There are many attributes of our bodies and minds that held essential roles during our evolution but are poorly suited for our current affluent societies. This is a major takeaway from the exceptional book The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. If you look for it, you’ll find that it seems to influence many of the social challenges we face as individuals. A very relatable example of this is the tension between the immediate and the future. This is well examined through the lens of dieting.
Get while the getting is good.
Over the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, our ancestors faced pronounced and extended periods of food shortage. Not pains of hunger but the incredibly harsh reality that you didn’t eat yesterday and you are going to wake up with no real opportunity to find food tomorrow. At the far end of these cases, people died from starvation. Yet, probably more frequently, these periods were not crippling but brought about an intense focus on finding more food. In either case, uncertainty about food in the future was dominant. This meant that you needed to eat as much as possible when you could. You simply didn’t know if the food would be there tomorrow.
In today’s affluent societies, we have a great deal of assurance that our refrigerated, frozen, and dry good food stores will be consistently well stocked with a wide diversity of food. Yet, even with those visible assurances it is hard to override the drive to gorge on any and all highly palatable calorie-dense resources we stumble across. This highlights the reality that not everything we do is controlled by the logic aspects of our brains. So if we let ourselves act as evolution has shaped up to act, we will eat more than we need to when we get the chance.
Knowing the game allows you to play.
Knowing this innate quality of your body allows you to recognize it and act differently. You can aim to be shaped by your interpretations, impressions, and logic. This degree of control may not always be possible, but it is far more likely once you know the forces you are working against. The challenge is that these biological imperatives gain power from their consistency. Your brain is always going to tell you that eating more of that hamburger is a good idea. This means that you need something that be drawn on to counter the this consistent pressure. Something easy to pull upon so that you can match that consistency redirect those real feelings into something you want. Pit the echo of the past against yourself from the future.
What do you want to be?
For as formative of a question this is, it’s not a simple one to answer. In fact, it’s undoubtedly going to change over time. That variability does not take away from its importance. Your future self can be a significant ally in helping you to make choices that prioritize long-term gains over short-term gains. Knowing who you want to be is a form a visualization.
This act of visualization is something I hear David Goggins describe frequently. He can motivate himself through tremendous physical experience by building a clear and tangible vision of completing the task. He sees himself as a finisher when he lines up at the start of the race. Seeing that outcome before you starts become that motivate to life it. This works because your brain is not particularly good at differentiating between thoughts and reality. If you spend time talking about what you want to do, you get a similar sense of accomplishment as you do when the event comes to be. Yet talking is a lot easier than doing, so it’s easy to stay on that side of the equation.
The practice of visioning your future self gives you the opportunity to replace the settled and accomplished feeling that comes from eating ice cream with a comparable feeling of accomplishment that comes from taking a step toward the physical statue that you want yourself to have. You can avoid that extra serving because you know that you are a fit person, maybe not at the moment, but you can see it, and feel that reality in your mind and it feels good.
Food is a very obvious example of the challenges we face as a mammal who lived in small groups, hunted, and gathered for food but is now placed in a remarkable and overwhelming world. Yet many other behavior choices face the same dilemma of picking immediate gain over potential future gain. If you do not have a vision of where you are heading, the default is you end up basing your vision of what is possible on the community of people around you. This can also be a remarkably constructive experience, but in many ways, the quality of the community around you it is out of your control. Your vision of what you want from your profession, personal relationships, and yourself is entirely within your power. It exists wholly in your mind. You don’t have to be held captive by the claws of an evolutionary process or the standard of whatever pond you find yourself swimming in.
This isn’t some short cut or processes that will always work in the day to day. A lot of it is circumstantial. What makes it so valuable is that it can have an effect and it cost you very little. You can practice. You can take aim, make it clear, give it detail, and when the questions arise, choose the one that is more likely to take you one step closer to that vision.-->