Build Healthy Habits - Part 2: Make it satisfying

The second part of the four part series on how to build healthy habits.

Last week I went over the first part of building a new habit; make it obvious.  

This week I'm going to briefly go over the second part of making a habit 'stick'; make it satisfying.

When we carry out any task there is generally two types of reward; instant or delayed.

Instant gratification is:

  • the buzz we get from eating a sugary treat
  • the escapism from bingeing an entire Netflix series
  • the energy boost from a rich cup of freshly brewed coffee.
  • the relaxation from opening an oaky bottle of red after a long, stressful day at work.

Delayed gratification, on the other hand, doesn't give us that instant kick.  We have to go through some discomfort or hard work for a period of time to gain long-term benefit.  Delayed gratification might be;

  • Improved fitness or body composition from following a fitness program.
  • Improved health and wellbeing from eating healthier foods.
  • having enough money to put down a deposit on a house after strictly budgeting for a year or two (or a decade in this era)
  • Improved wellbeing by walking to work instead of taking the car.

Understanding the difference between instant and delayed gratification is at the heart of understanding today's habit building topic.

Instant gratification is satisfying in the 'here and now'.  It's easy, requires little effort and give a BIG rush.  But the nature of instant gratification is to want more; we've all finished a chewy cookie only to want more.  It doesn't really fill that hole that we are looking for it to fill.  There is a craving, but no sense of calm.  

Delayed gratification, on the other hand, is not satisfying at the moment.  These types of task require commitment, planning, work and saying no to instant gratification.  The effort might not pay off for weeks, months or years.  I don't think I've ever had a client smile in the middle of an Airdyne (the devil's tricycle) high-intensity set.  Or during a set of high rep squats.

And this is the battle we take part in hundreds of times a day; instant vs delayed gratification.  Do we go to the gym on a cold, dark evening or do we stay in to watch the latest episode of The Sinner?  More often than not, for most people, the Netflix series is going to win.

Make it Satisfying

If you have a long-term goal that you are finding hard to achieve, then the first step is to break that larger goal into smaller and more manageable habits.

If your goal is to get 'fit and healthy', you might want to focus on:

  • Getting to bed earlier
  • Walking more often
  • Working out 2-3 times a week
  • Eating more natural foods

Know that those smaller habits aren't going to give you the buzz that watching Netflix will.   That's normal - they just don't light up the reward circuitry of your brain as much as instant gratification sources do.

Eventually, though, those smaller habits will become more satisfying the closer you get to your big goal.  But right now, they are not going to give you the same buzz.  And so you need to tag a mini-reward onto the end of your less satisfying, but rewarding long-term habits.

This mini-reward can make those habits more satisfying and keep you going until the healthier habit itself becomes more satisfying.  The key is to choose a reward that does not conflict with your longer-term goal i.e. don't give yourself a chocolate cake after a workout.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Only give yourself a cup of your favourite coffee after a workout.
  • Buy yourself those shoes you've always wanted if you hit your workout target for the month.

The key is to use a reward that motivates you to take action and carry out the new habit.  Keep using the reward for as long as you need, but only until the new habit becomes satisfying itself.  Eventually, the feeling of being fit & healthy, taking action and stepping outside of your comfort zone will trump almost any source of instant gratification.  And no longer will you need to live your life by the carrot & stick mentality; a deep desire to take the harder action will remain.

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