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Why don’t we do the things that will benefit us?

Have you ever thought about why we don’t always do the things that will benefit us?

And I don’t mean things that we will eventually do because we are obliged to do them, for example, carry out a project or write a contract. That is called “procrastination”.

No, I do not mean that. I am referring to those things that science tells us to do because they are good for our health, our work and/or the way we live together, but we decide not to do them. And we decide this throughout all levels of our life – individual, organisational and at a global level. Some simple examples that come to mind are:

  • Study after study tells us that flossing every night is not only good for our teeth but prevents us from going to the dentist as often, saves us money and a lot of pain, however, most people do not floss at all, or those who floss, only do it sporadically.
  • We also know that thanking and appreciating what we have in front of us constantly increases happiness and promotes physical and psychological health, even among those who struggle with mental health problems. Studies show that practicing gratitude slows the use of words that express negative emotions and removes internal attention from negative emotions such as resentment and envy, minimising the possibility of reflecting on them (a hallmark of depression). However, we don’t practice gratitude with the regularity that we should, or at all.
  • At work, science also tells us, for example, that the success of strategies will depend on the level of employee participation when creating them. The co-creation of strategies at both team and organisational levels is key to their success. However, many teams and companies fail to do so. A top-down model is preferred, which often results in a lack of commitment, stress, disorganisation and potentially a waste of resources.

Four employee men on sofa looking at whiteboard

These are just examples, but there are many more. And I am sure you can think of examples that apply to your specific situation as well. So, why don’t we do what we know we have to do or the things that will benefit us as individuals or at a corporate level? Sometimes there are external factors, but after interviewing many people about the possible reasons why this is, we’ve grouped their answers into the following categories:

Short term vs. Long term: Although we know what we have to do, we also know that the benefits we will reap from these continued actions will come in the long term, and that is often too far away for us.

Will we still be in the company to experience them? Who will benefit? What exactly will the benefit be for me? We struggle to truly visualise them and we don’t know what the result will actually be. Additionally, as we are ok with our current situation, we do not believe it is necessary to change anything. For example, in the case of flossing, the benefits of doing it will be to maintain our teeth as they are and we probably won’t see any short-term benefits, but we would see the benefit when our friends and acquaintances have dental problems in the future and we don’t, thanks to flossing. The difficulty lies in that we don’t know when or what these benefits will come about.

Lack of clarity in the results: When we are working on improving things at a strategic level (both personally and organisationally), although science tells us what we should do, we often don’t know what the result will be, in ourselves or within our environment. We believe that our particular situation is so unique that although science tells us what is “right”, we prefer to continue as we are, since the results of specific studies do not give us the clarity on our current reality.

Laziness: “Why am I going to spend time and resources talking to my employees to generate a strategy that probably won’t be what I want and which just thinking about it makes me tired?”

In most cases, we don’t want to spend any effort in long-term objectives that do not give us immediate gratification. In order for us to embark on a project, we need to value the benefits of a specific task rather than the loss in comfort that will occur. The problem is that we are not willing to rely on a result that can be distant and uncertain. That is why having short-term goals at work is a crucial practice to give us the sense of gratification necessary to stay motivated and keep working towards the things that will benefit us. Research shows that goal-setting increases performance and effort which induces a stronger focus on the task and motivates us when we reach these goals. Hence the importance not only of having goals but of celebrating small achievements.

The belief that individual action will not have any impact: Often we are not doing what we have to do because the result of doing most things that will benefit us is so abstract and uncertain that the purpose or outcome cannot be fully understood and, by extension, what this action will do to improve our own lives or that of other people. In organisations, sometimes the work we do is diluted so easily in the grand scheme of things that a natural reaction can be, “why do I bother if nobody is going to notice?”. The certainty that each grain of sand helps in the long-term is sometimes perceived as too small for the impact we naturally wish to have.

It may also be the case that we don’t do what we have to do because we believe that the benefits from our actions will be given to someone else. For example; “Why am I going to spend my energy and my time to give the company more benefits?” The inability to see the “other” personal benefits that I get from working, such as professional growth, experience, learning or mastery, or the individual’s failure to see their position may cause this type of reaction, but having this attitude only hurts the individual. And it is a constant task to remind ourselves that what we do counts regardless of how small the action may be. 

Lack of discipline and self-control: Self-regulation or discipline is one of the least prevalent strengths in the study of character strengths. That is, people around the world do not typically identify with this strength and it is not surprising that this is the case. It takes a lot of impulse and emotional control to move forward and stay focused on a goal for a long time. Therefore, we often prefer to throw in the towel and give up. This is why to meet certain objectives we need a type of external regulation to perform those things that “we do not want to do”, which although often necessary, gives us the feeling of lack of freedom. When unemployed people are interviewed, they report that one of the things they miss most about work is the focus and an external force that gives them structure and feeling that their days are not wasted.

Woman feeling trapped behind bars

This is why external structures are so effective. They give us external objectives to fulfil and oblige us, even if we don’t want to achieve them. I know a director who gave his team a lot of autonomy, so much so that he wasn’t even in the office most of the days of the month. He expected his team to perform with absolute autonomy. The less regulation, the better. The results were that after 3 years, the people on his team began to leave. Once he decided to be physically present longer, give structure and guidance on a daily basis, everything changed. His team began to grow and experience less attrition.

Keeping this in mind, how much is too much? How much autonomy can I handle? How many guidelines do I need? How detailed should the instructions be? How much direction do I want?

The lack of taking responsibility for our actions: Not accepting personal responsibility and blaming others for our situation, though it is not correct, is often beneficial as it is a perfect excuse not to do what we are supposed to do, especially in the short term. For example, it is much better to complain about what happens to us in our work or in our environment than to really do something to change it. A clear example is complaining about our bosses or supervisors without taking individual responsibility for the outcomes we are living or experiencing. The bad thing about this attitude is that it will eventually have a consequence on our environment, our health and eventually on us. The question we all have to ask ourselves about any situation we have is: “What did I have to do with all of this?” “What is my responsibility in this situation?” Once we acknowledge this awareness, we will see a total change in our environment.

So now that we know this, what can we do?

In a future blog, we will talk about what we can do to face these challenges, but for now, we just want to raise awareness of this situation where although we often know the right thing to do, we do not always act the way we are supposed to. Our intention is not to leave you with this first non-defeatist thought, but with the awareness that it is in us to change our current situation and actively work towards doing the things that will benefit us in the long-term.

One of the main pillars of the Emotional Salary Barometer is the responsibility we have in relation to our own Emotional Salary and in the proactivity that is needed for it to increase.

What are you waiting for to start changing your current situation?

 

Redefine YOUR work!

Marisa & Clodagh

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