Why you should stop acting and start being

In a previous post, we discussed the strange sense of inertia that can keep us from making productive changes.

Authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about a showdown between two halves of ourselves. The fastidious “Planner,” in their formulation, is the part of ourselves that buys running shoe s and ambitiously sets the alarm clock. Unfortunately, when daybreak comes, it’s the impulsive “Doer” who thinks Screw it! and slaps the snooze button.

We noted that external structures can make personal change easier or harder. Our friends, our schedules, and our habits can help box us into bad behaviors, and sometimes making a change requires tampering with a whole network of intertwined factors at once. And government and corporate authorities could our external environments, as Thaler and Sunstein suggest, to make productive choices easier for us to make.

Put aside whether their suggestion rings commonsensical or Orwellian in your ears. We aren’t solely products of our environment. When we really want to turn over a new leaf in some area of our lives, we have it within our control to make it happen.

Borrowing a lesson from moral philosophy

For a long time, the best ethical thinkers were consumed by asking whether specific behaviors and actions were right or wrong. They tried to craft careful rules for behavior and delved into complicated, legalistic descriptions of what actions could be justified. A good person was simply someone who did good actions, and vice versa. Behavior, not character, was primary.

But in the mid-twentieth century, a vocal group of philosophers realized this approach had gone off the rails. They preferred the way that ancient thinkers like Aristotle approached ethics, which saw character as primary and behavior as secondary. The morality of an action may vary with circumstance and available alternatives, after all—but the morality of a person can be built up over time. Prudence, justice, temperance, and courage: these are unobjectionably the traits that we aim for, and we tend to know such characteristics we see them.

This school of thought (called virtue ethics) tells us our main job is not to obsessively evaluate each action. Instead, we are called to imagine what kind of person we want society to be populated with, and what kind of person we ourselves want to be. What personal virtues do we aim to cultivate? Which vices should we erase?

We are told, in short, to stop asking “What should I do?” and start asking “Who should I be?”

How this helps you escape the inertia

What if each of us took up this what-to-who shift for ourselves? If we spend less time puzzling over what we should do and more time pondering who we should be, a lot of the bizarre behavioral inertia might vanish before our eyes.

It’s 6:00am. Your alarm is blaring. It’s cold and rainy outside, but dry and warm between your sheets. If you try to construct an cost-benefit analysis of the specific decision to head to the gym versus the specific decision to sleep in, you’re going to have a bad time.

What should I do? Who’s to say whether another hour of sleep is worth the marginal increase in your fitness? If you head out as planned, will you spend the workday delighting in your diligence or lamenting your sleep deprivation? It’s really tough to try and trade off the short- and long-term consequences. Besides, decision fatigue is totally a real thing. Trying to think through this fork in the road every single morning could take a serious toll on your sanity.

But what if you asked a different question? Instead of thinking What should I do?, you might ask Who should I be? This is a much more interesting question, and it points you towards a clearer decision.

“Do I want to be the kind of person who hits the snooze button, or the kind of person who grits my teeth and goes to the gym?”

This one’s practically a no-brainer. On a simple level, of course you want to look and feel like a person who goes to the gym regularly. That’s why you signed up in the first place. But more broadly, you also don’t want to be the kind of person who lets weather dislodge their priorities. Who doesn’t yield in the face of minor obstacles. Grit and resilience are virtues you want; indeterminacy and sloth are vices you don’t.

That settles it. Before you know it, you’re dressed and heading to the gym.

Shifting your thinking in this way can be a big help. Step back and view the full sweep of your biographical arc: You want to be the kind of person who brushes his or her teeth, who prays or meditates often, who calls their relatives on the phone, who is generous and patient and kind. Plenty of times, you won’t feel like acting that way in a given moment. But that’s okay. Because you’ve stopped asking “What do I feel like doing right now,” and started asking “Who do I aspire to be?”

Stop merely acting and start being

This shift in perspective can help us achieve daily goals. But more importantly, it helps us grow in virtue and intentionality.

Too often, we make ad-hoc decisions as circumstances present themselves. It’s easy to fall into the ethical equivalent of always grabbing the cookies because they look better than the vegetables, neglecting the long-term consequences for our moral health. But a relentless focus on the virtues we intend to acquire helps empower the prudent, long-term thinkers within us and quiets down those unproductive, impulsive voices.

Don’t let your character be the accidental byproduct of a thousand impulsive decisions. Carve out time to think deliberately about the character you hope to cultivate. Let those principles flow down into daily decisions. This practice will help you stick to that next nifty “life hack.” It might just make you happier and more moral to boot.