What can we do specifcally – to make the right decisions for a more fulfilling life, to overcome our weaker selves and to put good ideas into practice?

This is part 2 of a blog post that deals with the question of why we struggle to make and implement decisions that allow us to live a more fulfilling life. Part 1 can be found here.

Golden Rules

In order to be able to make the difficult decisions of everyday life more easily, it often helps to look at the ‘Why’ within or the ‘What’ that lies underneath. Behind many of the boundless – boundaries conflict that make life difficult for us and that require us to compromise, we can often identify recurring and somehow ‘deeper’ dilemmas.

For me, these are e.g.

  • Time (or Freedom) – Money:
    finding the balance between more work (gigs, bonus, promotions, etc.) to pay the bills, and being able to decide more freely what I spend my time/energy/motivation on
  • Body – Mind:
    finding the connection between gut feelings and what the rational mind thinks of them – especially with things slightly below the limit of consciousness, i.e. the not-quite-yet-perceived gut feeling and the subconscious

These ‘meta-compromises’ may look different for you, but what ours will have in common is that they affect many of your difficult everyday decisions. And here’s the kicker: If you set a few golden rules for these meta-compromises, they should also work for your everyday decisions. In other words, once I’ve taken the trouble to use Kahneman’s ‘System 2’ to develop rules for the underlying compromises, I create a shortcut to ‘System 1’ that makes it easier and more intuitive for me to make decisions in everyday life.

An example: I realized a while ago that I value ‘more freedom’ much more than I value ‘more money’.
Therefore, one of my rules is: as long as I contribute X amount of income per month to enable my family’s standard of living, I can simply say “no” to more work that I don’t like to do.
Of course, this rule only works if we have a plan for retirement and emergencies, and also if I acknowledge that if I don’t contribute enough, I need to actively find additional sources of income. However, the rule can also be applied to certain purchases, if I rephrase them into the question “do I value it to the extend I am willing to sacrifice part of my freedom to earn the money to pay for it?”. This question also was the basis for our family’s joint decision to somewhat lower our living standards (for more on this see the blog article on a happiness-optimized cash flow). Less consumption for more family time together.

A second example: I’ve come to realize that my gut feeling is weaker than my ratinoal mind, and that I therefore tend to make decisions with my head, although in retrospect my gut would sometimes have made the better choice.
Therefore, another of my rules is: After I have mentally made a decision, wait at least a day before implementing it and try to feel how it would ‘feel’ implemented.
If, after a certain period of time, I still feel comfortable with it, I go ahead and do it. However, if something seems odd to me, I try to figure out what my gut is telling me instead of bombarding it with rational arguments. And over time, I am still slowly learning to better perceive the more subconscious signals, e.g. as anger, disappointment, fear, pride, etc., and to take them into account in my decisions.

Trainer tips to tame your Weaker Self

In addition to the efficiency of decisions, we can of course also directly target the inertia of implementation and try to outwit our weaker self. Here are a few tips from my bag of tricks – maybe there is something in it for you:

  • Time Boxing: A positive incentive that works wonderfully for me are fixed, short units of time. The challenge with many ideas and decisions about a more fulfilling life is that they seem big, complex and never-ending – even if you try to break them down into small steps or partial results which still feel difficult to conquer. An instruction such as ‘write something about this idea for exactly 60 minutes, then you can stop for today’ avoids this problem, because the result is not fixed and you can hardly fail. This allows me to finish the exercise on a positive note and may even make it easier to repeat it tomorrow. At the same time, the dangling carrot ‘it will be over in an hour’ helps to keep my grumpy Weaker Self shut up for a moment.
  • 1-2-3 go: Sometimes the struggle is just about taking the fist step – or in my case, getting up early in the morning. A simple trick that helps me is to count to three out loud and to immediately get up “3” (or write the first word or begin whichever task you want to start). It doesn’t matter if the first word is good, if you stand straight, etc. it’s about starting as quickly as possible after the thought ‘I should…’ and thus surprising your Weaker Self before it can come up with an excuse.
  • The power of a deadline: You probably know the saying: “Everything takes as long as there is time left for it.” A fixed date in the calendar impresses the Weaker Self and sucks its energy the closer the deadline gets. This works best with concrete sub-steps that have their deadlines in a few days or weeks and even with setting the deadline yourself – but it works even better in conjunction with the following:
  • Committing to others or yourself: When I say my idea out loud to someone else, it has two effects. The idea has taken the shape of a spoken word and thus has become a bit more real. Second, a word said to someone else exerts a certain social pressure to follow up with action – because what are others supposed to think of me? And the more concrete this social (or self) commitment is, e.g. through deadlines or a plan of the first steps, the less leeway I give my Weaker Self for excuses.
  • Rewarding the Weaker Self: Dogs learn best through positive reinforcement – so do our Weaker Selves. This means that if I reward it with a certain amount of (time boxed) time for deliberate lounging, I can demand a little less hassle from it to work on my strenuous project. I don’t always have to see my Weaker Self as an enemy, because I might also like to do many of the things it likes, e.g. a walk in the sun.
  • Creative pressure in the subconscious: You’re probably familiar with this – good ideas suddenly appear in the shower or in similar, usually relaxed situations. This is probably not due to the fact that our brain only suddenly deals with the idea in the shower, but that larger questions and problems are brooding and processing in our subconscious (keyword: dreams…) – and then reappear at some point as a solution when fewer external signals flow in from above. The nice thing about the subconscious is that it also remains hidden from the Weaker Self – and I can take advantage of that. To make this work take the following:
    A) A question that needs a creative solution to consciously rack your brain about it for a few minutes (feel free to exaggerate the problem and not find a solution – your subconscious must feel the pressure)
    B) Immediately afterwards, a relaxing activity that distracts a little from the topic, but does not require too much attention (walk, cleaning up, coffee break, etc.)
    c) Some patience
    Often, after a certain time, an answer or new impulses arise, which your subconscious probably has been working on without your Weaker Self even noticing.

Not every tip fits every situation and I always like to experiment with new approaches, so if you have any tips for me, I’m always happy to receive feedback – be it with or without the (maybe slightly exaggerated?) metaphor of the Weaker Self.

The limits of control

Going back to my initial question, how can we make it less difficult for us to do the things that would actually make us happier?

We haven’t talked about a very important aspect, yet: It is simply impossible to get all the difficult decisions of everyday life under System 2 control or to permanently defeat your Weaker Self. And that’s a good thing! Part of the unhappiness of ‘high performers’ we come in our trainings is probably that they too often try to tackle something difficult and feel bad about not getting enough done. Some things take time and need to run their own course. One of the highest arts is to consciously live in the moment and enjoy positive and occasionally negative experiences as part of a fulfilled life. Without futile attempts at control beyond the controllable.

For the attempts on this side of the controllable, the following steps may – from time to time – increase the success rate somewhat:

  1. Develop an awareness of meta-compromises that often underlie our difficult decisions (body – mind, freedom – money, etc.)
  2. Hone a few golden rules for these compromises that make the difficult every decisions easier for me
  3. Outsmart your Weaker Self – with carrots and sticks according to all the rules of the art

Literature and links

Image credit: Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash