Have the Cake and Eat it Too
Have you ever voiced a concern to a friend, such as a performance review, and their response is to ‘Just be in the present, dude.’
Is this helpful advice? Should I neglect all the things in the future and seek to find bliss in every moment? I know what my hippie self would say, but I’m not certain about the part of me that craves to achieve more in the future. If I’m in the present all the time, how do I visualize and make my goals a reality? If I’m in the woods somewhere chasing after butterflies all the time, then I will have no time to sit down and get to work. If you are only fixated on being in the present moment, then it will end up jeopardizing your long-term satisfaction.
This dilemma often confuses the hell out of me and creates conflict in even the simplest decisions. I have a trip to Croatia coming up and I want to look good. I’m talking six pack, big biceps, and with minimal self-consciousness. I’ve determined to start eating healthier and going to the gym more. I’ll get about a week into my diet and find out it’s Becky’s birthday at work. As we all squeeze into the pantry to halfheartedly sing ‘Happy Birthday’, I’ll start to think about whether I should eat a piece of cake. Should I give in and embrace the guilty pleasure?
This is where my two contrasting identities come in: The present self and the future self. As soon as my eyes lock onto the chocolate cake, my present self immediately pipes up. He declares that I should indulge, to live a little, and for heaven’s sake it’s Becky’s birthday! You wouldn’t want to disappoint her by not participating. Yeah, you’ve only talked to her once, and that’s just because you were the only two in the elevator last week, but that’s not the present self’s problem.
My future self snaps back and declares that I’m a weak minded fool who won’t be able to fit in his swim trunks if I don’t listen to him. Knowing that the present self has the upper hand (I love chocolate), he threatens to make me stand in front of the mirror naked at the end of the day. My indecision will start to make me sweat(or is that just because Greg from accounting is standing too close to me in this crowded pantry?).
You might not have as extreme of conversations in your head, but I’m guessing you have a similar conflict when there is a discrepancy between what feels good at the time and what you want in the future. I previously assumed that in order to attain happiness, you needed to be content with one of identity. I’ve tried to be the zen Buddhist, simply concentrating on my thoughts and emotions at the moment, while forgetting about the future. I’ve also tried to be the extreme planner, trying to set myself up to be a future billionaire. I realized that I wasn’t really content doing either. In order to be as content as possible, you need balance. Identifying situations when you can allow your present self to win, and other times when you let the future self steer you in the right direction. This art of balancing continues to be a work in progress. For me, acknowledging that I have two selves was the first step, the next step was making sure that they both compromised a little.
In order to strike the right the balance, I’ve highlighted some things that have helped me set the stage for success.
Establish the Right Habits, Eliminate Bad Ones
A person is defined by his habits. If I’d like to achieve something in my life, I first look at the habits I need to start adopting. I will look at my mentors and identify habits that I can start incorporating into my life. If habits were easy to adopt, we’d all be Bill Gates by now(but hopefully with better fashion sense). Take it slow to start, don’t adopt too many habits at once and burn yourself out. Start with a few simple habits you can keep and take it month by month.
In order to make a good habit stick, you need to first clear the road of bad habits that might get in the way. For example, if I’m in the habit of eating 4 pieces of cake every time it’s a colleagues birthday, I won’t feel like going to the gym after work very often. I’m not sure if you knew this or not but it IS possible to live without eating cake(this is something that I’ve just recently learned).
Place Rewards and Punishments
In order to please your future self, you can reward yourself when you have successfully accomplished a long term goal. Let’s say that I go to the gym 5 days a week every week until my trip to Croatia. I can then reward myself by eating all the cake that I want while on the vacation(do they have cake in Croatia?).
If you don’t think that will work, you can always scare the crap out of your present self. In my experience, this works much more effectively. To stick with the same example, let’s say that every time that I eat a dessert(probably cake), I’ll have to punish myself by making my girlfriend dinner(but don’t tell her the reason I’m cooking for her).
Sometimes Let the Present Self Win
If you’re anything like me, my present self can be quite convincing. One minute I’m congratulating Becky for making it 52 years on this planet and the next I’m boxing out Greg from accounting so that I can get the last piece of cake(I don’t care if you bought the cake Greg, it’s all free game once it is cut).
To be honest, my present self is slightly fat, almost always lazy, and would like nothing more than to watch an entire season of Game of Thrones while eating ice cream(with cake, obviously) every single day. Even though this would please the present self, it would piss off my future self(and probably my girlfriend too).
In order to combat this, I make sure to indulge in things that don’t get in the way of my long term goals. Maybe I’ll keep it to one piece of cake at the birthday party(whatever, Greg). Maybe instead of drinking a beer at dinner, I’ll order something with lower calories like a gin & tonic. Moderation is the key to this balancing act. If I find myself too much in the present, I’ll always let myself down. If I find myself always looking in the future, I’d be the bitter guy at the birthday party complaining about office birthday parties and why we need to bring cake into the office… Some of us are trying to diet!
The popular proverb says that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” This means that I cannot simultaneously keep my cake and eat it. Once I’ve eaten the cake, it is gone. This figure of speech is also compared to the phrase “you can’t have it both ways.” I would argue that you can have it both ways, just don’t eat the whole damn cake. Eat half now, save the rest for later (back off, Greg).