This is a guest post from Robert Brokamp of The Motley Fool. Robert is a Certified Financial Planner and the advisor for The Motley Fool’s Rule Your Retirement service. He contributes one new article to Get Rich Slowly every two weeks.

Let’s say it’s 8 p.m. on a weekday. Or 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Or maybe 3 a.m. in the middle of a night when you can’t sleep. Whatever time it is, assume it’s a time when you have an hour or two free — you can do whatever you want. What would you do?

If you’re like me, you don’t always do what you should do — something that would move your life forward, or at least relieve some stress, rather than something that just provides a temporary squirt of pleasure. I may read yet another book about World War II rather than work on an article that’s due. I’ll let myself get sucked down the email rabbit hole instead of transferring that IRA to a better broker. I’ll turn on ESPN and watch other people exercise instead of doing it myself.

Why is this? Why do we not do things we know would improve our lives?

When it comes to personal finances, we all know how less-than-optimal ways we spend our time can end up costing us money, or at least peace of mind. There’s late fees, a reluctance to tackle snowballing debt, putting off saving for retirement, missed opportunities to enhance our careers and human capital, not getting a will and other important documents — the list goes on until the break of dawn.

I’m fascinated by this, both as a guy who writes about personal finances as well as someone who doesn’t always do what makes the most sense. I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but here are some things I’ve run across recently that might provide some clues.

Blame it on the brain
In his article “Human Decision-Making: A Scary Thing,” Dr. Jim Phelps says that humans are wired to look for short-term risks and rewards:

Research by psychologists shows that we pay most attention to the risks that are right in front of us. Risks that won’t appear until later, even if they are huge, just don’t get to us the way a risk we face right now does…

People will start a heart exercise program after their heart attack, when the risk of having another attack is now very clear to them. Those people knew about the value of exercise before the heart attack. They aren’t stupid or foolish, they’re human…

Worse yet, solutions with immediate strong benefits strike us as much more attractive than solutions with less immediate results — even if those benefits will be many times greater later! Buy a new TV now instead of investing and letting that money compound interest…

Our minds evolved to handle immediate problems. Is there a saber-tooth tiger out there? Where are we going to find food today? Who can I trust in my social band? Does Joe still owe me a favor? That’s what we “grew up” thinking about.

We’re too tired
You just got home after a long day at the office, but your work isn’t done. You still have to cook the kids, wash the dinner, and put the dishes to bed — or something like that. And then you’re going to analyze that last year’s spending to find ways to save money? Not likely.

Of course, for many of us, nighttime isn’t the only tired time. And when you’re tired, it’s much more difficult to make the choice to do something that doesn’t have immediate rewards.

This is one of the main lessons of The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loeher and Tony Schwartz. As they write:

Every one of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors has an energy consequence, for better or for worse. The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much time we spend on the planet, but rather how much energy we invest in the time that we have. The premise of this book — and of the training we do each year with thousands of clients — is simple enough: Performance, health, and happiness are grounded in the skillful management of energy.

To manage energy, Loeher and Schwartz suggest four principles:

  • Principle 1: Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
  • Principle 2: Because energy diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.
  • Principle 3: To build capacity we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do.
  • Principle 4: Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy—are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance.

We’re hungry, scared, selfish, and horny
Like Dr. Phelps, marketing guru Seth Godin blames our difficulties on the primitive parts in our head, what Godin calls our “lizard brain” (and scientists would call the limbic system). In a speech (that you can watch here), he explained it thusly:

The idea of the lizard brain is this: It is hungry, it is scared, it is selfish, and it is horny. That’s its job. And that’s all it does. All it thinks about is, “How am I going to survive? How am I going to have kids? Get me out of here!”…

Every single time we get close to shipping [that is, completing and delivering a project], every single time the manuscript is ready to send to the publisher, the lizard brain speaks up. The lizard brain says, “They’re gonna laugh at me.” The lizard brain says, “I’m gonna get in trouble.” The lizard brain is screaming at the top of its lungs. So what happens is, we don’t do it. We sabotage it. We hold back. We have another meeting. You don’t need to be more creative. All of you are actually too creative. What you need is a quieter lizard brain.

It seems to me that the lizard brain comes into play when the things we know we should do involve a certain amount of personal risk (real or perceived), and where the stakes are potentially big. This isn’t why we don’t take out the garbage as much as it is about why we don’t take chances to do what we really want to do with our lives.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art [J.D.'s review], calls this “Resistance.” Here’s a bit from an interview Pressfield did with Godin that I found simple but all too true:

Pressfield: Do you experience Resistance (meaning self-sabotage, procrastination, self-doubt, etc.)? In what form does Resistance present itself?

Godin: Until you wrote about it in The War of Art, I didn’t know what to call it. For me, the resistance disguises itself as important, even urgent work that could and should be put aside. The resistance most often looks like checking my email. Email is the perfect distraction for me, because it’s fresh, new, and bite-sized. When I turn off email, even for an hour, my productivity triples.

One answer
Which brings us to the solutions portion of our show. I don’t have all the answers (yet), but Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits has a suggestion that I’ve been trying to implement: Identify, and focus on, your most important tasks (MITs):

It’s very simple: your MIT is the task you most want or need to get done today. In my case, I’ve tweaked it a bit so that I have three MITs — the three things I must accomplish today. Do I get a lot more done than three things? Of course. But the idea is that no matter what else I do today, these are the things I want to be sure of doing. So, the MIT is the first thing I do each day, right after I have a glass of water to wake me up. And here’s the key to the MITs for me: at least one of the MITs should be related to one of my goals. While the other two can be work stuff (and usually are), one must be a goal next-action. This ensures that I am doing something to move my goals forward that day.

As Babauta concedes, he didn’t come up with the idea, and he links to a post on Lifehacker that picks up on Godin’s advice:

Author of Never Check Email in the Morning Julie Morgenstern suggests spending the first hour of your workday email-free. Choose one task — even a small one — and tackle it first thing. Accomplishing something out of the gate sets the tone for the rest of your day and guarantees that no matter how many fires you’re tasked with putting out the minute you open your email client, you still can say that you got something done.

That’s just one idea, and may not help with all our sub-optimal behaviors. But this post is long enough. Plus, “The Simpsons” are on, and, well, I’m pretty tired.

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