John Locke defined two types of pleasure: real pleasure and false pleasure.
“False pleasures” are the pleasures that give us a short-term sense of happiness. Drinking alcohol, eating a slice of cake, and watching television, are all examples of false pleasures. In the moment, eating a slice of cake is great -- your taste buds are ignited, and a sense of job overcomes you -- but how will you feel about that cake tomorrow?
Relying on false pleasures makes it easy for you to end up in a state of constant regret. Tomorrow, you may wake up and ask yourself “why did I have to eat that cake?” You look in the mirror, realize you are not who you want to be, and now you don’t feel as good because you ate the cake you did not want to eat.
In my life, I am trying to optimize for the second category of pleasure: real pleasures. Real pleasure is a long-term sense of satisfaction in your life. It’s not as if any particular event gives you real pleasure, which is what makes it difficult to cultivate. Real pleasure is the culmination of all of your past decisions, and determines how you feel now.
If I were to eat unhealthy for a month, I can almost guarantee I would not be as happy as I am right now. I would feel tired. I would feel guilty about eating so badly.
These are not emotions I want to experience, and so I let my mind actively think about how I can mitigate the chance I end up with those emotions. When I see a sweet, I will ask myself “what will tomorrow’s James think about you if you eat that sweet?”
Asking this question is enough to encourage me to move onto thinking about something else. Notice that I didn’t say “well, maybe this will set me off my goals, but I can get back on track again…” Instead, I forced myself to think of the ramifications of my decision tomorrow.
I like to think about tomorrow’s James when making decisions, and everything I do should be in the name of making tomorrow a little easier.
Let me give you a few examples. Exercising for 30 minutes today may be difficult, because exercise is never really easy. But if I exercise today, it will be easier for me to show up tomorrow and exercise. I’ll be building a habit, and over time my mind and body will adjust to the exercise routine. Eating a chocolate may be easy, but if I do so, tomorrow I may decide to eat another, and start a virtuous cycle of eating more confectionery than I would like.
The way I think about this is that I am doing my future self a favor. By sacrificing short-term pleasure, I make it easier for me to play the long-game tomorrow. And I know that if I do myself that favor, I will feel better about myself tomorrow.
Each day, when I can, I try to find opportunities to do my future self a favor. Sometimes, it can be something small, like preparing my clothes for the morning if they are not ready. Other times, it may involve saying “no” to a bigger decision, like allowing myself to think about the weekend on a Tuesday.
When you continue to do yourself these favors, over time the benefits compound and you realize it is so much easier to become the person you have wanted to be. These decisions are never necessarily easy, but I know that they will pay off in the long-run, and I want to optimize for the long-term.
The consequences of my decisions are not always realized in the moment. They may have a feedback loop of weeks, or months. And that’s why it’s so important to do myself favors in the future: I may not realize their immediate value today, but in a few days or weeks I’ll be able to look back and say “what a good decision that was.”