Paul Nixon's Blog |||

A Better Life

We all want a happier future for ourselves and those around us.


This drive is not optional - we are machines made to survive and reproduce. Our overly-content and easily-satisfied ancestors would have been less likely to get off their arses and see their genes safely into the next generation.

It’s something of a shame, therefore, that changing our behaviour is so god-damn hard, not least thanks to our powerful drives to maintain the status quo and conserve energy. This situation can leave us stuck between a rock (of hope and expectation) and a hard place (of apathy and inability to make the change we want).

However, having the right mindset can help, and the right mindset comes from having a useful kitbag of ideas and beliefs. I have collected ten of them below.

1. You are not what you say, feel or intend - you are what you do

Don’t let your brain tell you nice stories about how, one day, when x or y happens you’ll start doing whatever it is you know you should be doing. To an overwhelming extent, we know what we should do; we need to get on with it.

2. Bad is more powerful than good

Eliminating negative behaviours is more beneficial than adding new positive ones. Quitting smoking, for example, is roughly equivalent in positive effect as every medical advance we have made in the last 100 years. There is a catch; stopping entrenched bad behaviours is hard. But only Homer Simpson says if something’s hard to do it’s not worth doing’.

3. We experience more pleasure on the way to achieving our goals than we do when we meet them

Thanks to something called Impact Bias, which causes us to overestimate both how much and for how long future events will affect our sense of wellbeing - both positive and negative. Having goals are helpful to set a course, but it’s more important to have a system in place to make sure we are enjoying the progress we make along the way. Which leads us nicely to…

4. Progress is the greatest form of motivation

We underestimate the value of the small, daily pleasures we experience as we make progress towards our goals. Achieving a goal can be satisfying for a short while, but becoming the type of person that could achieve that goal is the real prize.

5. Small daily habits beat once-in-a-lifetime transformations

We are inclined to believe that to achieve an outsized outcome, an outsized, super-human intervention is required. Not so. Super-human interventions need levels of motivation and energy that won’t sustain for long. It’s much better in the long run to do a little bit every day, forever.

6. Only bad things happen quickly

Why wouldn’t we want to achieve our goals immediately and without any effort? If this were possible, we’d all be multi-billionaires with six-pack abs. The reality is that positive transformation takes time, often a very long time. Short-term heroic efforts do not lead to sustained long-term results, no matter how much we hope that this would be the case. Good things take time; only bad things happen quickly.

7. We don’t rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems

Having goals can be helpful - and worthy if they are well directed. They might even be necessary for positive change, but one thing is for sure - they are not sufficient. Goals describe where we want to go, but they do not tell us how we are going to get there. Without being clear on the actual behaviours we are going to carry out each day, we will make little progress.

8. To deliver a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you have never done before.

This is to state the obvious - but it’s not rare to see people talking about a different future while not modifying their behaviour one iota. Life is hard, change is hard, but it doesn’t come about by doing what you have always done before.

9. Motivation is an unreliable ally

There is virtue demonstrated in courageous, heroic efforts to try and deliver near-instantaneous, super-human, radical change. The problem is that sustaining the degree of motivation required is not possible in the long term - and therefore heroic efforts become heroic failures. The virtues of discipline and temperance beat heroism in the long run.

10. Nothing is completely satisfying

No matter how life-changing you think achieving a goal will be, prepare yourself to be disappointed. The explanation comes from the Adaption Principle - the idea that we surround ourselves with goals and desires according to our circumstance and feel pain and pleasure according to our progress. As Maslow said, a satisfied want is no longer a want; we are driven only by unsatisfied needs.

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