Stop Telling Me What to Do (The Normal Person’s Guide to Success)

Okay, I will eat my vegetables! (jorsan75 on Flikr

Okay, I will eat my vegetables! (jorsan75 on Flikr)

We all know the things we should be doing and shouldn’t be doing. We should exercise more, practice guitar more, work harder on our business, learn foreign languages and eat more vegetables.

We also know that we shouldn’t smoke, drink too much alcohol, eat junk food, watch TV and a million other things. The “what” is not the problem. The “how” is probably not even a barrier, because we can all learn how to do pretty much anything we want with a quick Internet search. We know the “what” and “how” of success, so why is it still so damn difficult?

Personal Development Advice from Idiots

Who doesn’t know what areas in their own life need improvement, raise your hand. There is little mystery about the areas of our lives we wish were better. We all want to read more, exercise more, eat healthier food, spend more time with our families and friends, learn more skills, make more money, etc.

We also have a pretty good grasp on the things we shouldn’t be doing. I doubt if there are many smokers who think that cigarettes are good for their health. Unless you are a sumo wrestler, it is unlikely that you are happy with your own obesity. We know that we drink too many soft drinks, eat too much potato chips, and waste too much time checking emails and browsing websites when we should be working on our personal ideas.

Hey! Get me some french fries with that too.

Hey! Get me some french fries with that too.

Everybody knows, so we don’t need to be reminded of what to do or what not to do. You start gaining a little weight and then some genius recommends,

“You should exercise more!”

“Thanks dude! Never thought of that.”

“You should quit smoking. You will feel better and save money.”

“Really, I was smoking because I thought it was a good way to save for retirement.”

“You should invest more money.”

“Yes, great idea. I will take some of the extra cash I have stashed in Swiss bank accounts and do that pronto.”

Again, the “what” is not a problem. Also, the “how” is not so much of a barrier anymore. So if everybody knows what area of their lives need improving and how to do it, why do so few get started?

The Root All of Evil

Here is the source of the problem, and it is a big one so listen (read) closely. You may want to lean in towards your screen for added effect. Imagine me looking to both sides to see if anyone is eavesdropping on the valuable advice I am about to share. Here it is. It is coming. Are you ready?

We don’t do the things we know we should because they are difficult and unpleasant. We enjoy all the bad stuff we do to our bodies because we gain immediate satisfaction.

“Eating 2 litres of Hagen Daz ice cream seemed like a good idea at the time”

It’s Fun to be Bad

It is hugely satisfying to chow down on rich, heavy, fattening foods. Your dilemma between a hamburger or broccoli is really about immediate gratification versus longer term benefit. In fact all of these arguments are the same. Things that are good for you, generally don’t manifest benefits for a long time. We get to enjoy the bad things right now!

Many of us would love to speak other languages fluently. We also know that learning a foreign language takes a lot of work. Studying tedious drills or reading dated articles in a foreign language at one tenth of your native language speed is incredibly frustrating and boring. You might as well read the DVD player manual you left out for your mother to browse. People learn foreign languages because they want to communicate in that language more effectively in the future, not because it is fun to study.

This ties in with the myth of passion. People are not passionate about the boring, tedious and seemingly endless amounts of sacrifice necessary to accomplish a goal. That part sucks. They are passionate about the results of that effort. I don’t like practicing scales and chords for hundreds of hours on the guitar, but I do have a passion to improve my music skills. Even small improvements in my ability, as result of all that effort are incredibly rewarding.

Delayed Satisfaction

That is the real secret of success in any endeavor. You need to be able to clearly envision the future benefits of your current pain. Going for a run is often the last thing I can think of doing. There are dozens of other more immediately enjoyable activities I can think of such as: lying on the sofa, drinking a beer, eating a bag of potato chips, watching TV and shoving pencils up my nose. I don’t run because it is enjoyable now, I run because I know how great I am going to feel after.

That is what success is all about. It is trading your immediate enjoyment for future benefit. Having enough money to travel the world for a year would be fantastic. Are you willing to trade your car, dinners out, fancy clothes and other materialistic purchases now? Before you hand your credit card over to the store clerk, ask yourself if this immediate pleasure of the purchase is more valuable than the opportunity to travel in the future?

We make conscious and unconscious decisions everyday of our lives that either pull us toward our goals or push us further away. When you light that cigarette, open the fridge door and turn on the TV, you are making a decision. Throwing away your smokes, going for a walk after dinner, and making some progress towards the project you have been delaying are also choices you are making.

Before you get ready to grab a beer and flip on the TV, ask yourself if the next three hours spend in front of the idiot box will make you feel better about yourself than going to the gym and exercising?

Instead of opening your RSS feed reader and spending two hours reading blog posts, consider if that energy can better be spent working on your own blog articles or maybe doing some research on the business plan you have been putting off for months.

Pain and Pleasure

Cigarette Anyone? (Ajka_Hungary on Flikr)

Cigarette Anyone? (Ajka_Hungary on Flickr)

The real secret to success is to flip around the ways we derive satisfaction. We need to associate pain with our detrimental short term indulgences and make distant goals seem more tangible and pleasurable. If you want to quit smoking, visit the cancer ward of a hospital or put up pictures of lung cancer victims around your house. Link pain to smoking.

If you want to travel the world, carry pictures of the places you want to see in your wallet. Tape a picture of the Eiffel Tower to your credit card and choose to make a purchase or save for your adventure.

Do you have the courage and will power to trade now for the future?

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

19 Responses to Stop Telling Me What to Do (The Normal Person’s Guide to Success)

  1. J. D. Bentley says:

    This post resonates especially well with me. I’ve always heard (and most people have likely always heard) that a sign of maturity is being able to delay pleasure for an even greater reward at the end. I can seem to apply this to money situations, but when it comes to what really matters, like building a business or losing weight or learning Portuguese, I totally suck. I still haven’t figured out how to stay determined. Even having seen significant progress while working toward a goal, the motivation and determination only gets me so far. So what can we do? How do people stay focused until the end? If it was possible to “just make” myself do these things, I’d have done them long ago. What psychological factors are acting as barriers? What environmental factors are acting as barriers?

    It can get complicated. All I can do is push forward. This post offers up some great advice, but it’s ironic that I’m really just reading this because I want change to be easy. It’s easier to read about how to get your shit together than to actually get your shit together and it’s easier to ask questions about why your shit isn’t together than to get your shit together.

    I should probably shut up now and go for a run.

    Thanks, John!
    .-= J. D. Bentley´s last blog ..So You Want To Be A Blogger, Part Two – Setting Up Your Blog =-.

  2. Colin Wright says:

    REALLY good post. One of those posts that I read, nodding the entire time. For some reason I especially love the idea of taping a photo of the Eiffel Tower (or whatever your long-term goal is) to your credit card to remind you of what you’re working toward.

    I have a sort of precarious relationship with delayed gratification at the moment, as I’ve been taking time (as I try to do every few months) to really analyze my beliefs, philosophies, etc etc etc. Right now I’m having a healthy debate with myself over some very existentialist beliefs, including whether or not it’s really worth it to put off satisfaction until later.

    The main arguments on both sides are thus:

    PRO DELAYED GRATIFICATION:
    -Generally larger rewards
    -Have always felt great in the past
    -This is how I operate naturally (for the past few years, anyway), so there’s no habit to start
    -Publicly acceptable as a goal

    PRO INSTANT GRATIFICATION:
    -Immediate and satisfying
    -When I’ve forced myself to take something now instead of later, it’s been fun and/or ridiculous
    -One life to live, and you don’t know how long it will be…would be a pity to save and save and die before you can spend anything
    -Ostensibly the biological imperative is the procreate, but the social imperative is to enjoy oneself (and the two can overlap, in some cases)

    ANTI DELAYED GRATIFICATION:
    -Painful. Boring. Tedious.
    -May never see desired results.
    -If you do see desired results, you might be too old to enjoy them (or not really care about them any more)
    -More time intensive

    ANTI INSTANT GRATIFICATION:
    -Generally smaller/shorter term rewards
    -More likely to have unpleasant side-effects or consequences
    -All about the goal, so you miss out on the journey
    -Not the natural way I approach things, so it would take some getting used to
    -Not publicly acceptable (more likely to get you labeled ‘worthless’ by parents and celebrity pundits)

    I’m torn at the moment, though recently I’ve been trying to take more of a middle-path approach, not overdoing it one way or the other. Keeping a lot of longer-term projects going while making an extra effort to enjoy some shorter-term, instant gratification goodies in the mix.

    Anyone have thoughts on this? Outside opinions are quite welcome.
    .-= Colin Wright´s last blog ..How To See Like A Traveler All The Time =-.

  3. This line is awesome:

    We need to associate pain with our detrimental short term indulgences and make distant goals seem more tangible and pleasurable.

    I definitely tweeted that.

    I think we are distracted so much today that it prevents such benefits as travel and general opportunities from being missed by the general public.

    Thanks for your thoughts in this post.

    Dave
    LifeExcursion

  4. John says:

    Thanks for the comment Dave. I will check out your blog!

  5. Mike in Bali says:

    Great article. I am a fan of zenhabits and one common theme on his blog is to make small daily changes to your life. I am always conflicted with how I spend my time everyday, yes I want to exercise, but I also want to spend time working on the internet. I try to limit the things which only waste time (like reading blogs!) but obviously they can also have a lot of benefit too.

  6. Ken Kurosawa says:

    I’ve lived and taught on a very small island on the western part of Japan a few years ago. It was a great experience in ‘delaying gratification’ because the island lacked a lot of what the mainland offered. Most of what was normal conveniences didn’t exist on the island. But once ‘delaying gratification’ became a routine, the pain stopped and the satisfaction of life set in.
    .-= Ken Kurosawa´s last blog ..What Are You Doing To Prepare For The Future? =-.

  7. John says:

    Hi Mike.
    I agree. Small daily changes that become habits are a great way to improve our lives. I personally follow “5 minute” goals. I can do anything for 5 minutes, so that is all I commit to. Larger obligations like 1 hour a day of study can easily be blown off because I don’t have the time, but there is no way to make excuses for only 5 minutes. Once you start doing 5 minutes a day for a month or so, then move up to longer times. Just don’t over do it.

    Not all blogs are a waste of time! 🙂 At least I hope this one is not. However, I do think we spend so much time reading about productivity and so little time working productively. A little more doing is probably beneficial to all of us.

  8. Nate says:

    John this is one of the best blog posts I’ve read in quite a while. I’m about to tape a picture of Machu Picchu inside my wallet, that’s an awesome idea! The timing of this post is perfect for me and where I’m at right now. Especially in the area of traveling, I’m done putting it off, and I’m aggressively trying to save money. There are so many things I’ve eliminated from my “fun” purchases, and it really sucks. But it will all be worth it when I hop on my first international flight. You are quite the motivator man, keep these posts coming!

  9. Alan says:

    Wow–great writeup John. I also like Colin’s mindmap in the comments above. The most relevant part in this post for me:

    “Instead of opening your RSS feed reader and spending two hours reading blog posts, consider if that energy can better be spent working on your own blog articles or maybe doing some research on the business plan you have been putting off for months.”

    I’ll figure this one out eventually, but when guys like you are writing such great posts, how can I deny myself the instant gratification of following along? Now there’s a tricky question 🙂
    .-= Alan´s last blog ..PMBA Assignment 3: The 80/20 Principle =-.

  10. Corbin says:

    I loved this post. Spoke very true to me, I have a habit of procrastination. If it weren’t for the big White Board I bought, iwould probably be watching Lost, drinking, or finding some other excuse not to buckledown and work. I keep lists of things that I need to do for that day. And try to include how much time I’m going to dedicate to each of them. If theres no paper I usually resort to the top of my hand.

    For instance:
    1. (30m) Work on 2 blog posts
    2 (5m) buy that .com i’ve been meaning to
    3.(20m) Setup that photo gallery script
    and so on and so forth

    I usually end up with about 10 things a day. I rarely finish them all, but theres some sort of satisfaction everytime i get to cross one off. Whenever I actually manage to get everything on my list done, i usually reward myself with a slack day the next day, or partake in some of those distractions we all love so much.

    Love your site, keep up the good work
    .-= Corbin´s last blog ..How to get Free Wifi in Airports =-.

  11. Robert says:

    Awesomeeeeeee. I’d like to open up this idea to analyze everything we do. Obviously thought goes into weighing now verses later, but I think when broken down to a mechanical decision, and taking our emotional urge out of it, or better yet, retraining that emotional urge, we will opt for waiting most of the time.

    It makes most clear sense with eating like you’ve portrayed here but it can be applied to so many vital things in life, if only I could have retrained myself to save all the dollars I spent and still spend on hoagies instead of making them myself, I could be making enough compound interest to live off of!! … relationship decisions, food, shopping, if the world would just take a minute or two longer to think about what they were doing, to calculate whether speeding to avoid being 2 minutes late or stealing that candy bar is worth it…well then…it would be a whole new world.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..Life Designed | 70 days in, What have I done?! =-.

  12. NomadicNeil says:

    You can also think about gaining satisfaction from the journey and not just the destination.
    .-= NomadicNeil´s last blog ..I booked my ticket: Commitment and Consistency =-.

  13. John says:

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for the great comment. If you are going to die tomorrow than spending your last hours writing a business plan or cleaning your closet seem stupid. However, if you end up living for an extra 50 years, you can’t live everyday like it is your last. Sooner or later you are going to start having regrets. “I wished I started that business I wanted to 20 years ago.” “I could have cleaned my closet out a long time ago and benefited everyday by being able to find things easier.”

    My point is that people who live for the now are trading doing even bigger and cooler things in the future. Most people overstate the short-term pleasures and understate the long-term benefits. I am not taking about working in a job you hate for the rest of your life. I am talking about working your ass off to accomplish something you really want.

    I had an employee once who said that life is too short to not do the things he wants. However, he used that excuse to go out drinking every weekend. He had other passions that he always talked about but made barely no effort to accomplish.

  14. John says:

    Hi Neil,

    Yes, that is what I keep trying to say when I talk about “passion.” People often have unrealistic expectations about what a good life is supposed to be. It is possible to enjoy everyday activities like work, cleaning, music practice, language learning, etc. Not because those activities are always exciting, but because they can be a form of meditation and personal development.

  15. Sean says:

    John, this was one of the more interesting articles I have read lately. I had never thought about the fact that the bad things in life are the ones that provide instant gratification, whereas many of the good ones are the result of months of hard work. Yet it is such a simple, and true concept!

    To use a little creative thinking and to find a way all good things more enjoyable is a fantastic idea. How do I make running more enjoyable? Maybe I just need to do it on a treadmill at an all female gym? Hmmm, yeah I think that might help…

  16. […] I just this morning came across this article by John over at Jet Set Citizen entitled “Stop Telling Me What to Do (The Normal Person’s Guide to Success).”  It is a fantastic look at why we do so many of the bad things we do, yet seem to struggle […]

  17. John says:

    Thanks for the kind words Sean.

    It is a difficult trade off; pleasure now or accomplishment in the future? Live for now or do bigger things. Young people tend to say that life is short. However, when you get older you start having regrets because you didn’t make the personal development investments earlier. I am trying to make up for lost time before I reach the stage where I am too old and I tell myself it is not worth it anymore.

  18. Awesome post John!

    I really like your way to make affirmations funny in the beginning of this post and you are absolutely right about the root cause. You also wrote in a way that it was both entertaining and inspiring at the same time. Stumbled!
    .-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..27 Traits Of Successful People =-.

  19. “The real secret to success is to flip around the ways we derive satisfaction. We need to associate pain with our detrimental short term indulgences and make distant goals seem more tangible and pleasurable.” ? That’s great John!

    I love this message, it’s an inspiring ass kicking! And thanks for the shocking visual reminder about smoking. I needed that too. Cheers buddy
    .-= Cody McKibben´s last blog ..Quit Trying to Convert Me Because It Ain’t Gonna Happen =-.

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