Change in Action: the art of patience by Yvonne Thackray

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time”                                

Leo Tolstoy

Taking change in your stride needs patience. Sometimes things don’t happen the way you expect, or you couldn’t plan for unexpected events, or it’s something that really isn’t in your control, the question becomes how do you maintain the pace and keep moving forward to that desired new state – to a change that becomes more stable and consistent – a paradox in itself.

Making that decision to take action is the first step, and because we are hugely motivated to make it happen we expect it to happen straight away. But when we encounter setbacks, particularly when it is beyond our control, we may give up, or try a little longer before giving up, or we may choose to be patient and look at the overall goal and see how each encounter fits into it and what can be learnt from the experiences.  Underpinning change we need to have a strong desire and reason for wanting it to happen, and in order to make it happen we have to find ways to outsmart one’s present state to reach that future self we believe is better for us. We need to find ways to tip the balance during ‘intertemporal bargaining” in favour of the future self in order to overcome the internal conflicts between immediate and delayed rewards.

Professor George Ainslie, an American psychiatrist, psychologist and behavioural economist, studied this common phenomenon and described it with the “hyperbolic discount curve” because it captures how daily defeating behaviours can erode our hopes for achieving our future.  Pre the hyperbolic discount curve, behavioural scientists assumed that humans discounted expected future rewards in a similar manner to banks that discounted the future value back to a present day value using a constant rate of discount. However, Ainslie discovered that what actually happens is we can happily ignore temptations when they are not immediately available, however, when they are getting close and coming directly into our view we loose perspective and forget the larger goal i.e. we behave irrationally. Our tendency to discount the future follows the steep curve of a hyperbola because it takes whatever value the reward has when it occurs and divides by the expected delay to get its current value. 

Another way to say this is our perception has narrowed because our feelings, controlled by that emotional part of our brain known as the limbic system, has kicked in and it is directly influencing our behaviour. In that instance being able to resist those primal urges of instant gratification that’s knowingly linked to pleasurable rewards requires us to invoke will power and shift our thinking to the neocortex, the conscious brain. Our neocortex is uniquely capable of deliberate and creative thought, and when we consciously activate it we can come up with ways to reduce and minimize the desirabilitiy of the present reward to that of the overall goal. Those moments needed to make the shift  will vary between individuals because we all have different discounters, which can vary by age, personality and habit. Experiments have shown, in general, that younger people are more impulsive than older people, extroverts are steeper discounters (requires rewards sooner than later) than introverts, and drug addicts (even smokers) are steeper discounters than adults without such addictions.

It may seem that we are hardwired to fail when we want to make a positive change, however, that isn’t the case. Having a better understanding of what’s stopping us from continuing to take those positive actions for a better future self, we need to use our will power to override our emotional brain in those instances and shift to our conscious brain to come up with creative and detailed ways to help our brains positively respond to delayed rewards. Sometimes its easy to come up with ways, other times its easier to work with a coach to come up with strategies and be held accountable to them, or join a group (on/offline) who wants to achieve similar goals to help keep you on course. There are many paths to reach the overall goal; setbacks are normal as long as you don’t allow them to be a reoccurring habit that bets against your future self.  Find those relevant rewards that deal with the present and meet the future goal, revise them as the time frame changes, and ... be patient.


Hall, Stephen (2010) Wisdom

Partnoy, Frank (2012) Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination

Zimbardoo, Philip (2008) The Time Paradox: Using the new Psychology of Time to your advantage

Baumeister, Roy & Tierney, John (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength