Photo: Gorenkova Evgenija (Shutterstock)
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 behavior 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 favorite show on Netflix even though we’re trying to get more sleep. When it comes to ice cream or our favorite 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 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them. For many of these habitual behaviors, we don’t recognize them as such. However, these learned behaviors 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 …….