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March 6th, 2021
Stated priorities rarely match behaviour. If pressed, we’ll each assemble a very admirable list of things in life that are most important - but that list of priorities is in almost every case, is a fantasy, an ideal that is like a beautiful theory but does not work in practice. And why? Why is it that the most important things to us (or so we say) often neglected? Why don’t we spend more time with loved ones? Why don’t we make more of an effort? Why don’t we explore that dream? Why aren’t we healthier, happier, and more fulfilled?
Making a list of priorities is an excellent way of distilling one’s own personal navigation system, and getting reacquainted with what true north is given our own internal compass. True north, in the case of priorities is, the set of things we can pay attention to that likely leads to our most fulfilling life.
If pressed to explain the discrepancy between our list of priorities and what actually happens, the catchall excuse is not having enough time. But note how much easier it is to say “I don’t have the time to hang out,” than it is to say “You are not a priority.”
Not having time makes it seem as though something else is in control of our time. The phrasing is a way of displacing blame to somewhere else, but at the end of the day we are each solely responsible for how we spend out time, regardless of obligations. Such obligations are often things we’ve chosen to take on as obligations, things we continue to choose as obligations.
Under all of this misaligned behavior resides the subtle and often overlooked issue of incentives. Wherever there is a behavior, we can be sure there is an incentive, and incentives are clear, present and pressing - they are the reason we do most everything. We say health is a priority but we are under the spell of a much stronger incentive to open the freezer and take out that tub of ice cream. Where exactly is the ‘priority’ of health during those repeated moments, occurring far too often during the month, the week, and even the day?
Consider for a moment this thought experiment: let’s change the incentive structure around that tub of ice cream. The incentive is clear: it tastes good, and the food comma it often provides is pleasant. But let’s say that for every scoop of ice cream we eat, 100 dollars is automatically transferred from our bank account to an organization we find utterly despicable. How much ice cream would get eaten?
Probably very little. And yet, now, with this strange and unlikely system, the behavior of eating or not eating ice cream is suddenly in line with the priority of health, simply because the incentive structure around the behavior has changed. It’s an inconvenient fact of reality that priorities do not create incentives. Priorities are too conceptual, too abstract. Without some additional thought about incentives to bolster behavior around such priorities, they remain just good ideas.
Incentives on the other hand are far more real. They manifest as desire and fear - they inspire the core ingredient for human behavior: they generate emotion. Consumption of sugar begets a desire for more sugar, it form a kind of self-reinforcing incentive, which benefited us for many thousands of years before the advent of sugar now refined in industrial quantities. Our incentive was in line with our priority of health because we needed the energy during our time as hunter gatherers. But now the hardwired incentive is misaligned with our long term goals, and the new challenge is become an engineer and artist of incentive, consciously and thoughtfully designing a life that incentivizes the right things - those priorities.