Animals are primed for instant gratification. It’s critical to survival. Lions don’t think about what their life will be like ten years from now, one year from now, or even tomorrow. Nope. They are concerned only with the needs of today: eating, sleeping and reproduction. These primal instincts, and the decisions made from them, have an immediate impact on their lives.
Our primal ancestors weren’t much different than the lions. There’s little time and energy to contemplate long-term goals when the odds of your survival each day depend upon your ability to find your next meal and sleep without being attacked by a predator.
In modern society, however, many of the decisions we make will not have an immediate impact in our lives. If you eat healthy for a day, you will be unable to notice a difference in your body composition, but if you continue, perhaps you won’t be overweight in a year. If you exercise consistently for a week or two, it is unlikely that you will be able to notice any difference in how your clothes fit, but maybe those jeans will fit like a glove in a few months. We now live in what is referred to as a delayed-return environment because you may have to work for a really long time before your decisions and actions pay off.
The problem with this is, our brains have not evolved at the same rate as our environment, so we still crave instant gratification. It’s easy to say that we want to do something (good habit) that will bring long-term satisfaction, but in the moment of temptation, your body and mind want what feels good RIGHT NOW (often a bad habit). An instant reward becomes much more desirable than one that is merely possible at some unknown time in the future. Goodbye willpower.
With this knowledge, we can make a good habit with long-term rewards irresistible in the present by using instant gratification to our advantage. The secret to getting a habit to stick is to feel successful immediately. That feeling of success is what alerts your brain that the habit is enjoyable and worth repeating in the future.
How does this work in real life? Consider these examples:
- Desired Habit: Cutting out high-sugar, high-calorie, high-priced coffee drinks from your favorite coffee shop.
- Instant Reward: Set up a “shopping spree jar”. Every time you make coffee at home, put the $5 that you would have spent at the coffee shop in the jar and watch the money pile grow. When it hits $100, go shopping
- Desired Habit: Eating a packed lunch at work instead of going out.
- Instant Reward: Spending 20 minutes walking or reading your favorite book out in the sunshine before resuming work.
- Desired Habit: Going to the gym immediately after work.
- Instant Reward: Hot bath soak listening to your favorite music.
It’s worth pointing out that your chosen instant reward should not be at odds with your long-term goals. For instance, if you are trying to become healthy, you would not want to reward exercise with a bowl of ice cream. To do so would negate the benefit of the desired habit itself. Instead, implement rewards that further enforce the type of person you wish to become.
Eventually, the habit will become second nature and will be the reward in itself. What an amazing day that will be, right???
- What habits do you need to successfully implement to become the person you want your future self to be?
- What instant rewards can you put in place for practicing those habits?
As James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, “Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.”
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