Why We Fail: The Immediacy Principle

Why do we fail at achieving our long term goals? Why is our internal conflict by our immediate gratification, bodily interests? The immediacy principle is your answer.


We saw in the first post that, indeed, we often fail to achieve our goals. We saw in the second post that one reason for our failure is our internal conflict. We also saw there that the conflict is often between the mind (what we know we should do, usually pertaining to the long term) and the body (what we feel like doing now). A simple example is knowing that I need to be eat healthy or else I’ll regret it in the long run on one hand and the urge to go to the refrigerator to get the ice cream I just saw in an a TV commercial on the other.

It’s not just that there is an internal conflict but, worse, the short term and immediate goals have the upper hand. There is a lot more failure when it comes to long term goals. As mentioned in the first post, only 8% of people achieve their New Year resolutions. Even those who do accomplish their long term goals, they usually have to work hard at it. But for instant gratification you don’t even need to set it as a goal—it happens naturally. Why is that? The answer lies in the immediacy principle: the more immediate something is, the more motivational power it has. The more distant in time it is, the more distant it feels and less motivational power it has. Going back to the example above, when I see the ice cream commercial it is immediate, it’s right in my face. The reactions triggered by the sight of the ice cream are also immediate. They are present. They are right there. I can feel them. They are not a choice but an automatic reaction of the body to an outside stimulus. I don’t intend or decide to feel hungry or to have an urge for ice cream. On the other hand, the reaction of the mind (such as “No, thanks. My goal is to eat healthy this year and I’m sticking to it!”) is not automatic. It relies on me in order to happen. I need to remind myself my goal and I need to decide to act accordingly (and sometimes even that is not enough). I need to be intentional and purposeful. In other words, minds’ long term goals have more points of failure than body’s instant gratification. The body reminds me automatically that I have ice cream in the refrigerator. The mind doesn’t automatically remind me about my set goal and even if it does, I may decide not to honor my goal. By default, my weight loss goal is something distant in my mind, something that I decided a long time ago which somehow doesn’t have relevant to the present time. My goal is not the here-and-now kind of thing that my ice cream urge is. This makes instant gratification much easier and much more likely to happen.

People say “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Why? It’s precisely because people do that. Seeing the cover is immediate. It’s easy just as putting someone in a stereotype. But getting to know a book or someone is harder. It takes more time and more effort. Of course, it’s also much more accurate which is exactly why people bring up the saying. The same principle is expressed in the Bible. When God sent Samuel to anoint a new king and he saw David’s older brother he thought “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” The Bible continues “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.'” (1 Sam. 16:6-7 ESV). God’s chosen one was David, the youngest in the family, who was not even invited and was out taking care of the sheep.

This bring us to the question for the next post: how can we tilt the balance in this tug-of-war? How can we give an advantage to the mind over the body, to the long term goals over instant gratification? Please feel free to comment.