In today’s society, sacrifice is often considered to be a negative thing. It is associated with the decision to forgo what you want or what would bring you happiness in a moment for something of less real value. A loss, of some kind. Something that we reluctantly do because we have to, not because we want to.
I think one of the most important topics to discuss before we really jump into the Sustainable Progress journey, is how necessary it is to properly understand sacrifice; what it really is & why understanding it is crucial to the ‘Sustainable’ part of your journey to progress over time. Without getting to grips with why sacrifice is neither bad nor avoidable, you will find it hard to adjust to the changes you have to make in order to sustain progress in an area where you were previously unable to do so.
What is Sacrifice?
As one of the standard definitions of sacrifice above describes it, sacrifice is the giving up of something valued for the sake of other considerations. And I believe this description explains in part why people have a difficult time getting to grips with the reality of sacrifice. This definition suggests that sacrifice inherently always represents the giving up of something of value for something of lesser real value. However, this is not a true reflection of the type of sacrifice that we face on a daily basis.
I think a better way to describe the sort of sacrifices that are present in our daily lives, is as an inescapable rating of two or more options in the exact moment when you make a decision. Does the specific rating that you choose in one moment mean that you would always rate those same options the same way in the future? No. It’s just what you decided in that moment, likely for a combination of reasons.
In reality, every single decision we make requires us to sacrifice one thing for another.
Would you always choose to receive €1,000 over €10 if there were no strings attached? Yes. Would you make the same decision if you were given the choice multiple times? Yes, of course. Because with no other strings attached, €1,000 is always more valuable than €10. However, would you always choose watching tv over going to the gym? No, not necessarily. So then choosing the gym over watching tv, or visa-versa, is not because one of the two undoubtedly holds more inherent value. There are other factors at play in the moment when you make the decision, which influence why you value one over the other.
We often describe daily choices as if they are sacrifices that have quantifiable value (i.e. €10 or €1,000) when I would argue they are better defined as choices between things that strengthen or weaken us. Things that bring us towards the life we want or take us away from it. It is not always better to go to the gym instead of watching tv; some days you need to rest, sometimes watching tv with a friend strengthens your relationship which is of more value than the gym on that day. At yet at the same time, it is undeniable that you will be stronger and better off in the long-term if you choose to go to the gym more regularly than watching tv.
But going to the gym is hard. It takes time, you’re often sore and tired afterwards and it requires a lot more effort than sitting on the couch and watching tv. And that is where the sacrifice lies. Often things that strengthen us require more effort than those which are more enjoyable in the moment. That is why we frequently don’t choose them. Weakening choices are easier and so we have to muster up some sort of effort/willpower/drive to choose the other option. If you’ve had a long day or week, you’re far less likely to make an effort to do something that is better for you in the long-term than your immediate, easier preference.
For example, in any of the following scenarios, which action would you choose if you were tired, fed up and having just experienced a disappointment or failure of some kind? And then what would you choose if you were in a great mood, fully rested and motivated to have a productive day?
Eating take away or cooking healthy food for dinner.
Sleeping in or having more time to get ready in the morning.
Use your savings to book a holiday or invest in the education course you’ve been thinking about.
As I said earlier, there is nothing inherently negative with either of the options in the scenarios laid out here unless they become recurring or habitual. Sometimes the right decision is absolutely to get an extra hour in bed in the morning because the extra rest is more valuable than a slower pace on that particular morning. Sometimes you need a holiday because you’ve had a busy 6 months and getting away for a few days will help you to reset and push ahead in the next 6 months. Sometimes you’ve had a bad day and the comfort you get from eating your favourite fast food is more important than having a healthy dinner.
In the same vein, it’s not about always making strengthening sacrifices and never doing anything that weakens you. That is too extreme and impossible to maintain over time. Instead, it’s about being strategic in what you sacrifice and working towards a daily routine where you make more strengthening sacrifices in a day than weakening ones. Once you have worked out how to do that for your average day, you need to work towards being consistent. (But more on that in the next blog!)
Good Sacrifice vs Bad Sacrifice
Once I wrapped my head around the idea that every time I made a decision I was automatically sacrificing one or several things for another, my attention quickly turned to figuring out if there were any patterns in the sacrifices I was making on a daily basis. I kept an eye on the decisions I made throughout the days, weeks and months after my ‘sacrificial realisation’ and became increasingly aware of a pattern that had slipped my notice for years, that was both enlightening and challenging.
On the days when I chose momentary enjoyment over better sacrifices (eating unhealthy snacks instead of cooking dinner, scrolling on my phone instead of completing work, staying up too late watching tv instead of going to bed etc.), I noticed that in the moment I enjoyed the choice but without fail, I felt frustrated with myself when the day was over.
I also noticed that if I had a day of several bad decisions, the next day was inevitably harder because not only did I have to find the willpower to not do those things I allowed myself to do the day before, but I also typically had less energy because of less sleep, bad food and no exercise. The mini dopamine hits of scrolling on the internet or social media were particularly hard to resist on these days because they felt like a respite from the lack of energy, so I ended up spending even more time mindlessly scrolling instead of doing things that I wanted to get done.
Once I noticed these trends, it also became clear to me that if I let myself make these bad decisions for several days or weeks in a row, even if they were individually small decisions, the bad results compounded. During these times my frustration grew, my health and fitness declined, I became less productive in work or school and I generally felt worse about myself and my life. Looking back over different periods of my life when I wasn’t particularly happy, it was clear that these were periods when, amongst some other things outside of my control, I was making bad small decisions en masse.
Why were these decisions bad? Because the sacrifice I was making was what I wanted in the future for what I wanted in the moment. And what I wanted in the moment was typically influenced by my mood on the day. If I was in a bad mood or particularly tired, I subconsciously switched to making bad decisions, soothing myself with momentary pleasures. However, each of those decisions that felt pleasant in the moment were not good for me over a longer horizon because they took me further away from what I wanted in my life instead of bringing me closer to it. They were bad decisions, bad choices, bad sacrifices and they increased my feelings of frustration and lack of progress.
Did any one of these decisions derail my whole day, week or year? Absolutely not. Almost no decisions are that important. But by making enough bad small decisions in the day, I’m almost guaranteed to be worse off at the end of the day than I was when I started it. And doing that for several days in a row makes the consequences of all of those choices begin to compound. The truth is if you don’t stop heading down this track quickly, you start to build up speed which in turn makes it harder to stop. Before you know it, you’ve gone so far down the track you can’t even see where you were when you started. And that was what happened to me. Some years were good, others were not. Overall, they might have evened out but when compared with people who were progressing each year, I was ultimately going backwards. All thanks to my bad sacrifices.
Every time I chose bad food over healthy food, I was sacrificing achieving my weight loss goal. Every time I scrolled on my phone for several hours instead of doing work, I made the likelihood of completing my work on time more remote, inevitably bringing more stress into my future when I tried to complete what needed to be done in less time. I was regularly creating problems for future me by allowing myself to make bad decisions that were soothing in the present. Choosing the easy option which forfeited my future, one small decision at a time.
Choosing Good Sacrifices
So, what can you do to prevent this from happening?
Start making good sacrifices that take you in the direction of the life you want. If you’re not sure what you want in the medium or long-term, we’ll cover how to work that out in a future blog post but in the meantime, make sacrifices that support good mental and physical health, financial stability, better relationships etc. When you’re trying to decide what to do in a moment where you do not feel like doing what would advance your life, ask yourself what you would prefer to sacrifice with this decision; your present desires for a slightly better future, or your future so you have momentary enjoyment.
Remember, it’s about having the majority of your decisions being strengthening decisions, not all of them!
Your aim here is to end the day stronger than you started it. A 1% improvement each day for a year brings untold progress. Even if it’s only 0.01% stronger each day, if you do that enough times in close succession, you will start to see progress and it will compound if you keep it up. The amount of progress you could make in one year from where you are standing right now is staggering.
There is no comparison in the levels of satisfaction you get when you see yourself progressing versus the fleeting dopamine hit you get when you allow your short-term desires to dictate your actions. So instead of seeing sacrifice as something to be avoided because it’s unpleasant, you need to rationalise it as an inescapable part of life. When we understand this, we are less likely to avoid trying to make good sacrifices and we can start to analyse what the decisions we are currently making tell us about where we’re headed.
So, what are you waiting for? To get started, take small steps. Really small ones, that are easy for you to do. Good sacrifices are less hard to come to terms with when they are small. You don’t need to change your whole day in order to progress, you just need to switch what you’re sacrificing.
You can also counterbalance sacrifices. So, if you have a weight loss goal but you really want to order take away when you get home, make it your mission to walk more that day. Remember, the aim is to end the day slightly stronger than you started it and to find a way to do it that is sustainable over time. Not to be some sort of super hero who doesn’t struggle like the rest of us. You need to negotiate with yourself because if you push yourself too hard for any length of time, you’re likely to fall off the bandwagon and have to begin all over again.
Having repeated this mistake many times over, I now negotiate with myself all the time. I currently have a weight loss goal that I am trying to achieve but I also really like chocolate and pasta (not at the same time). On days where I don’t eat at least some of one of those, I typically end up eating both (again, not at the same time!) late into the night because it’s too much of a sacrifice for me and once I’m tired, my resolve snaps. So, to compensate I have worked out that if I reduce my alcohol intake, avoid take aways and walk 10,000 steps for at least five days in a week, I can eat fairly reasonable amounts of both without sacrificing other goals such as weight loss and a healthy diet. And these sacrifices work for me. They are good decisions and good sacrifices for me.
And to end this blog, I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice that I wish I had heard years ago. When you have a decision to make, whether it’s big or small, just remember that the real question you should be asking yourself is: What am I willing to sacrifice in this moment? My current mood or my future goals/health/ education/my relationship and so on. When you frame the question this way, you might be surprised to find that you are less willing to sacrifice your future than you previously thought.
Until next time,