How to choose what you want most, over what you want now

You’ve had a rough week. You’re tired, stressed, and can’t wait for the weekend. It’s Friday evening, and you’ve got a few options: You could go to the gym to keep training for the Armed Forces Triathlon, go to happy hour with your battle buddies, or go home to order a pizza and catch up on your favorite shows. Which do you choose?

Throughout life, your self-regulation is often tested when you need to decide between what you want most vs. what you want now. What you want most often includes important long-term goals around your family, your career, your health, and your “bucket list” experiences. You might know what you need to do to accomplish these long-term goals, but the struggle comes in getting yourself to do it consistently. Here are 3 strategies to help you choose what you want most over what you want now.

Define what you want most.

What do you want most in life? Some people can answer this question easily, yet for others it’s less clear. Either way, take some time to reflect on and define what you want most to help you build your self-regulation skills. This will allow you to stay focused on your big goals and be less distracted by spending your time, energy, and money on what you want in the moment. Give some thought to the following questions:

  • What are the values that define who you are?
  • At the end of your life, what do you want to be remembered for?
  • What’s goals are you willing to sacrifice smaller goals or less important activities for?
  • What impact do you hope to have on the world?
  • What do you want to make sure you’ve experienced or accomplished in your lifetime?

Now that you’ve clarified what you care about most, find a way to keep it in mind regularly. Maybe part of a daily reflection or prayer or an image you hang up or save as the background on your phone or computer can serve as a reminder. Then, when you’re faced with choosing between one of your life goals or something else you want now you’ll have a strong reminder to help give you the motivation you need. Making a deliberate choice between “spending time with your daughter” or “happy hour” makes it easier to choose what you want most compared to thinking, “Some beer and wings would be really tasty right now, a few hours shouldn’t be a problem.” Connecting your daily choices to what you deeply value can help give you the self-regulation you need to achieve your long-term goals.

Change your environment to make “what you want most” the same as “what you want now.”

One of the bigger temptations that might distract you from doing what you want most is the desire to do what’s easiest, or nothing at all. Whether it’s spending the afternoon watching TV, or stopping for fast food rather than cooking dinner, human beings like to choose the path of least resistance. Use this to your advantage: Put what you want most on the path of least resistance. Set up your environment so that doing what you want most will take less effort than the temptations that frequently get in your way. For example, if you want to eat healthier, prepare larger or extra meals at the beginning of the week so you can quickly grab a prepared salad from the fridge or heat up chicken within minutes when you’re hungry. If you’re often tempted to watch TV on the couch, take the batteries out of your remote and leave your running clothes on the couch so they’re waiting for you when you get home from work.

Set up your brain for success.

Self-regulation decreases throughout the day as you’re faced with difficult decisions. As your mental energy lessens, it becomes harder to choose what you want most. Another way to help you focus on the larger goal is to use “When...Then” statements with yourself. These statements help you to choose what you want most by making your decisions automatic. When this situation arises, then I’ll do what leads me to what I want most. For example, the statement “When I get home from work, then I’ll spend an hour playing with my daughter” makes the decision automatic rather than deciding whether or not you should finish chores or work first. “When...Then statements” set up your brain up for success, just like prepping your meals sets up your environment for success.

Bottom line

Throughout your life you’re faced with decisions between what’s most important versus what feels good or urgent in the moment. The choices you make and how you live your values can impact your long-term performance and well-being. When you define what you want most and set up your environment and brain for success, you can help give yourself the self-regulation you need to work toward the goals you want most.

Sources

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 115–128. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00001.x

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A metaanalysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69–119. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(06)38002-1

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2 ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Öst, L.-G. (2014). The efficacy of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 61, 105–121. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2014.07.018