To address temptations and similar challenges, the Shift Your Focus technique reframes your thinking from short-term to long-term, so exercising your willpower becomes easier.
How? Let’s explore an example.
It’s time for your run, and you feel a strong temptation toward ice cream and Netflix instead. Then you remember the PAW Method!
- Pause: You pause and take a few deep breaths. The temptation cools down but is still there.
- Awareness: You become aware of your options: the ice-cream-and-Netflix combo is clearly -1, while going for your run is clearly +1. Then you become aware of the stories, emotions, and urges in the moment. Yet the temptation continues.
- Willpower: You now need to shift your state, from the narrow perspective that would have you break your commitment to the broad perspective that will keep you on track. You do that by using the Shift Your Focus technique.
This technique involves three steps:
- Zoom out, to get perspective, and break the spell of instant gratification.
- Remember your aspiration, to realign yourself with your deeper values.
- Be kind to your future self by feeling the real benefits of your goals.
Step 1: Zoom Out
Skipping the run and going for the Netflix and ice cream may feel really tempting if you consider the choice in a vacuum: the effort of running compared to the pleasure of TV and ice cream right now. If we look at our small daily choices in isolation, we live under the false impression that they have no long-term consequences.
Sure, eating ice cream once and skipping your run once has basically zero health consequences in the long term—yet this is not what’s going on here. This decision is really one in a series, and the consequences add up. Small decisions, +1 or -1, compound over time, and they will either move you toward your aspiration, or hold you back.
To zoom out to the long-term view, ask: Am I happy to make this decision a habit? What would be the costs of that?
There are really two things at stake here: the habit itself, and the long-term consequences.
The Realities of Habit-Building
Every time you procrastinate, you train your brain to procrastinate. Every time you make an exception, the exception gets closer to becoming the rule. Every time you say yes to a temptation, you make it more addictive. By skipping your goals today, you train yourself to skip them tomorrow.
On the flipside, every time you say yes to your aspiration, you strengthen it. Every time you go for the run, you make it easier to run again. Every time you keep your commitments, you increase the likelihood that you’ll keep them in the future. Every time you take a step forward, you build your momentum.
The Realities of Consequences
When we take the short-term view, we deny the reality of compounded decisions. We often don’t even notice that we are facing a self-control conflict. We just mindlessly indulge. So we need to zoom out to see the long-term effects.
That which is good for you in the beginning and bad for you at the end, is bad for you. That which is bad for you in the beginning and good for you at the end, is good for you. Remember this, and you’ll be proud of your decisions, rather than regret them.
So the question is not: “Do I want the pain of running, or the pleasure of TV and ice cream?” It is, “Do I want the pain of poor health and extra weight, or the pleasure of feeling fit, light, and energetic?”
It might be helpful to imagine that you’re supporting a friend who is facing a similar conflict. Describe the situation and the real values at stake. Can you help him/her make a decision he/she won’t regret? This helps you temporarily suspend your own biases. Then you can re-apply the same thinking to yourself, now more impartially.
Step 2: Remember Your Aspiration
Reconnecting emotionally with your aspiration, and strengthening it, enables you to make decisions that are aligned to it. Clarity about your values, and the tradeoffs involved in every choice, makes it easier to choose your aspirations over instant gratification.
Bring to mind your goal or aspiration, then ask yourself:
- Why is it important for me? Remember deeply. If needed, review the exercise in Magnify Your Aspiration.
- How will I feel once I actualize it? Connect yourself emotionally with the benefits of achieving your goals; get excited about your vision again.
- How will I feel if I delay my goal—or even give it up—for a temporary pleasure? Feel the pain that would cause. Do you really want to go there?
You can even exaggerate your perception of pain and benefits, if needed, so that the decision becomes a no-brainer for you: do you want the pain of regret, or a glowing sense of fulfillment?
If you want every decision to move you toward your aspiration, use your aspiration as the compass for every decision. This leads to a life lived in harmony with your goals. This is Mindful Self-Discipline.
If the first two steps have not yet shifted your state, so that you can take the goal-promoting activity, then proceed to Step 3.
Step 3: Be Kind to Your Future Self
The main challenge with shifting our focus—from instant gratification to long-term goals—is that our present self feels much more real than our future self.
Brain scans show that, for most people, thinking of their future self is almost like thinking of another person. When you imagine a future experience, the brain areas associated with thinking about “self” are not activated. It doesn’t feel like “me”.
If your future self feels like a stranger, of course you will opt for instant gratification—the idea that there’s a conflict won’t even register. Why would you give up comfort right now and undertake a long and effortful journey to benefit a stranger sometime in the future?
This curious dissociation results in a tendency to burden the future self. You think tomorrow will be different, that somehow you will change in the future and start making better decisions, so it’s okay not to change today. It is one of the main reasons why self-discipline can feel so difficult—and why regret, so commonplace.
- You give in to temptation today, believing that tomorrow you’ll control yourself.
- You overspend today, believing that later you will save more and spend less.
- You get distracted today, thinking that tomorrow the distractions will be less distracting.
- You postpone important work, believing that your future self will be better equipped for it, with more time, money, determination, and willpower.
Each decision like this makes your life more difficult. I call this self-discipline debt. Either you’ll pay this debt with interest (change will be harder in the future), or you’ll go bankrupt (feeling regretful and unfulfilled).
To prevent self-discipline debt, you need to create a strong connection with your future self, so that it feels like “me”. Here are four methods to help you do that.
Self-Reflection: Reflect repeatedly that your future self is you, and that today you are the future self of yesterday. Contemplate that your core identity, preferences, and tastes are likely to stay the same. See that the joys and sorrows of tomorrow will be as real for you as are the ones you experience today. Consider how you would live if you knew your actions were being constantly observed by your future self—because they are.
Letter Writing: Communicate with your future self, telling him/her what you are doing today to meet your long-term goals. You can use paper, email, or a service such as FutureMe.org.
Visualization: In a calm, meditative state, imagine two versions of your future life: having achieved your goal (designed life), and not having achieved it (conditioned life). Picture each experience in great detail, experiencing them fully. Feel the pains of the conditioned life, and absorb the joys of the designed life.
Aging Software: Look at an image of yourself as an older person, using age-progression software if possible. Gazing into your future eyes, ask, “Which decision will make you happier? What advice would you give me right now?”
If you struggle with this connection, try doing these exercises daily for some time—perhaps right after your morning meditation practice, or after journaling at night.
If you still struggle, you can teach your brain the benefits of the desired action by attaching an external reward to that behavior, as covered in the Action Pillar.
Live with the awareness that every decision matters, that every decision is building up your future self and future life. Link your present with your future, and you will have a present you can be proud of, and a future you can truly enjoy.
The Result: No More Conflict
The Shift Your Focus technique gives you three different ways to shift your perception about the values at stake. As we saw, the real value conflict in our example is not “running” vs. “Netflix?”. It is “being healthy and energetic, looking great, achieving my goals, and being the person I want to be” vs. “delay all of that good stuff for a fleeting pleasure that will soon be forgotten and does not really build toward anything”.
As your focus shifts from short-term to long-term, your aspiration becomes stronger for you, and your temptations, weaker. Your decision becomes a no-brainer.
Thus, you bypass the self-control conflict, and it is much easier to apply your willpower. This is Mindful Self-Discipline at work. The more aware you are of real consequences, the less you need to be forceful with yourself.
Every decision matters much more than it may seem in the moment. Become aware of the real costs and benefits of each decision by zooming out, remembering your aspiration, and connecting to your future self. With that habit in place, every day in your life will be a step toward your goals; without it, every day might be a step toward regret.