Your brain is locked in a never-ending battle between now and later. This tug of war is why you eagerly tackle nonessential tasks instead of pressing ones. You might know that a deadline is looming, but it feels so good to remove something from your to-do list that low-hanging fruit lures you away from more urgent matters.
Simply put, we’re all wired to crave instant gratification. Researchers at Princeton University studied this phenomenon in depth. The conclusion? Delayed rewards feel less enticing than immediate ones. In business, this type of warped prioritization runs against the need for consistent productivity and efficiency.
Fortunately, we can outwit our innate love of short-term success with a bit of old-fashioned practice.
Resetting a greedy, self-gratifying mind
In “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the author describes this focus on the short term through protagonist Morrie Schwartz’s eyes. “Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else,” Schwartz explains. “A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle.”
As a leader, you will see this tension play out daily, both in yourself and among your team members. Before you can help them overcome their knee-jerk reactions, though, you must gain control over your own. The wisest way to begin reversing your brain’s here-and-now focus is by acknowledging the problem.
Once you’ve faced the issue, put measures into practice to keep yourself from slipping into a constant rhythm of treating today as more important than tomorrow.
1. Be mindful of risks and rewards.
Feel a tug to start a business? No matter what anyone says, follow that urge. It’s not enough to simply follow your dreams — you also must recognize the risks involved. Just make sure you’re not blind in your pursuits. Examine all of the factors that may help or hurt you in making your passion a reality. The economy might be waffling; competition could be fierce. You can still succeed if you know — and plan to sidestep— the potential pitfalls ahead of time.
Take a moment to remind yourself of the rewards that lie in your path. If you need to, gamify your progress by treating certain milestones as occasions for celebration. When you get your 10th customer or 100th sale, for example, allow yourself a simple pleasure — even if it’s only taking an afternoon off.
This principle works because you’ll nurture your brain with small, selective rewards without losing sight of your end goal. Rather than get bogged down with nitty-gritty details or scamper down rabbit holes, you can concentrate on the journey. Plus, you may be less apt to be thrown off by problems because you’ll have anticipated their possible arrival.
2. Find a tribe to support you.
Your employees lean on you for support. But who will you lean on when the going gets tough? Your strength comes from within, to a certain extent. It also comes from external sources. Dealing with stress on your own can lead to plenty of anxiety, sabotaging your health and effectiveness along the way.
If no influencers or cheerleaders come to mind, try to build a network of like-minded individuals who understand entrepreneurial struggles. David Disiere, founder and CEO of QEO Insurance Group, has seen firsthand how surrounding yourself with support can help you remain on the right track. He notes, “When we talk to people who face the same challenges we do, we gain perspectives that we could not find anywhere else.” Having multiple perspectives is key, and finding founders who understand some of the same nuanced issues you face every day can only help.
3. Stop trying to be a machine.
As a business leader, your sacrifices will run the gamut. While that’s true, you should never let them get in the way of your identity outside the office. You’re no good to your business if you’re feeling burned out and consistently operating on three hours of sleep.
Being a business leader, especially at the helm of a newer venture, means putting in plenty of overtime. Still, give yourself a cap on hours worked. Even Mark Zuckerberg reportedly spends between 50 and 60 hours at work per week, despite his attachment to his company. That’s not a small number, but it’s clear he’s not letting himself become absorbed in work at the expense of everything else.
Enjoying a bit of balance feeds the part of your brain that requires instant gratification. A good example is a tough workout after a long day. It’s much easier to power through difficult, unrewarding, and perhaps thankless tasks when you can Peloton your way to a personal record later. The more balance you add to every facet of your everyday life, the less burnt-out you’ll feel.
Why operate on three hours of sleep and risk contributing to the high collective cost of burnout, estimated at $300 billion a year? You make better — and fewer knee-jerk — decisions when your brain is well-rested. Investing in things like a good pillow and mattress, as well as an app that tracks your sleep and fitness, can help you hit the ground running each day.
There will always be times when you procrastinate rather than review spreadsheets. However, the more you understand the tug between emotions and practicality, the more frequently you can head off majorly derailing behaviors. Your business will be better for it, and the rewards down the road will overshadow any instant gratification that tempts you momentarily.