Many of us have goals we want to achieve, whether it’s to eat healthier, work out more, read more books, or other things that we feel we should be doing. Usually, when we think about working toward our goals, we imagine making hard sacrifices along the way — waking up early to go to the gym, spending extra time meal-prepping, and so on. But unless there’s some form of instant gratification in your actions, it’s probably not going to last for the long-term.
As Wendy Wood, a professor at the University of Southern California whose research focuses on habit formation, told Knowable Magazine last year, “The rewards for habit formation need to be immediate.”
Habit formation is facilitated by the neurotransmitter dopamine
As Wood explains in her book “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science Of Making Positive Changes That Stick,” the reason we need instant gratification to form a habit is that our behaviour is reinforced by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of our brain’s reward system. When our brain releases dopamine, it results in an immediate feeling of satisfaction, which then motivates us to repeat the action again.
That quick burst of dopamine is why we reach for that pint of ice cream even when we’re trying to eat healthier, or watch the next episode of our favourite show on Netflix even though we’re trying to get more sleep. When it comes to ice cream or our favourite TV show, the reward is immediate, which prompts us to repeat this action, whereas the rewards of eating healthier or getting more sleep take longer to be noticed. Since there’s no immediate reward to these goals, we struggle to follow through, even when we don’t lack for motivation.
To establish a habit, build instant gratification into the action
According to Wood, we spend about 43 per cent of our day doing things without thinking about them. For many of these habitual behaviours, we don’t recognise them as such. However, these learned behaviours are necessary for living our life. As Wood writes:
The reality is that exerting control is inherently draining, making us feel tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. Control also presents an opportunity cost. We can react to only a few things simultaneously, and when controlling one thing, we necessarily overlook others that could be important. Habits, by virtue of their location deep in the rudimentary machinery of our minds, are relatively cheap. They hum along on barely any bandwidth at all.
If we had to make a conscious decision for every action we did, we’d be burnt out within a week. Instead, we rely on habits to carry us through, which are often triggered by our environment. We wake up in the morning, which triggers our habit of making coffee; we get home from work, which triggers our habit of making dinner. Repeat these actions enough, and they become automatic.
As Wood writes, “A habit happens when a context clue is sufficiently associated with a rewarded response to become automatic, to fade into that hardworking, quiet second self. That’s it. Cue and response.”
How to build instant gratification into your goals
Since habits are so automatic, that means it can be hard to change them or to build new ones. That’s where the instant gratification comes in, and there are a number of ways to do it.
For example, if the goal is to exercise more, you can find a way to make it fun. I spent a year as a high school teacher with a gruelling commute, where the only way I could squeeze in exercise was by waking up at 3:30 AM to do the stationary bike. The only way I was able to turn it into a habit was by having this also be the only time I could watch episodes of my favourite shows.
Watching an episode of my favourite shows, when I barely had the time to do anything for myself, was the reward that softened the pain of waking up at a ridiculously early hour. This ended up being enough to turn into an automatic action. Within a few months, it got to the point where it was so automatic that half the time, I was on the bike and cycling before my brain registered what I was doing.
There’s no shame in adding in a little instant gratification to meet your goals. After all, the idea is to achieve them, and this is what science says is the best way. So go ahead: Find a way to make that goal more satisfying.