I started my career as a personal trainer (yes, it was all the way back in the 90s, and yes, that was approximately 125 years ago, and yes, I wore those swishy track suits) — which means I got a front row seat to the three-ring circus of Bonkers Human Behavior.
Most of my clients wanted to be healthy (and did so by paying me by the hour to watch them sweat), and then went home to eat more Oreos than they’d ever admit to in the harsh light of the gym. They wanted to be fit but wanted milk’s favorite cookie* even more. (This is a judgment free zone here; I too am summoned by the siren song of the Oreo.)
These same clients wouldn’t show up to work out unless they had an (expensive) appointment to do so, even though they wanted to lose weight/ lower their blood pressure/ beef up their calves/ whatever. They wanted to be self-sufficient exercisers, but in the moment they wanted to be doing literally anything other than showing up to the gym alone, trying to look coordinated while doing burpees in the free weight area. (This is not possible, to look coordinated or cool doing solo burpees. Burpees must be banned.)
I learned I wasn’t the only paradoxical wack job out there, wanting one thing and then doing another… often to my very own detriment. Let’s dip into the pool of psychological science for a minute here to understand what we’re talking about.
First-order volitions vs. second-order volitions…
Researchers have gone to town on how we want one thing and then fuck it up and do something entirely different.
First-order desires are what we want in the moment (hello, hedonists), whereas second-order desires are the greater-serving desires about your desires (stay with me here)… put simply, wanting what we want to want.
Example of a first-order desire: “I want to order the fries with an extra side of aioli.” (I agree with ordering extra aioli because they never bring enough in those tiny ramekins.)
Example of a second-order desire: “What I really want is to feel healthy and alive, which doesn’t happen when I eat aioli-smothered fried potatoes. I want to want to be healthy.”
Autonomy is not for the weak-willed.
As humans we experience the troubling paradox of desire; we (usually) want good and healthy things for ourselves, and yet because we possess this magical thing called freedom of will, we get to bury our second-order desires under mountains of garlic-infused mayo. We have the autonomy to choose the fries, and the burger, and the beers, and then the lava cake for dessert. We get to enjoy the meal while we’re eating it, and then we have the pleasure of dealing with ourselves later. It usually sounds like this:
“Why did I order the fries? And why did I eat all of them, even though I was full? And the lava cake… where did I even fit that? Oh, I know. My saddlebags. That’s where they went.”
We do this little ditty with other parts of our lives too…
- We really want to write a book, but in the moment when we should be sitting down to type our hearts out, we want to watch White Lotus instead. (It was a great show.)
- We really want to become someone who meditates in the morning but in that sleepy moment we’d really rather just get 20 more minutes of sleep.
- We’d really like to find a new and fulfilling job that maximizes our bad-ass talents, but in the moment we’d rather go out for happy hour instead of updating our resumes.
- We’d really like to quit smoking/ drinking/ Adderall/ bingeing/ gambling/ whatever risky vice has its cold grip of death around our throats, but in the moment of stress, the very thing we yearn to quit feels like an elixir that buys us another day.
- We’d really like to volunteer to save the sea otters (because they too are at risk!), yet in the moment we’d rather flip through the new Elle Décor magazine.
- You. Get. The. Idea.
What we grapple with on the way towards being The Gleamingly Best Versions of Ourselves are the procrastinations and distractions and feel-good-in-the-moment activities that let us get away with not achieving the master task at hand.
We get to avoid the discomfort of possible failure and rejection. If we don’t start the book, we don’t have to read a “thanks but no thanks” email from an agent. If we don’t pound the virtual pavement with glitzed-up resumes, we don’t have to feel the feelings we feel when we hear NOTHING after 17 online job applications.
Sometimes we aren’t procrastinating to avoid emotional turmoil. Sometimes our willpower just lacks… power. One study revealed willpower (or a lack thereof) as the number one barrier preventing people from making the lifestyle changes they longed to make. (10% said being “too embarrassed to exercise in a gym or public place” was a barrier to their lifestyle change — which brings us right back to banning burpees.)
What do you want to want?
Are you in touch with the bigger thing you want, and why you want it? Often we have an inkling of it, but it’s too squishy to hold onto when our first-order desires come calling — especially when we’re hungry, tired, lonely, scared, and basically any other emotion us humans are capable of messily feeling.
Get out a piece of paper/ fresh Word doc/ back of a takeout napkin and answer the following:
- What do you really want for your life (what do you really want to want)? (You can write out as many of these second-order desires as you desire.)
- Then write down a compelling reason why you want to want this thing. (Your answer doesn’t need to impress anyone, but you do need to pinpoint the why exactly.)
- Now write out an example of a first-order desire that might distract you along the way. (This can be an exhaustive list, and that’s okay. Just get your indulgences and distract + delay tactics down on paper so you can glare at them.)
- Identify a single step forward when your first-order desires come knocking. (What’s your workaround when the Oreos start squawking from the cupboard? What’s your plan when your alarm goes off and you’re compelled to hit ‘snooze’? What’s one, single, small thing you can do to avoid your first-order desires?)
Let’s be clear: sometimes we just need to give in and live a little.
I don’t know about you, but a life without indulgences here and there, and fun little distractions, and plates of fried things with copious amounts of aioli — not enjoying these things sounds like a life not worth living to me. I think we want the spoils and the hedonistic pleasures… like everything, in the right doses.
So this isn’t about living a pristine life that’s entirely in service of our second-order desires, because that would be unrealistic and also mind-blowingly boring. This is about giving ourselves permission to deviate from the master plan a minority of the time, and stay the course a majority of the time (when we’re not getting sloshed and hoovering all the Cheetos).
We need to expect and accept willpower dips and valleys. We need to budget for second-order dalliances.
Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard that if you want change, failure is part of the deal (not of the mission, but along the route). They point out that the only way to blow it is to quit trying (and here’s a great example: smokers try to quit 5 – 7 times before succeeding… what if they stopped trying to quit after only 4 attempts? Big Tobacco would be very very happy).
I remember sitting in a conference in 2012 listening to Dan Heath talk about how accomplishing anything great requires struggle, and while I nodded exuberantly at the time, I now see it through a slightly different lens.
I think accomplishing anything great requires us to allow for our beautifully flawed humanity along the way.
We can choose to see these obstacles as struggles, if we fight them, and yet if we rationally allow for them, we gently sand down their prickly edges. We don’t have to see the obstacles as struggles at all… more like necessary human diversions.
We can acknowledge it won’t be easy to write the book/ lose 38 lbs./ become a mindful meditator/ build an empire/ become CFO/ whatever floats your boat.
We must expect to be pulled of course along the way.
We must accept that we will succumb to temptation — the most common definition of ‘lack of willpower’.
We must budget for the one step back we take after every two or three steps forward. Imagine that kind of radical acceptance?
Let’s not lose sight of the bigger game we want to play.
We must play that game to win (vs. the ever-saddening choice of playing not to lose). Let’s still play big with our hopes and dreams and desires, while allowing for a little play of a different kind to break up the path to success and well-being. The happiest clients I used to personal train (yes, 125 years ago) were the ones that allowed themselves to be sloths every now and then, and allowed for diet detours along the way.
Budget 10% for hedonism and you just might live a life worth living on the way towards hitting your second-order goals out of the park.
*Hey guys, I went to the Oreo website and made a major discovery: THEY MAKE AN OREO SCENTED CANDLE. The Oreo people helpfully suggested “…accompanying the scent with a few sleeves of Oreos for that full 360 experience.” That’s thoughtful of them, right? You can also custom make your own Oreos (with a font called Oreo Sans — still my beating heart!). I should stop talking about Oreos in an article largely designed to help us make healthy lifestyle changes, shouldn’t I?