Great Pieces of Advice – and Why We Fail at Them

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” – Thomas Jefferson

The world is loaded with great little pieces of advice from people who have accomplished great things in their lives. Usually, these quotes point to some specific virtue that a person can have, and often to the same virtues: proactivity, frugality, temperance, focus, goal-orientation, industriousness.

I write about the virtue of such things on The Simple Dollar, often through times in my own life where I see the value of these virtues at work.

The question I have in mind is if these virtues are so worthwhile, why do I (and so many others) so often fail at achieving them?

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius

Rather than handling a piece of correspondence right now, I’ll toss it off to the side to deal with later because it just doesn’t seem interesting at the moment.

Rather than making a homemade meal on Friday night, I’ll let the children talk me into eating out at their favorite restaurant.

Rather than spending a free afternoon focused on a personal goal, I’ll spend half of it reading a fun book and the other half debating people on a messageboard.

Rather than bearing down on the task at hand, I’ll drum my fingers and eventually find myself playing a game.

Rather than minimizing my grocery bill, I’ll end up buying a fresh pineapple, just because it looks tasty and I know it’ll be a big hit with the family.

“Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.” – Benjamin Franklin

Even if I know that practicing a certain virtue will lead to a better life in the long run, why is it often so easy to go against that virtue in the short term?

We know frugality has great long term benefits, but we spend money foolishly in the short term.

We know that being proactive is incredibly valuable, yet we still choose to procrastinate.

We know that devoting time to goals can lead to great things, but we’ll still choose to blow off an afternoon.

I see this pattern over and over again, both in my own life and in the actions of others. Why does it happen?

I think it comes down to a handful of things.

First, most human beings are naturally short-term thinkers. The future is often hazy and uncertain to us. We might visualize the future, but when we’re making immediate choices, the present is often what really matters to us. What’s the best thing to do right now in terms of benefits and drawbacks?

In my own experience, the best solution to that problem is to simply practice looking ahead at the future more. I’ve witnessed in my own life where stopping for a moment and looking at future consequences of this decision not only helps with that decision in the moment, but it helps to make looking at the future for all decisions much more natural and much quicker, too. It takes practice and repetition, but it pays off.

Second, the poor choice is often the low-hanging fruit. Most of the time, humans look for the path of least resistance when it comes to which decision to make. Which choice is easier right now?

The best solution here is to make the more “virtuous” fruit hang a little lower. Set out your exercise gear or running shoes right by the door so that it’s easier to just go and do it. Cut up some fruit and wash it so that it’s a convenient finger food. Automate your savings through an automatic savings plan at your bank.

At the same time, strive to make the poorer choices a bit more difficult. Leave your credit and debit cards at home, and delete those numbers from online accounts. Throw away the junk food and alcohol in your cupboards. Delete your account on a messageboard or social networking site you visit too much.

Another factor is that we often put our personal immediate needs and desires first. Most of the virtues described above require us to put the needs of others – or the needs of our future self – first. That can be a very difficult thing to do consistently.

The solution to this problem is just like the first: practice. The more time you spend solely putting others first (yes, that includes your future self), the more natural it becomes. Time and time again, you’ll find that the rewards for not putting yourself first are quite abundant.

It’s hard to be the virtuous person we often want to be, but with preparation and practice, we can accomplish great things in life.

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