What is your “why?”
No other question pops up in the self-improvement world quite so frequently. As all clichés that get beaten to death, there is actually a lot of value in exploring this question. The more clear we are on what we want and why want it, the more we’ll be able to get momentum on the planning we need to see an effort through.
But planning is one thing and executing is quite another. Daniel Kahneman’s landmark book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, revealed a breakthrough in behavioral economics. Your brain is run by two very different systems: the logical mind (a slow, methodical system) and the emotional mind (a fast, immediate system).
And while we like to think of ourselves as especially rational, it is our emotional brain that is usually in charge. In fact, the logical brain is most often employed to rationalize whatever the emotional brain is feeling at the time.
For example, after the holiday seasonal binge, your emotions desire a change. Maybe the desire comes from seeing thin, beautiful actresses in movies and magazines, and maybe it comes from those change-your-life posts all over social media.
Regardless, your emotions want you to be the type of person who ate better, was in better shape, or just looked better. Thus, the logical mind is called upon to help craft or select the perfect plan. This is when that question about your why might be helpful.
So, you get a plan that your logical mind feels great about, but there is a problem. The logical mind won’t be present once the exercise starts. Nope, just the emotional mind and he is a fickle little boy. He wants to be like Hercules one moment and then cries to his mama the next.
In fact, the behavior of little boys and girls is the most evident display of a mind completely controlled by the emotional system. Maturation is the process of harnessing those emotions with the help of your logical system and learning to act despite emotions. We train our willpower to grow our maturity and become capable of being the people we’d like to be.
When it comes time to train, logical self-talk means nothing. In fact, the only thing that might be effective is harnessing a powerful emotion. Say, I’m your friend and I know you’ve decided that you want to work out in order to be a model for your kids and to live longer and be more active for them.
When I see you skipping out on a workout I might mention how I’ll be happy to walk your daughter down the aisle, if your health gives out before then. Calm down. We’re friends. I can say that. But even emotional jabs like these would only be effective once or twice.
People who eat well and train consistently aren’t successful because they know what their why is and they think about it when the going gets tough. The why is helpful in the planning, but something else has to take hold if we are going to be successful. Even Simon Sinek’s popular book, Start With Why, indicates just that. The why is where you start.
Even more, his book is for leadership. The reason a leader’s why matters isn’t because she is getting people to care about what she cares about, it is because sharing her why makes people feel connected to her.
They feel like they are part of something bigger because she got vulnerable, showed she cared, and invited them into her world. She appealed to their emotional mind in a way that was palatable for their logical mind. That’s good leadership, but not a good strategy for ongoing success.
You Must Move Past Toddler Mentality
For children there always has to be a why for what they are doing. This becomes quite evident in their why stage. Even in early adolescence, we are driven by why’s, just more complex whys. Adolescents can appreciate more than just immediate gratification and the avoidance of immediate pain. They might train hard to earn a starting spot on the football team, for example.
Adulthood, however, is characterized by doing what is right just because it is right. Adults pick up trash even when it isn’t their own, just because it needs to be picked up. They put up a grocery cart rather than leaving it by the car because it is the right thing to do.
They go the extra mile on a project, just because they believe in giving their best effort. Sure, there is probably some self-interested unconscious drive—an identity they are seeking to live up to—but they basically do what is right because they’ve determined this is the right thing to do.
And they are happier because of these actions. They have projects and missions that pull them to keep growing, but mostly their growth and consistent fulfillment is stoked by establishing great default habits. They exercise, intentionally learn, and work on their emotional intelligence, just because this is what adults should do.
Ask a 50-year-old who has been working out consistently for the last 25 years why they exercise and they will shrug before coming up with a list of the obvious benefits they probably never actually think about. Any whys that got them started have been internalized and long forgotten.
We live in an age where we’re allowed to stay children forever. Society once demanded adulthood. We were courageous and contribution-oriented because we had to be for the tribe’s survival. Now, survival is guaranteed. Luxuries have become necessities and the age of marketing has made it very clear that the only reason we should do anything is for an outcome. Get this car, because it will make you feel socially superior. Drink this soda, because it feels good.
Even our schools are based on this immature model. Kids don’t come home and talk to their parents about what they learned. Parents convey to their kids that they better get in there and get the grade so they can go to the college they want and get the job they want. There is no concept of the value of discipline, organization, study habits, and finding an interest in learning.
These are inconveniences on the route to an outcome. The process is purely transactional. The only reason we can conceive of for anyone to study or learn anything is for a grade and an eventual job. Likewise, the only reason to volunteer is for the college application or points in that community service class and the only reason to work out is to look good at the pool. Right?
Social norms have programmed us to see every activity as a means to an end. Everything has to get us something. Ironically, we will be far more effective in achieving fitness or life goals if we focus on the process rather than the outcome and treat the process as an end in and of itself.
Discipline, perseverance, effort, learning, honesty, integrity, courage—these things are valuable for their own sake. They aren’t sexy, but they make us far happier than a new Apple watch. The route to sustained fulfillment and success has always been focusing on the right values. That has always been what growing up was about.
Transcending the Why
Hypothetical Person: “Why do you exercise, Shane?”
Me: “What do you mean? That’s like asking why do I feed my dogs. Because they need food. I’m an adult. My body, mind, and emotion need exercise, so I exercise.”
Hypothetical Person: “Why don’t you eat fast food or ever take a cookie from the staff lounge?”
Me: “I’m an adult. I pick and choose my treats, but overall I’m going to eat in a way that makes me better. What’s the alternative? Destroying my health to serve impulses?”
This may be blunt, but it is an accurate worldview of the consistent exerciser. I could sugarcoat the message, but that would be treating you with kid gloves. We have to be able to discern between productive and unproductive behaviors.
This doesn’t require a sense of superiority. Just as we are better off focusing on the process rather than the outcome, we are far better off judging actions and not people. After all, we all have giant gaps we need to improve. You may eat well consistently, but have no patience and a raging temper.
What consistent practice are you doing to work on that emotional control? Likewise, you may exercise and eat well, but never read a book, learn a skill, or seek to educate yourself in any way. I’d argue that neglecting the mind is an equally large gap.
The point is that understanding why something has merit is a good place to start, but we have to move past that. Every great society and philosophical system has understood the need to train the mind, body, and emotions. Some days you won’t want to and your why won’t move the emotional system at all. Oh well, you’re an adult, so you do it anyway. When you think about it, being a real adult is a pretty awesome thing to be. These adults really get stuff done.
And you don’t need to be an extremist in training anything. As I posited in my piece, Fitness for People Who Aren’t Into Fitness, the best route is probably doing a small dose of daily physical exercise. The path to success isn’t in demanding that you workout like a UFC fighter, study like Ph.D candidate, and meditate like a Buddhist monk.
That would break anyone. Balance matters and we must all take ourselves where we are. You need a simple, consistent plan and the mindset that you will follow through. Just make things as easy and simple as possible, plan them, and do them. Slowly add a modicum of difficulty as things become easier. Over time you’ll make amazing progress.
You Must Build Powerful Habits
These consistent actions aren’t built from willpower alone, however. They are built through powerful habits, environmental design, and social support. Ideally, society itself would have more appropriate expectations that pull us all toward a path of consistent growth. This may not be the case, but communities and mentors are available if you seek them out.
For more help understanding the process of installing habits, environmental design, and creating sustainable effort, I recommend my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery. It comes with a four-week willpower training protocol that is a great place to start.