Bad habits persist because of two reasons:
- They offer an immediate reward.
- Their consequences are often in the vague future.
People who smoke cigarettes struggle to quit because the act of smoking a cigarette makes them feel good. Also, the long-term health effects of smoking aren’t immediate. No one would smoke if the first puff of a cigarette would get them hospitalised immediately for lung cancer. Despite the best efforts of Health Ministries around the world, knowing cigarettes can kill you hasn’t been enough to stop people smoking.
This is related to an important concept called delayed gratification. Generally speaking, people want the rewards of their actions now and don’t value future rewards as much. The average smoker values the good feeling he gets immediately more than the fear of lung cancer 15 years down the line. After all, how sure is that smoker, they will be alive tomorrow. The threat of lung cancer is seen as a potential problem for a future version of the smoker which might not exist.
Interestingly, the ability to delay gratification has been linked to higher income levels and greater career success in future. In an experiment, Researchers offered a group of children sweets and told them they could either eat the sweet immediately or if they waited five minutes, they would get two sweets. The children who chose to wait, and by so doing showed greater ability to delay gratification, were tracked over time. These children grew up to be adults who performed better in school, developed well-rounded skills and had successful careers.
Being able to overcome that urge to do what feels good now in favour of greater rewards later is one of the indicators of future success. Teaching yourself to delay a decision long enough to think through the consequences may not make a visible impact today but if you build the habit of putting off an immediate reward for a bigger one in the future, you will reap benefits. The future you is an unknown entity. Are you willing to sacrifice something today so they can have less problems to deal with in future?