It wasn’t Janet Jackson. It was Sigmund Freud who developed the pleasure principle, which theorizes that we instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain to fulfill biological and psychological needs. The two p-words are very broadly defined, so, for examples, pain may be hunger or loneliness and pleasure may be eating or companionship. If you’re wired to minimize what makes you uncomfortable and maximize what makes you comfortable, this can have profound effects on your diet, exercise, and recuperation. You may need to hack the pleasure principle, so you do more painful things that make you fitter and less pleasurable things that make you fatter.
HACK #1 RESIST THE MARSHMALLOW
A half-century ago, the Stanford marshmallow experiment measured delayed gratification. Researchers gave young children one treat (marshmallow, cookie, or pretzel) of their choice but promised them a second treat if they could resist eating the first for 15 minutes. Some kids chowed down immediately (no pain), others held out for a while but gave in too soon (some pain), but one-third fidgeted through the full 15 (maximum pain) to double their pleasure. What’s fascinating is the kids in the latter group grew up to be more successful, on average, than the others (how much is contested by more recent research).
Make delayed gratification more pleasurable than immediate gratification. Set definitive short-term and long-term goals, like a bigger squat next week than last or shedding 20 lbs. in three months and, if you reach those goals, reward yourself with something you’re otherwise denying yourself (favorite meal, massage, etc.). Focus on how your sacrifice today (a harder workout, a stricter diet) will be rewarded in the future.
HACK #2 SUFFER TOGETHER
In variations of the marshmallow experiment, kids were assigned to teams and told that members of their squad were holding out for the two treats. They were then more likely to last the full 15 minutes. This is the logic behind CrossFit and group fitness classes: Your “teammates” (even if they’re strangers) encourage you to show up and show out. They’re embracing the pain, so you will, too. This is also a key reason for having one or more training partners.
But what if you prefer working out alone? You can train by yourself and, simultaneously, with thousands of others via livestreaming, Instagramming, posting stats and videos online, and using connected fitness equipment like Peloton. Strangers (even just a screenname) can encourage you to embrace today’s pain for tomorrow’s pleasure, and seeing them crank up the pace or squeeze out extra reps will motivate you to do the same.
HACK #3 CHEAT TO PROSPER
Make pleasure a reward for pain. Schedule off days to follow your hardest workout days. Take a week off after reaching a long-range goal. And schedule a cheat day after six days of strict dieting. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson typically scoffs down sushi—lots of it and often coated with calorie-bomb sauces—or pancakes for his Sunday cheat dinner as a reward for downing egg whites and skinless chicken breasts the rest of the week. After cheating, he’s carbed-up, recharged, and ready to eat clean until the next Sunday.
HACK #4 ADDRESS THE DISCOMFORT
Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, states: “If we don’t control the discomfort we’re trying to escape, we’ll always get distracted by something.” Recognize all the distractions that might pillage your workouts, your nutrition plan, and your sleep. They’re everywhere. You may be reading this on the most omnipresent one: your smartphone.
Eyal says: “If the chocolate cake is on the fork, you’re already lost.” We’ll carry that a few steps further. You lost before you even bought the cake. You lost the moment you stepped into the cake bakery or cake area of the grocery story. You may have lost when you scrolled through cakes on your phone or just daydreamed about cakes. Stop this cascade long before the cake is on the fork.
Cake is both real and a metaphor for pleasurable distractions. It could be Fortnite or Netflix or Twitter or one of a multitude of other things robbing focus from what matters most, especially fitness. The key to successfully freeing yourself from a distraction-addiction is rarely abstinence. Instead, it’s addressing the discomfort you’re trying to escape. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Low self-worth? Unhappiness in your relationship or work? It may be multiple things.
Once you have a sense of why you’re repeatedly seeking temporary pleasure at the expense of longterm fitness, you’ll find it easier to make proper choices. And a dedicated workout and nutrition program can, in itself, fix some issues and positively distract you from others.
HACK #5 TURN DISTRCTION INTO TRACTION
So, you’re addicted to your smartphone. It can be used for traction as easily as distraction. Reminder apps (Any.do, Way of Life, etc.) can prompt you when to workout, eat, and sleep. There are motivation apps (FitQuote, Motivate, etc.) for encouragement. There are time management apps (RescueTime, Toggl, etc.) to pinpoint where your time flies. There are life expectancy countdown apps (Deadline, etc.) to “scare” you into checking things off your bucket list. And there are any number of other phone applications to turn your handheld source of short-term pleasure into a vehicle for long-term health and success.
HACK #6 ADD ONE TO THE OTHER
Make pleasure more painful and pain more pleasurable. Punish yourself for shortchanging your training or (unscheduled) cheating on your diet and reward yourself for grinding through hard workouts and sticking to a nutrition plan. So, if you cut your cardio session short, tack those minutes onto your next session—and add five more. If you plod through a lackadaisical leg workout, maybe distracted by texts, next time, plot out a high-intensity barrage of giants sets (and no phone) and crawl out of the gym. And if you eat a pizza when you shouldn’t, crank down the carbs for the next week or more. Be your own disciplinarian.
Conversely, make pain more pleasurable. To spice up your cardio sessions, download that true crime podcast you’re dying to hear and listen only during your morning runs. Likewise, dress for intense workouts in clothes that inspire. Maybe save your favorite sneakers only for days when you go for personal best lifts. And as for those skinless chicken breasts, there’s a whole spice rack of ways to add flavor without adding calories. It’s not going to taste like pizza, but it’ll help you stick to your diet—until that pizza cheat day.