In the Ancient Indian scripture Kathopanishad, there is a verse spoken by Lord of Death to the child Nachiketa that describes the dilemma that we all often face: of choosing to do what is right and good for our future even though it’s uncomfortable right now OR doing things that give instant gratification right now but harm us in the long term-
“Every person is faced with 2 choices: The Good (sreyas) and The Pleasant (preyas). A wise person chooses The Good, even though it’s not pleasant. A fool chooses The Pleasant, with only instant gratification in mind and suffers later.”
-Kathopanishad, 8th Century BC, India.
We’re faced with this choice numerous times every day: Should we choose the healthier salad or the delicious dessert? Should we watch the TV right now or study? Should we take the stair or lift? Should we write the blog post or continue browsing Facebook? Make the important call or watch another video? Discuss the important but difficult issue with our partner or go on with our day.
And we choose the pleasant more often than we would like to. Not only that, sometimes we understand the Pleasant would ruin us, we don’t pursue it but we indefinitely delay doing the Good. This gives rise to missed deadlines, amassing of guilt and regret, introduce excuses, lying, dishonesty, bad habits usually follow and over long time, can result in far worse outcomes than one can anticipate like ill-health, failure, rejection and broken relationships. This may sound too extreme but it’s the small everyday wrong choices that may result in such apocalyptic outcome.
Knowing is Not Enough
In another scripture from India, the Mahabharata, the antagonist prince Duryodhana, offers the following perspective when asked why he continues to do the bad deeds despite knowing what is right:
“I know what is dharma (i.e. righteousness), yet I cannot get myself to follow it! I know what is adharma (non-righteousness), yet I cannot abstain from it! O Lord of the senses! You dwell in my heart and I will do as you impel me to do.”
This seems all too real and relatable. We ‘know’ what is the right thing to do and what we should avoid, despite this knowledge we end up pursuing the Pleasant and delaying the Good. As if our brains our wired to do that. Are they? Yes!
The 3 Evolutionary Layers of Human Brain: Lizard, Monkey and Human
Even when we know, we only know what is right and wrong but it also helps us to understand how our brain has evolved over hundreds of millions of years and retained some of its ancient parts and tendencies.
The Evolution of brain can be generalized in 3 stages (see notes at end):
1. The Reptilian/Primitive Brain: The most primitive part, it’s the part over spine with brain stem and cerebellum. It’s responsible for involuntary functions like heartbeat, blood circulation etc. as well as the flight or fight response.
It’s rigid, automatic and compulsive. It wants the gratification right now! We have very less control over it in comparison to the other 2 parts.
2. The Monkey/Emotional Brain: This part evolved in earliest mammals. It includes hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, fear/pleasure response circuits among other parts. It’s responsible for emotions, subconscious actions, learning and responses. Also helps in forming and retaining memories.
The Reward Circuit and Addiction:
A neural pathway involving major parts of this brain layer is responsible for reward/ reinforcement learning. When we do something pleasureful, a neuro-transmitter (a chemical) called Dopamine is released. This makes us happier. The monkey brain again anticipates/demands that trigger, we do it and again dopamine is released. This results in dependence on that trigger. The trigger can be drugs like cocaine, intoxicants like alcohol or cigarette, it can also be porn, compulsive web browsing, shopping or over consumption of some food.
This reward circuit if properly adjusted, can be used for building good habits by utilizing non-addictive rewards. (See point 9 below)
3. Neo-cortex (New/Human Brain): This part evolved in earliest primates and culminated in humans. It’s the 2 large cerebral hemispheres and is responsible for problem solving, languages, abstract thoughts, imagination, learning, thinking and also for will power (especially the pre-frontal cortex).
Our Brain is Still Mostly Animalistic
The neo-cortex part of brains has evolved relatively recently and the earlier 2 layers are far more dominating. This is why we’re often swayed by our impulses and have to consistently rely on our willpower but…
The Willpower is Limited
In her book, The Willpower Instinct Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes that willpower is a limited resource. It’s generally highest in the morning and slowly diminishes as we utilize it and as the day progresses it becomes harder to resist temptations.
This means you can’t just wake up at 5 AM on 1st of January, do 10 mile run, start eating healthy, be more responsible, be on time and finish your work. If you didn’t already have the habit, you’d have exhausted significant part of willpower by waking up at 5 AM alone.
The Monkey in the Market:
75000 years ago when we were wandering nomads and food was scarce, it made sense to eat the sweet fruit immediately, it had a lot of calories and so we could go one longer. Similarly, it made sense to mate, sleep and do other fundamental, sustaining functions immediately; you never knew if you’d get a chance. As it also made sense to run on the sight of an animal with really long teeth like a Saber-tooth cat. The flight/fight response, the pleasure aspects of our brain saved us.
Slowly as we began to live in groups, our lives became more and more complex. We needed more self-control and restraint in regard to food, mating, resources and duties like hunting & protecting our tribe. Our brains evolved functions of will power, empathy, self-control and neo-cortex became larger and more integrated with other brain parts, having more control over them as well as more influenced by them.
But we retained the earlier aspects too. So when we’re in market it’s really difficult to not eat the pizza, cake, chips and chocolate or do a lot of shopping. We’ve hundreds of distractions on internet, in TVs and phones and our brain’s reward circuits are on fire. We can’t form good habits because eating a chocolate or watching a movie etc. appear more pleasurable and make complete sense to our animal brains than starting the habit of working out.
We’re like a monkey in a market place, he’s never been to a more lucrative, tempting place. He can’t decide what to do. He wants everything and he wants it all right now. When there is food and fun, why be in self-control?
The Opposition Stacked Against Us So Far
So far I’ve only described how we choose instant gratification despite knowing what is right, how our brains are wired for temptation, how we live in an age of distraction & temptations, how our reward circuits are on fire – giving rise to bad habits and how we have limited will power.
If humanity is a religion, it’d be a blasphemy to say that we cannot do anything and we’d always be a victim of our urges, temptations and instincts. Looking around us confirms this, we’ve made great progress and attained remarkable achievements – our ancestor 75,000 years ago could never think of a smartphone but slow, incremental discoveries of fire, agriculture, metal, industry, electricity, semiconductor – step by step like this has taken us here.
Instead of being scared of the knowledge of how our brains work, we should use this to our advantage.
How to Beat Instant Gratification?
I’d describe the following 10 ways that I’ve observed have helped me:
1. Start Small (so small it seems ridiculously easy):
This seems too simple but I cannot stress enough how important this is, if you just take one single point and adapt it, take this. Whether it is starting good habit or breaking the bad one, start small.
Never worked out? Do 3 repetitions of push up. Do it 2 days a week. Then take it to 5 repetitions one or even 2 weeks later. If regular push ups seem difficult, do it with knees on floor, same amount. Never ran? Run 5 or even 2 meters. Start so small it seems ridiculously easy that you can’t think of quitting or doing something else.
2. Just Start It:
I could make this corollary of point 1 but it’s too important and often overlooked. You want or do not want something, you have to start it. The Psychologist Timothy Pychyl has coined “Just start it!” based on Nike’s Just do it. Take the first step.
Want to stop with alcoholism? Sign up for alcohol anonymous. Next step would be to go there. Want to start with the essay/blog post? Just decide the topic and write it down. May be next step would be to write the outline. After that the first point and so on.
3. Minimize Temptations (Remove Them!):
Start this small too. Slowly begin to decrease the temptations around you. Distant yourself from the dependencies that give rise to The Pleasant. Examples would clear them better:
Smoke 10 cigarettes a day? Buy a smaller packet. Decrease 1 over week/ 2 week. Drink too much? May be don’t hang out with the buddy who bathes in alcohol. Waste time on distracting websites? Install blocker extensions like StayFocusd. Gossip too much? Meet the person less or talk about something else. Don’t want to eat the pastries? Don’t buy the pastries or give the ones away and so on.
Corollary: Meaningful Distractions
Some distractions can help you delay the more dangerous gratification. Want to smoke? Watch the TV series or to feel less guilty, go for a run, call someone. Meaningful distractions deviate your focus from instant gratification.
4. Be Consistent (Build the Momentum and Be Committed)
When you’re making a life changing decision or habit, start small and build it up slowly. But be consistent. Decide the frequency: whether hours or days or weeks you’d do something and then on those times, short of World War 3 or a Family Crisis you must do it! Tolerate no excuses, you’re already starting small. I’d say sitting down for 1 hour of an episode is more uncomfortable than 1 or 3 or 5 push-ups, you do twice in a week or once in 2 weeks (depending on your progression).
5. Willpower Can Be Replenished and Increased
Dr. McGonigal also describes that ‘Willpower Reservoir’ can be replenished with Sleep, Rest and when you need it for small time, a minimum 5 minute breathing, relaxing meditation.
It can also be increased with regular physical exercise. Also, as you slowly begin to do the uncomfortable activities that you’ve been avoiding, start small and slowly buildup, you’d expand the limits of your willpower. What seemed too difficult in the past would seem part of nature sometime later. The same activity consumes very less or NO willpower at all after some time. And this willpower you’re free to use on other activities. Yay!
6. It’s Okay to Fail:
In the pursuit of anything, you’d fail. There’d be days when you’d even miss the 3 push ups and WW3 hasn’t started and it’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up for it. There may be relapses in your habit, recurrence of the behavior you’re wanting to change, reemergence of the thoughts you’re trying to get over and it’d be tough. Sometime they’d overcome you. Sleep on it, don’t think on it. But make sure to take the step you missed as soon as you can. We have to practice tough self-love but not beat ourselves either. Balance it.
7. Be Mindful (Acknowledge I’ve a thought or Start Journaling):
There is all sort of confusing mess about mindfulness. For our discussion, it’s simple: Be Aware. Observe your thoughts. Like observe the thought you want to eat a chocolate.
This unfortunately doesn’t work for everyone. You can start a journal, where you pour thoughts about what you want to do, pro & cons against it and track progress. But people can procrastinate on journaling too.
In short, I’d say learn to observe your thoughts. Have some mantra, motto, a mission statement or a catch phrase. Observe the tempting thought and recall your motto. If still have the same thought, distract yourself with the motto. This needs like 2 blog posts of its own to explain properly. It’s the essence: Be mindful. Then direct your awareness to the Righteous.
8. Start Accountability and/or Support System
Sometimes this journey can be daunting alone and may be you’re observing you’re failing too many times, then open up and ask for help. If you’re too shy to talk with your loved ones, go to a support group. These are especially helpful in addictions and for bad habits.
If you find it hard to be committed and perform the necessary action, have your ruthless friend make you more accountable. Example, if you don’t study and show him/her your progress every 3 days you pay him/her $5 or $15 or do their home work. The idea is to have a higher discomfort in this penalty than the actual task itself. There are apps that automatically do that.
9. Build a Healthy Reward System:
Example, if you stay committed and do not give in to instant gratification say for a week then you can have a temporary unrelated reward. Unrelated as in if trying to overcome alcoholism, it must not be related to alcohol or any addiction, may be eat a cake. But if it’s related to cakes, and you don’t eat for a month, then may be watch a movie or TV series? So on.
10. Delay (Defer Gratification):
This is in the end for a reason, you’ve to follow some of the above steps, but some can just do this: Whenever feeling the urge, delay. Don’t act immediately. It goes hand in hand with meaningful distraction and mindfulness. Distract yourself. Overtime it becomes a habit by itself. You have all these thoughts, you observe them and they go, like a flowing river. They don’t have an obstruction to stop the flow and flood, meaning, there is no anchor stopping those thoughts, one thought is replaced with another. With meditation, thoughts can be replaced with thoughtlessness. There is no thought, hence there is no action that follows that thought. Keep realigning your focus.
This has been one of the longer posts. I hope it has been helpful. I thank you very much for reading it and request it to share it, if it’s been helpful.
All the best with your goals. You can message me on Facebook if you want to talk about something. Take care. Keep smiling. Keep progressing towards your dream. Keep Trailing on Your Untrailed Path.
1. The Triune Brain Model: Evolutionary Layers of the Human Brain
2. The Status of Triune Model: Triune Model: What to keep and what to discard
3. Duryodhan’s Verse: Janami Dharmam
4. Verse from Kathopanishad: