Why Don’t We Do What We Want to Do

The human brain in the delayed return environment

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).

Homo Sapiens

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.

  • When you’re hungry, you hunt.
  • When you’re tired, you seek for safe shelter and rest.
  • When you spot danger, you run.

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.

The delayed 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 old brain meets the new environment

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.

Basic Needs

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.

1. We want to gain pleasure and avoid pain

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.

2. Our instinct often tells us to flee rather than fight

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.

3. We are wired to crave for instant results

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.

What to do about it

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.

  • If you want to get fit and stay healthy by working out regularly, make the workout fun and understand the long-term benefits of it.
  • To become a professional designer, find the sense of achievement and progress from everyday work and practices. Then, schedule regular tests to assess your progress and improvement in order to get clear on your long-term goal.
  • Reward yourself with a small treat after you save a portion of income every month. Do it regularly by making a saving schedule in the first place. With that, you will be certain with the achievability of your saving plan and security of your retirement life.

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.


  1. Above all, if you pay close attention, you will notice that the choices we have today are thousand times greater than we used to have. Yet, our brain is developed to live and solve problems in certain constraints.
  2. I first read about Immediate Returns Environment and Delayed Returns Environments by James Clear. He talks about how are them creates anxiety within us, and that inspired me to relate his findings on why we don’t do what we want to do.
  3. There is actually research shows that the ability of delay gratification is one of the key ingredients for one to become successful in later years. It proves the evolution of the environment we live in recent years when you compare the timeline with the evolution of human’s brain.
  4. Even though human species that live in 200,000 years ago was living in an immediate returns environment, scientists and researchers believe that they did do things based on appreciation. Researchers found that the modern humans – homo sapiens actually built refined tools and organized their living space which is not necessary for the sake of survival. That’s also why we called them modern human because that’s when our brain developed into a much complex form compared to earlier human species and other animals.

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