The human brain in the delayed return environment
June 19, 2016
Let’s pretend you’re living in 200,000 years ago.
Yes, you never groom your hair and rarely wash. You only cover yourself with some leaves or animal skins and communicate with body language and some speech (which certainly not English).
You don’t need to get to work or school, and you don’t have your smartphone with you. Instead, you have the tools you made yourself using stones, searching for edible plants or hunting for meats. Nearly every decision you make and every action you take provides an immediate benefit to your life.
You certainly never feel bored.
Every day, you’re making decisions – when to eat, where to sleep, what to do – based on the immediate impact to your life. Everything you do is for the purpose of the present moment. You’re not thinking about next week, left alone 5 years later. And you make decisions based on your present observation, present expectation, and present instinct.
You and every one of us in hundred thousand years ago – are designed to survive, to keep ourselves and our species going. We lived in an Immediate Return Environment.
Fast forward to now, we live in a fairly different environment – where the researchers call it Delayed Return Environment. We don’t do things for immediate benefits anymore; we usually do something for future returns.
You’re working now and get paid a few weeks later. You’re exercising now to get into better shape years later. And you’re saving money now to prepare for a better retirement later.
Most of the choices we make today are based on the future returns. In most cases, what gives you pleasure today is not going to bring you results in the future. Having dessert all day makes you happy at the present, but upset when you got overweight, while spending for exotic vacations are fun, but they are going to blow off your retirement fund.
In another word, we need to pay the price at the present moment to achieve our future goals. You and I both know this very well.
But we also know that it’s so difficult and challenging for us to do what we need to do to achieve what we set out to achieve. It’s so hard to ignore the pleasure now – that delicious dessert or that luxury vacation – for the sake of the future. Why is that?
The earliest remains of modern humans who have a very similar brain with us — known as Homo Sapiens — are approximately 200,000 years old. Your brain in 200,000 years ago was roughly the same size as it is today. It developed into its current form while humans still lived in an Immediate Return Environment, while you and I eat when there are foods, starve and rest when there are none.
But our society has only switched from the Immediate Return Environment to the Delayed Return Environment since the past 500 years, and a huge portion of changes only happened in the recent 100 years.
For our brain that had evolved for hundred thousand years for immediate benefits, 100 years are just a blink of the eyes.
That caused some serious conflicts between our behaviors and the environment. And that’s why, for most of the time, we don’t do what we want to do.
In every decision we make since 200,000 years ago until today, we want to gain pleasure and avoid pain. That behavior model works well back then but it is relatively different in today’s society.
In most cases, we need to go through certain pain in order to gain a certain pleasure in the future. Clearly, this messed our brain up.
Since hundred thousand years ago, our brain had developed an automatic fight-flight instinct to get ourselves out from danger. When we assume the threat is too great, we run away.
This becomes a problem when we present with the idea to set huge goals in today’s world. When we see (unconsciously) a huge goal that seems impossible to achieve, our fight-flight instinct is giving the order to run away instead of fighting against it.
This is totally making sense because, in the past hundred thousand years, our survival is solely depending on this pattern of behavior. We need to make decisions quick to make sure we have foods, to avoid danger, and to reproduce.
With that said, it’s not that we don’t want to take action to move toward our goals. Instead, our behaviors are still programmed for survival as it is since long time ago, rather helping us to achieve better shape, make more money, and live a remarkable life.
The first thing we can do is to constantly revise our visions.
Spend a good portion of time weekly or monthly to understand what is important for you in the long run. Because they are changing consistently without us even notice, and sometimes, we have confused ourselves with day to day mundane tasks on hand and lean forward to immediate rewards unconsciously.
Write them down and understand each and every one of them. Is your health more important for you? Or maybe money means more to you than your health?
There is no right or wrong answer here, try not to bury yourself in others’ standard. It might be hard for you to solely focus in the long term or delayed rewards, therefore, break them down and find short-term joy within them.
At the same time, set big goals (still). After that, break them down into small progress checkpoints. Instead of focusing on your goals and feel overwhelmed with it every day, take tiny steps and measure your progress along the journey.
The keyword here is “measure."
Measure your progress will create a behavioral reward for your brain that craves for immediate returns, it makes uncertain results become visible. Besides, ithelps to break down the illusion you old brain projected to yourself that perceived as a signal to run away.
Our world had changed but our brain hasn’t evolved much. Beating yourself up by defining yourself as a lazy person or failure never seems to make things better. My hope is that you can deploy these techniques and work the way out to achieve the success in your own term.
Join Work Less to get practical insights and tips to help you work less, earn more, and live a better life—straight to your inbox—every Sunday.
👆 Join 3,100+ leaders, creatives, and knowledge workers today.
Dean is a strong voice in the self-mastery space. His newsletter consistently delivers insightful ideas on how to become a better version of yourself and is the only newsletter that I always read.
Head of product and engineering