Or, Why Is It so Easy to Get Addicted to Things that Are Unhealthy but so Difficult to Get Hooked on Healthy Habits?
The short answer is: those “unhealthy things” hack directly into our bodily reward system.
Thus, we get an immediate reward (usually: pleasure) from doing them. We crave the pleasure, so the behavior gets reinforced. It easily becomes a habit.
The long answer is more complicated.
The reason why hacking directly into the reward system works so well is that it bypasses the conscious mind. The subconscious mind knows only one tense: now. It is not concerned with the future ramifications of present actions. And it’s quite a primitive creature. Do you feel pleasure? Well, it means this action feels good! Let’s repeat it and get the same pang of pleasure!
No reflections. No pondering of consequences. And your bad habits create on autopilot.
Good Habit Are Easy
One of my healthy habits is to eat at least one raw vegetable or fruit a day. It’s very easy. All I need is to remember about the habit (now, after several years it’s my second nature), get a veggie, and munch it.
Yet, it still takes some effort, some investment on the part of my conscious mind. I need to remember. I need to have veggies or fruits at my home. I need to actually perform the action.
It’s even more bothersome at the very beginning when the whole routine is new to you. Even remembering the habit can be an effort. Then, you need actually do it. It’s also beneficial to track it. It’s all the mental effort.
And the reward is not so big. Well, in the beginning, it’s hardly noticeable. And it is certainly not immediate. You switch your diet or exercise for a week before you can see any significant movement on a scale (a few pounds). But you don’t want ‘any!’ You want ‘many!’ And you don’t want them next quarter, but yesterday!
See? Your emotions are working against you. Instant gratification is getting the worst out of you. While developing unhealthy habits you feel nothing but pleasure. While developing healthy habits you often feel disappointment and frustration.
Emotions Are the Problem
BJ Fogg, the behavioral scientist from Stanford University, invented a brilliant addition to the process of developing new habits which make your emotions an ally, not an enemy: you celebrate your habits.
You don’t let your emotions to fend for themselves. You consciously entice the feeling of joy from doing your habit, not from its results. You create your own immediate feedback loop.
How does it look in practice? You do some gesture, or say something nice to yourself like “Nice job!” or “I’m awesome!”
If you have any difficulties imagining what those words or gestures could be, imagine yourself cheering your favorite team in the championships. They just scored! What do you do?! Jump in place? Roar with joy?
This is exactly what you should do to help your healthy habit to develop. Eat a vegetable and roar with joy. Do 10 pushups and jump with excitement. Drink a glass of water and pump your fists in triumph. Prepare a meal and tell yourself: “Well done!”
In conclusion, it takes time to develop good habits. They are worth both time and effort though.
“An immediate reward for lack of discipline is a fun day at the beach. A future reward of discipline is owning the beach.” — Jim Rohn
A future reward for healthy habits is health.
Celebrate each instance of your healthy habit and hack into the emotional reward system of your body.