I am amazed (but mostly frustrated) at my ability to do childish things. Too many cookies. Too much TV. Not enough exercise. You get it. And you’re probably in the same boat.
Shouldn’t a 32-year-old adult have more discipline? More focus?
Where We Fall Short…
We all fall short in two distinct categories. I call them easy-bads and hard-goods.
Eating a donut is an easy-bad. It’s so easy to do. Literally effortless. Then my brain rewards itself with dopamine, making it even easier next time. And it’s bad for my health. Easy + bad = easy-bad.
A hard-good is a 5-mile run. It takes real effort. It can be painful. My brain wants to skip it. But it’s ultimately good for me.
It’s normal and natural to say yes to easy-bads and no to hard-goods. Your brain, like mine, does this by default. But without moderation, these “normal and natural” choices can be devastating. Too many easy-bads and too few hard-goods cost us our health, our time, and our relationships.
Modern society has surrounded us with easy-bads. We have abundance. It’s never been easier to eat like shit and sit on the couch all day. Never. We even invented new terms like “binge watching” and “doom-scrolling” and “mindless eating” to describe our easy-bad culture.
Saying no to hard-goods is also historically easy, partially because the rest of life is filled with easy-bads. Why eat spinach when there are french fries? Why stay fit when a pill can bail out my blood pressure? Why make that hard phone call when I can just “ghost” them or send an impersonal text?
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.1 Corinthians 13:11
I’ve asked myself recently: how can I fix these problems?
What does it mean to “grow up” in this context?
For me, saying yes to easy-bads is a lack of focus.
I know better than to eat that donut. I know I’m on a diet. I have the book knowledge to make all the right choices.
But if my mental state isn’t sharp, my lizard brain foists its habits upon me, “I’m gonna give you so much dopamine…go get that apple fritter, Chubby!”
Our brains are slaves to dopamine. I am not special in this department. Sugar, fat, salt, social media, TV—they all affect me in exactly the way they’re designed too. They stimulate me. And since I allow them to, they overstimulate me.
This video recently had a big impact on me. I highly recommend it.
I’ve noticed that reading has gotten harder for me over the past decade. I’ll read 5 pages in a book and think, “Has anyone texted me?”
Where the hell did that thought come from?!
It came from dopamine. People call dopamine the “pleasure molecule,” but it’s more aptly describes as the “anticipation of pleasure molecule.”
Dopamine distracts you from whatever you’re doing to ask, “What’s next? Shouldn’t something be next?! DO YOU HAVE ANY NOTIFICATIONS?!?!”
Dopamine is why you can’t sit still with your thoughts for more than 30 seconds. It’s why simply seeing food can be a trigger—whereas if that food was out-of-sight, there’d be no trigger. It’s why 90% of smartphone users have their phone within arm’s reach 24/7.
Just Say No to Dopamine
I’ve been trying something new.
When I feel an urge…to check Facebook, to eat a potato chip, etc….I try to pause and tell myself, “This is just dopamine. Nothing more.”
Shout-out to reader Levi who pointed out that this “anti-dopamine” system is a key part of the best-selling book Atomic Habits. It’s a great book. I recommend it.
The “urge,” in other words, is just a pesky chemical in my brain. And my brain can choose, if I will it, to ignore that chemical.
Over time, this resistance will re-train my brain to not release so much anticipatory dopamine for objectively lame reasons.
I want to have dopamine released for a delicious, healthy dinner. For reading a good book. For spending time with my loved ones.
I don’t want to be a dopamine slave to unhealthy activities.
It’s going to take time. I’ve let dopamine run rampant on my person for years, and that momentum won’t stop overnight. But it can be stopped and reversed eventually.
In addition to focus, I need to work on my discipline.
Whereas easy-bads are related to focus, saying no to hard-goods is a lack of discipline. My lizard brain complains, “But it’ll be hard! You’ll be sore. Or uncomfortable. Or stressed. Or…”
And if I’m not disciplined, my conscious brain succumbs to the lizard brain’s whining.
But I’ve made some strides recently.
For example, I’m training for a half-marathon this summer. I put together my training schedule ~7 weeks ago and scheduled over 30 runs into my calendar.
Prior to this training, my longest ever run was about 5.5 miles. But this training was ramping me up to ~20 miles a week, sometimes in 10+ mile increments! That’s hard!
But seeing the reminders in my schedule has helped me immensely. I know that Tuesday, Thursdays, and Sundays are my running days. I plan around the fact that I must run that day. It’s non-negotiable. In other words, I’ve built a system to help my discipline.
And I try to make it fun. I look forward to listening to interesting podcasts as I run. I check out new neighborhoods around Rochester. After the fact, I make sure to pause and think, “Damn…I’ve never run X miles before. New record!”
I’m trying to re-wire my dopamine valve to work for me, to positively re-inforce my discipline.
Discipline and Focus and Money
If you want to be “good at money,” you’ll need discipline and focus. But thankfully, there are a few shortcuts to help you along the way.
The Discipline to Invest Through Thick and Thin
Long-term investing, for example, requires the discipline to invest your money even when media and markets are making you feel pessimistic. Long-term investing is a hard-good.
The “hard” part is exemplified right now by the bear market.
Thankfully, you can automate your investing. You can remove the requisite discipline from the equation. For example, 9% of my paycheck goes into my 401(k) and $500 every month goes to my Roth IRA, both with zero action required by me.
The Focus to Stick to Your Budget
Whereas investing is a hard-good, spending money is an easy-bad.
“I’ve always wanted a gourmet donut maker. It’s only $799. Think about it – fresh donuts every Sunday morning!”
Spending is so easy. Marketing and credit cards and the sheer amount of stuff in the world all make spending very…frictionless. But the friction eventual appears when in our bank statement at the end of the month.
The same focus that says “no” to the donut is required to say “no” to the donut machine.
It takes focus to know your own triggers, recognize and categorize them, and ultimately decide whether to act on them or not. That focus is not easy. But it’s important.
Changing Your “Money Mindset”
Over time, I’ve been able to change my money mindset to make the “right” decisions even easier.
Namely, I don’t see investing as a “hard-good” anymore. I’ve studied and learned and built a strong belief in the power of long-term investing. What once was hard, now is easy. I enjoy investing my money. I’ve built myself a positive feedback loop. I see investing as an “easy-good.”
Similarly, I don’t see spending as an “easy-bad.” It’s more of a “moderately difficult – bad.” I feel a natural resistance whenever I spend money because I have a mental model of my budget. That resistance doesn’t stop me. It’s merely a pause, a reminder to ask, “Is this a smart purchase? Is it in the budget?”
I’m lucky that discipline and focus towards finances came easy for me. It felt natural. You might not be the same.
But I know human brains—your brain, my brain—can change. They can improve, whether in finances, diet, exercise, or another arena.
Get dopamine working for you. Build systems to stay on track.
And if you can, make the good things easy and make the bad things hard.