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Delayed Gratification – The secret to healthy high performance

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Both top CEO’s and top athletes want to achieve more sustainable high-performance, long-term decision making and ultimately, build legacies. Earlier this month I sat down with UBS Driving Forward to talk about healthy habits, making good decisions, avoiding temptations and reaching sustainable results.

Formula 1 drivers may spend their nights dreaming of the perfect start but, like the rest of us, when faced with an early morning fitness routine, many prefer not to get out of bed at all.

The decision to overcome the temptation to stay in bed, throw off the duvet and swing your feet to the floor is called ‘effortful inhibition’ – and we see it in every aspect of our own lives. You might also notice it in that universally awkward moment of indecision in front of the biscuit tin, before deciding whether to reach in and grab one or not.

These decisions are often considered a simple function of will-power.

 “We assume that strong-willed people ignore temptation, while the weak-willed among us capitulate.”

But, increasingly, the weight of evidence suggests that’s not true – and nearly all of us are fallible when confronted by temptation. So, how do we win these every day struggles?

Make good decisions the default option

The straight forward advice is: if you are standing in front of the biscuit tin then you’ve probably already given in to temptation. Far better to apply willpower before you really need it, make the decision when you’re in the supermarket, or shopping online, by choosing not to buy the biscuits in the first place.

Self-control is what helps us to manage our higher-level goals. Yet, interestingly, studies show people with the highest levels of self-control also use it the least from day to day and seem to experience temptation less.

In the case of our imaginary racing driver, who is still clinging to the duvet: it may mean deploying your self-control early, by having your training kit and workout plan laid out by the bed the night before. The decision and preparation to go to the gym was made before temptation hit, so less self-control is required in the morning. Putting on the gym kit and walking to the gym is the default option. Our driver finds themselves training before their lazy instincts have had chance to intervene.

High-performers rely more on simple strategies and routines such as this to avoid temptation. The public believe they have better will-power, and this may be true to some extent, but high-performers know better than to depend on it; they structure their environment and develop patterns to make good decisions the default option. In time, high-performance behaviours, such as exercising regularly, eating well and sleeping adequately become habits.

“There is another psychological factor that works against our own efforts to make good decisions: time.”

Temporal discounting – and how to overcome it

We have a powerful cognitive bias that means our regular focus is on who we are now and who we are going to be in the short term. Our focus, for instance on how healthy we want to be in the future, is much diminished.

This bias can result in ‘temporal discounting’ and is one of the reasons why health campaigns that set out to change habitual behaviour are so challenging. It means we devalue future outcomes depending on how far they are away. The further an event is into the future, the less we rate its importance.

The top three global killers are associated with cardiovascular disease, while physical inactivity is a primary cause of most chronic ailments, but some studies suggest that only 14% of people make changes to their eating or exercise habits, even if they’ve had a heart attack.

So, while we hope that long-term messages about health are really going to make a difference, the evidence suggests they don’t. We only really care about who we are today and who we are going to be in the short term.

Achieving better decision making

An effective way to achieve better decision making is to accept that our bias toward instant gratification is like gravity; it will always be there. We can’t eliminate biases, but when we accept and recognise them, we can discover ways to manage them.

Recognising that self-control operates like a valuation system is an important tool in managing our decisions and achieving our goals. Our decisions about whether to pursue a goal are based on a number of factors, such as the effort we think we will need to make, the value we attribute to the action and outcome, and the opportunity cost.

Rather than relying on will-power, activate your valuation system by associating your goal with what really matters to you, not what you think should matter. Taking the time to consider whether the decision and action is aligned with your sense of purpose and what you truly value makes it more likely you will get the outcomes you want, more consistently.

We can all become better, higher performing, sustainable decision-makers

These ‘thinking tools’ and methods of decision making can become embedded and more automatic, through learned behaviour. There is a phrase in neuroscience, that “neurons that fire together, wire together”; our brains exhibit a neuroplasticity that means we can change and develop throughout our lives.

Perhaps the final important point to make is that the best decisions are not simply individual ones. The idea of identifying a singular superhero is a very Western, and perhaps typically ‘male’ way of looking at the world. The most tangible example of this is when a new and highly-rated CEO is recruited to a company and doesn’t experience the success they are predicted to have. This can be because previous achievements were incorrectly attributed to one person: the superhero CEO, when they were actually the result of a ‘superhero team’.

In ensuring the success of a team there are two elements that are vital to remember. Firstly, evidence suggests that in the highest performing teams, people feel safe. Secondly, the highest performing teams exhibit cognitive diversity, where people think, process information and see the world in different ways. Building diverse teams, where people feel secure enough to share their ideas with us, can compensate for our biases and increase the likelihood that you will make good decisions and achieve your long-term goals.

This article was first published by UBS Driving Forward.