Imagine that you could go on a holiday to anywhere that you wanted to go in the world. However, you couldn’t take any pictures or tell anyone what you got up to while you were away or afterwards?
Furthermore, you can only experience the holiday while you are away and feel all the emotions that you do in the present. Once the holiday is over, you will have no memory of where you went or what it was like.
Where would you go, and what would you do?
Next, imagine that the trip has no limitations. It is just like any other holiday that you have been on, except you have no budget. You can take as many photos and videos as your heart desires and look back on these as much as you want.
You can tell whoever you want to, both during the trip and for the rest of your life afterwards. You can also think back and reminisce about the trip and your memories of it as much as you would like to in the future.
Where would you go and what would you do?
Would your dream holiday be the same in the first situation as it is in the second scenario? If so, do you know why? If not, why?
For the first example, I want something fun, easy, pleasurable and relaxing. I want a resort with a pool and a spa, tasty food, 27-degree sunny weather, a cozy bed and a comfortable recliner. The resort would have a nice view, maybe of the ocean, or the mountainside. If other people came, they would have to be okay relaxing and occasionally chatting or playing a game too. All cleaning and washing and any chores would all be done for me. And I could enjoy each moment as much as possible without any sign of difficulty or personal strain.
For the second example, now a hike to the Himalayas or Macchu Picchu seems more appealing. More movement, more effort, some beautiful scenery and remarkable experiences. Having a few celebrities that come on the trek too is suddenly more enticing, because now I can take some snaps with them and share this with friends or on my social media. Alongside all of the effort that I put into the trip and the natural beauty of the place. Flying first class may even be worth it if I can take some videos and photos to show off to everyone else.
Experiential vs Narrative Self
If I’m not going to remember the holiday or talk to others about how it was, why would I bother splashing out on heaps of money or putting in a lot of effort or even hanging out with celebrities? Comfort, ease, and enjoyment become the highest priorities. The things that make for a good story, memory or Instagram post become less so.
This is one of the biggest dilemmas that we all have inside of us.
We have the part of ourselves that wants to enjoy the moment as much as possible. This is the experiential self. It usually wants to do an activity that requires the least amount of effort and is enjoyable in the short term. This is often why people procrastinate, play video games, lie on the couch, watch TV or a movie, eat junk food, etc. To this part of ourselves, it doesn’t matter if the activity is helpful or beneficial to us in the long-run as long as it feels good in the moment.
|Want to do||Have to do||Want to do||Have to do|
|Enjoy in the short-term||YES||YES||NO||NO|
|Find beneficial in the long-run||?||?||?||?|
But we also have the part of ourselves that cares about the stories that we tell about our lives to ourselves and others. This is the narrative self. It wants to do activities that are challenging, meaningful and worthwhile in the long-run. Doing housework, working hard, eating healthily, exercising consistently, and child-rearing may not always be fun from moment to moment. However, they help us become what we want to tell ourselves and others that we are over time. House proud, successful, fit, healthy, and a good parent. To this part of ourselves, it cares much less about how enjoyable something is in the moment as long as it helps us to tell the story about who we are and what we have done.
|Want to do||Have to do||Want to do||Have to do|
|Enjoy in the short-term||?||?||?||?|
|Find beneficial in the long-run||YES||YES||NO||NO|
Because these two parts of ourself seem so different, it can be quite hard to keep them both happy.
Several clients I have seen prioritise the experiential self over the narrative self. They spend most of their day doing enjoyable things at the expense of anything perceived as challenging or uncomfortable. Their experiential self is satisfied but their narrative self is not. Over time, they are likely to become more and more dissatisfied with where they are in their life, or the story that they tell.
The opposite can also happen but is seen less frequently. For these individuals, they work all the time, never eat any junk food or let themselves relax and have fun. Instead, they clean all the time, put the kids first nonstop, exercise excessively, and never give themselves a break. Their narrative self can view themselves in a positive light and share this with others, but their experiential self is miserable.
Want to do vs Have to do
To see if you could obtain a better balance in your life, ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What are the things that you have to do in this life?
- Which of these chores/responsibilities do you enjoy doing in the short-term while you are doing them?
- Which of these chores/responsibilities can you look back at once they are finished and feel glad that you have completed them?
- Do any of these chores/responsibilities tick both boxes and are fun in the moment and consistent with who you want to be in the long-run? Can you do more of these and less of other chores and responsibilities that don’t tick these boxes?
- Are there any chores/responsibilities that are not enjoyable and don’t help you to feel like you are being the person you want to be in the long-run? In other words, is there anything that you only do because you worry what others would think if you don’t do them? Can you do less of these chores and responsibilities in your life by not doing them as much? Could you pay someone else to do them, or negotiate with someone that you live with to do these tasks more in exchange for you doing more of others chores and responsibilities that you enjoy and maybe they don’t?
- What are the things that you want to do in your life?
- Which of these activities do you also enjoy doing in the moment while you are doing them? Are you doing these things as often as you would like to? Or are you doing them too much for what feels like a good balance? Or too little?
- Which of these activities do you not enjoy while you are doing them, but you can look back at them once they are finished and feel glad that you have done them? Are you doing these things in your life as often as you would like to?
- Which of these activities do you find both enjoyable in the moment and consistent with the person that you would like to be in the long-run? Do you schedule enough time in your life for these sweet-spot activities?
How balanced does your life feel between your want-to-dos and your have-to-dos?
If your have-to-do responsibilities far outweigh your want-to-do activities, you are unlikely to be as happy and as satisfied with your life as you would like to be.
This is likely to be the same if you are doing a lot of things only because you worry about what others would think if you didn’t do them. If you hate cleaning and ironing and you can afford to pay someone to do these tasks for you weekly so that you don’t have to worry about them, what difference could that make towards how you feel? Furthermore, what could you do that you might find more rewarding with the newfound time, energy and mental space that you would have?
If you are lucky enough to have at least one sweet spot activity, you will find these tasks the easiest for you to put your energy into and get better at over time.
Sometimes people call these activities their passions and they will be the easiest activities for you to persevere at for a long time. This can be how I feel editing movies or playing sport or snow-skiing. I enjoy myself, am no longer in my head and I am fully immersed in the task. Before I know it, a long time has passed and it is lunchtime or the end of the day.
I’m sure that you have heard the famous quote: “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” If anything helps you to feel this way, or get into a state of flow on a regular basis, you won’t regret making it a priority in your life.
Dr Damon Ashworth