Containers: prioritizing my long-term reward system

Mary Pardee

Co-Founder, Authentic Self

DING! You get a new text- dopamine is released (makes you want more)

You gain a follower on instagram- dopamine is released

You get 80 “Likes” on a picture of you with a duck face- dopamine is released….

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Our brains are running with the immediate reward system pathways on overdrive. Dopamine release creates a “learning” environment so we seek out the same actions that lead to the dopamine release in the first place (i.e.: texting, posting, commenting, ect). Chistensen talks about the underemphasized long-term reward system that we think about much less often:

In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically does not offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse on a day-to-day basis, it doesn't seem as if things are deteriorating. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and over invest in their careers-even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness (1).

At Authentic Self, we believe that it is crucial to identify the most important areas of your life, your “containers”, to continually remind ourselves of our long-term reward system.  We call these areas containers because they hold certain experiences, values, and importance.

My top 5 containers, in order of importance are:

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  1. Relationships with family/loved ones
  2. Activity/play
  3. Career-health/medicine
  4. Outdoors
  5. Continual learning
 

For the last 4 years of my life my immediate reward system has won out over my long-term reward system. In short: I have prioritized “tasks” for work/school over maintaining and building meaningful relationships. How is this present in my life?

Complete an assignment-> Pass a class

Study for a test-> Get a good grade

Grow my private practice-> Pay rent + one step closer to becoming "successful" 

Post on Social Media-> Get "likes" and gain followers

The immediate reward system is telling me that if I complete ONE more task, just ONE more, I will end up somewhere that I can call the end, or “success”.  I constantly have to remind myself that this loop does not end. If my #1 container is relationships with loved ones, I have to step back and give these the time and energy they deserve, that I deserve. Given my values, at the end of the day and at the end of this life, I will base my success largely on the experiences I have had with those that I hold closest, I will not check to see how many Instagram followers I have on my death bed.

“But I try to prioritize my family, I just don’t have enough time.”

 

We all have used the excuse, “but there is just not enough time”. I switch this to the mind frame, “I have not prioritized this”. Every time I find myself thinking, “but I just don’t have time to have dinner with my family, or go on vacation”, I immediately reframe this scenario to “I am not prioritizing my family”, this clarifies most situations for me and makes me realize that family and relationships are my priority, it is my #1 container, therefore, work can wait. I have certainly not mastered this skill yet, after all, that is what life is: tailoring, adjusting, and shedding behaviors and habits that do not suit us any more. The containers exercise helps to verbalize what is important to me, identify what is working in these areas, and what is taking the biggest hit. If I had waited 5 or 10 years to do this exercise, I would have missed out on a lot of family time.  

The containers exercise is a way to highlight what you already know deep down. It is how we can critically examine how our values and our actions are aligned, or in my case- how we can improve upon aligning them further. Your containers in life will change with age and life stage, this is natural. After all,

“The only certainty in life is change itself”.

 

If you had asked 5 year-old Mary to list her containers it would likely be:

  1. Horses, kittens, puppies
  2. Chocolate
  3. Mom and Dad
  4. Full House (The sitcom)
  5. Career- aspiring jewel thief

Whether your Containers put the Olsen twins on the top of your list, or your career is not as important as becoming clear on what you value, identify if you are putting your time and energy into those areas appropriately.

What are your top 5 containers?

 

To learn about how to do the containers exercises check out Joe’s blog here. To learn about the science of motivation and how people make meaningful change last, check out former Buddhist Monk and PsyD, William Jackson’s post here.

 

Reference:

  1. Christensen, Clayton M., et al. Disruptive Innovation: The Christensen Collection (The Innovator's Dilemma, The Innovator's Solution, The Innovator's DNA, and Harvard Business Review article" How Will You Measure Your Life?")(4 Items). Harvard Business Press, 2011.