It certainly isn’t new news that making poor lifestyle choices has negative consequences.
An unhealthy diet, smoking, being inactive and other such behaviours are estimated to cause around 40 per cent of premature deaths in the developed world and the messages about needing to eat better, sleep more, drink less and be more active are ones you will often hear.
But why is it, sometimes, so hard to resist temptation and make a healthier choice?
Often behaviours that are harmful to us give us a BIG dose of instant gratification. Smoking – the nicotine hit. Drinking – the almost instant relaxation effect. Chocolate doughnut – a brain shaking (albeit temporary) sugar high. Then there’s shopping, gambling and all the other things we humans can become easily addicted to. In short, your brain gets a buzz from these kinds of choices.
Eating a salad instead of a burger, or saying no to a wine/beer/coffee and opting for water often doesn’t give us the same immediate feel-good factor that the less healthy fixes do. These habits have long-term consequences that will feel good in time, but our brain likes to know it is on the right course immediately, so it prefers instant gratification! It wants to feel great NOW!
When our brain gets that buzz, there is a release of a hormone called dopamine which tells the brain to ‘remember this, it feels good’. Sadly, your brain isn’t getting the full picture of how harmful repeating some of these behaviours can be to our wellbeing. This ‘buzz’ feeling system was set up to help us remember where to find food in times of scarcity, but now functions on overdrive in our society full of temptation.
So, how can we use this system to our advantage rather than let it take over? We need to find ways to give our brain the buzz it likes so much when we make healthier choices.
Your challenge: Give your brain a positive reward for doing something well and making healthy choices
How to make it happen!
Gamify it and set up a ‘healthy habit bank account’. Each day decide on two or three healthy choices you are keen to commit to, then when you do each of them, transfer money into your ‘healthy habit’ bank account.
Be it 20c or $5, choose a realistic, achievable amount that works for you each time you make the healthier choice. Or put the money that you would have spent on the unhealthy choice into your new bank account.
Let’s say you normally drink a large glass of wine a night (1/4 of a bottle, say around $4 worth of wine). Every night you don’t have one, transfer $4 into your new account. Skip a doughnut and go for a 15-minute walk instead? Put $3.50 into your account. Go for a run instead of sitting on the couch browsing social, pop $2 through.
It is really important to do the transfer as soon as practical after you have made the choice to give your brain that instant gratification hit.
At the end of the month, buy something for yourself, organise a memorable experience that you wouldn’t normally do or donate the money to a charity close to your heart. Choose something that you know is motivating for you and will make you happy.
Can’t set up a ‘real’ bank account. Keep track on your phone or a note pad, but be sure to do the record as soon as you can after making the better choice.
If money isn’t important to you, find something else that works. Fill a jar with marbles or whatever you have at hand each time you make the healthier choice and come up with a reward that is exciting to you when the jar is full. It works for kids and can work for adults, too.
It is great to be able to see and measure your progress and success in a visual way with these methods.
How to stick to it
- Get your family or flatmates involved
- Regularly praise yourself for each time you actively choose better
- Think about how you can involve your colleagues and how to have fun in the workplace
- Create positive accountability by telling your intentions to someone else, eg, a couple of friends who can help you stay on track.
Article sources and references