you can park things you want to say goodbye to at some point. You put them on the chopping block. That doesn’t mean you have to actually do anything about it yet. That’s the beauty of the chopping block. It’s just you acknowledging that you may want to get rid of something down the road.

Next you can consider taking small steps, trying things out. It’s a way to make progress – even a little bit – in the direction you want. And that gives you fresh energy for the next step. The goal? Easing into lasting change

Sure, sometimes drastic cuts can help shake things up. But often it’s the slow, gradual changes that stick.

Visualize temptations

The fourth quadrant consists of things you want but you know aren’t good for you. Large unnecessary purchases for instance. Or choosing unhealthy items in the supermarket. Here’s what works for me: 

  • Think about what your life will be like after this purchase. Ask yourself How will I look back on buying it? How do I feel about that?

  • Ensure you have a strong impression of yourself you can easily call to mind. Like: I can see myself as a loving father with energy and attention for my kids. 

  • Write down qualities of the person you want to be and read the description regularly. Like founding principles, but then for you personally. (“I take the initiative to make time for friends and family. Every day I do something a little scary that stretches me.”) I read through mine each week as part of my Friday recap.

Making a clear distinction between what’s good for you in the long run and what’s not can bring new insight that leads to new choices. And looking back over each quarter (and again at the end of the year) lets you take a closer look at those choices. It’s the perfect time to think up refinements, make plans for new things, decide you’re done with other things, and put stuff on the chopping block.

Have a good week!