First Purpose, Then Pleasure2 min read

The secret to success is learning how to use pain and pleasure,

instead of having pain and pleasure use you.

—Anthony Robbins

A good life has space for aspiration and pleasure—and this is what Mindful Self-Discipline is about. It is balanced.

This balance is achieved by prioritizing your long-term goals, while leaving space for short-term joys. Otherwise, you are more likely to experience willpower fatigue, thus being vulnerable to indulging in instant gratification.

Self-discipline is not about having no pleasure, and only focusing on goals. Rather, it’s about having islands of pleasure in a sea of meaning, and not islands of meaning in a sea of pleasure.

For most of us, the pursuit of pleasure takes far too much of our time, attention, and energy. We have allowed junk dopamine to become ubiquitous in our society, and in our lives, unaware of the consequences. We enjoy fun, comfort, and distractions compulsively, at the expense of our more important goals. To reclaim our power and fulfill our goals, we urgently need to review the role of pleasure in our life. 

Instant gratification should be a treat or reward—something that we indulge in consciously, not compulsively. It should lighten up our life, not be used (to attempt) to cover up an underlying emptiness.

An old story, popularized by Steven Covey, illustrates this point. Imagine your life is like a jar, and next to it you have rocks, pebbles, and sand.  

  • The rocks are your meaningful goals and values, and all the steps to achieve them. They truly give you lasting satisfaction and fulfillment; without them, there is emptiness and regret.
  • The pebbles are the minor goals and activities that are important or urgent but not essential; and also the external values such as money, status, recognition, and pleasing others. 
  • The sand is pleasure, comfort, pastimes, busy-ness, and everything else.

If you fill your jar first with sand or pebbles, there will be no place left for the rocks. If you put in all the rocks first, then the pebbles, and then the sand, there is space for everything.

How is the jar of your life?

Mindful Self-Discipline prioritizes your highest values, your aspirations, and long-term goals. Start with those, and then let pleasure fill in the gaps. With this strategy you can both have the deep satisfaction of meaningful fulfillment, and enjoyment of the small pleasures—guilt-free!

This balanced approach is how to have the cake (aspiration) and eat it too (pleasure).

As a practical guideline, apply the Pareto principle: dedicate 80% of your available time, money, and energy to things that advance your deepest aspirations, and allow 20% for pleasures, fun and distractions. If you are really ambitious, try 90/10.

First purpose, then pleasure—this, I’ve found, is the recipe for happiness, meaning, and a life well lived.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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