Want To Do Something Consistently? Make It Feel Good.
Do you have a hobby you could engage in all day long? Something that’s so much fun and gives you so much pleasure that it could easily become an addiction?
Me, I could play football all day long (if I had the stamina). I could play video games all day long. I could play Counter-Strike all day long. I could play Fifa all day long. Easy peasy.
Now, would you like to develop similar enthusiasm, excitement, and motivation for more beneficial activities such as meditation, exercise, reading, studying, or working? Put differently, would you like to develop a kind of healthy addiction to these activities?
Of course you would. Let’s make it happen.
Your Brain’s 2 Operating Systems
According to neuroscience, your brain employs two different systems to process incoming information and drive decisions and behavior. One system uses logic (I’ll exercise because it will help me lose weight) while the other system uses emotion (I’ll just watch some TV instead because it’s fun and comfortable).
The emotion-based system is fast, nonverbal, and experiential. It motivates us effortlessly based on our feelings (this often happens outside of our awareness). The logic-based system is slow, effortful, and host of our willpower.
Not surprisingly, these very different systems often send us conflicting messages. Logic wants us to go exercise while emotion would rather chill in front of the TV and do nothing.
Feelings VS. Logic
I’m sure you’ve noticed in your own life, emotions usually trump logic: More often than not we do what feels good instead of what would be good for us in theory.
We know eating that cookie isn’t good for us (logic), but we do it anyway because it tastes so good (emotion). We know meditating would be great for our health and well-being (logic), but it feels too hard and is uncomfortable (emotion).
Human beings, in general, approach things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad.
That’s exactly why our hobbies are so motivating. They make us feel good, they are fun, interesting, rewarding. In other words, they offer lots of positive emotions that we can approach.
On the other hand, activities like meditation, exercise, reading, or cleaning the house are usually associated with negative feelings (which we want to avoid). It’s no wonder we have so much trouble sticking to these behaviors – our emotion-based system wants to run away from them as fast as possible.
The point is, when you want to do something regularly you have to make it feel good. You have to give your emotion-based system something to approach. When you do that, keeping up a regular meditation practice or regular exercise regimen becomes child’s play.
Study Proves: Logic Is a Terrible Motivator
Here’s a great study illustrating the points we’ve discussed so far: (It’s from the book No Sweat by Michelle Segar, a leading scientist in the field of personal motivation.)
“Some years ago, my colleagues and I conducted a study in which we examined the impact of people’s reasons to start exercising on their actual involvement in exercise. We first asked the participants to state their reasons or goals for exercising, as I just asked you. Then, to uncover their higher-level reasons for exercising, we asked them why they cared about obtaining those particular benefits.
My colleagues and I found that 75 percent of participants cited weight loss or better health (current and future) as their top reasons for exercising; the other 25 percent exercised in order to enhance the quality of their daily lives (such as to create a sense of well-being or feel centered). Then we measured how much time they actually spent exercising over the course of the next year. The answer may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: The vast majority of the participants whose goals were weight loss and better health spent the least amount of time exercising overall—up to 32 percent less than those with other goals.”
Ask people why they want to start exercising and you’ll get the following results:
- 75% rely on logic. They say their goal is “better health” or “weight loss”.
- 25% focus on emotion. They say their goal is to enhance the quality of their daily lives (i.e. they want to create a sense of well-being or feel centered).
Turns out people who want to lose weight or achieve better health (logical reasons) spend the least amount of time exercising.
In other words, people who rely on their logic-based system fail. “Better health” and “weight loss” promise a better future, but no immediate gratification. These things don’t feel good in the moment. They don’t give the brain anything pleasurable to approach.
Even worse, most people dread exercising. It’s a chore. Something they have to do. Something they must force themselves to do. Something uncomfortable, associated with lots of negative feelings. This, of course, forces their emotion-based system to want to avoid exercise all together.
The Neuroscience of Reward
Earlier on I mentioned turning meditation, exercise, or other beneficial activities into a healthy addiction. Making that happen has everything to do with something called the neuroscience of reward. Michelle Segar explains it well in No Sweat:
“According to leading neuroscientist Kent Berridge, “liking” a specific behavior (after learning that it is associated with a positive reward, like more energy) triggers “wanting” to perform that action (similar to a Pavlovian conditioned response) and consistently motivates that behavior. In addition, positive feelings actually motivate our behavior outside of our consciousness, without our even realizing it.”
It’s simple: When you like doing something (because it gives you a positive reward) you will continue wanting to do it.
By making meditation and other beneficial activities feel as good as possible, we can take advantage of this principle. For when you like engaging in those activities, your brain will continue wanting to engage in them. And that’s how you can turn those behaviors into healthy addictions. Ninja, I know.
How to Apply This In Your Own Life
Quick recap: When we want to meditate, exercise, study, or work hard on a consistent basis, we need to bring our emotion-based system over on our side. We accomplish this by making these activities as pleasurable as possible (remember, we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad). This way we like engaging in the activities and ensure our brain will keep wanting to do them.
Put differently, the key to staying motivated and turning something into a healthy addiction is to associate as many positive emotions with the activity as possible. (If we associate negative feelings with a behavior – we dread doing it – our emotion-based system will want to avoid it. It would rather watch TV or eat a cookie.)
Alright, how to make this happen? Here are a couple of things you can do:
- Choose an activity that feels good. (Not always possible.)
- Make the activity as pleasurable as possible.
- Reframe the meaning of the activity to associate it with more positive emotions.
Let’s go through some examples. You’ll quickly understand how this works.
Example 1: Exercise
What can you do if you want to exercise more often? Simply choose a type of exercise that you enjoy doing. Take a dance class. Play football with your buddies. Go hiking on the weekends. Play tennis, basketball, volleyball, or badminton. Go kayaking or skydiving.
You don’t need to go for a 40-minute run to get the benefits of exercise. Forcing yourself to do that is just setting yourself up for failure. Choosing an activity that feels good is much more strategic and increases the chances of sticking with regular exercise by a factor of at least 2000.
Additionally, you could try to make the activity even more fun. Maybe do it with your best friend. Listen to your favorite music doing it. Get some cool equipment. Or whatever, be creative.
The key is to make your exercise as enjoyable as possible.
Example 2: Meditation
You know the benefits of meditation, but you can’t get yourself to do it on a regular basis. I’ve been there. So what can you do?
First, choose the type of meditation you enjoy the most. Maybe you prefer walking meditations over sitting meditations. Maybe you prefer mindfulness meditation over loving-kindness meditation. Maybe you enjoy guided body scan meditations. Bottom line, choose what you enjoy most (or dread the least).
Next up, make the meditation less daunting. Trying to meditate for 30 minutes in a lotus pose as a beginner is a sure-fire way to get de-motivated and give up. Remember, the harder you make it, the more your emotion-based system will want to avoid it. So, maybe meditate in a back-supporting chair if it’s easier for you. Or meditate lying down. Make it as easy as possible.
Lastly, reframe. What’s the meaning you’re currently giving meditation? Do you associate it with negative emotions (“It’s tough. My back always hurts. My mind is going crazy. It’s super uncomfortable. It always makes me feel like a failure because I’m no good at it.”) or positive emotions (“It makes me feel centered and grounded. It helps me relax. It’s boosting my attention and improves my ability to concentrate. It makes me a better person. It’s a great test of toughness.”)?
If you want to stay motivated and do this consistently, you gotta try and associate meditation with as many positive attributes as possible. Remember the benefits you’re getting. Remember that you’ll feel better afterwards. Remember how proud you’ll be after your session. Maybe make it a game. How long can you go without getting lost in thought?
Bottom line: Make your meditation as easy and enjoyable as possible.
Your Turn: Which habits or activities could you make more approachable for your emotion-based system, and how?
Thanks for Reading
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Great tips. I’ve actually started applying this to my evening walk routine. I used to walk around my local streets, but now I drive to a park with a running track and parklands to make it more enjoyable. I haven’t missed a day, evening walking in the rain!
Wow, that sounds great Christine! Well done on that one.
Just what I needed right now. I’m trying to exercise regularly and complete a study programme and I find a million excuses to do neither which leaves me feeling annoyed with myself. Great article to give me some strategies for improving my motivation.
Yeah, I feel you. Our mind is an excellent excuse-making machine.
Hi Nils – absolutely agree – motivation is a wuss – you need to find out how to make it enjoyable for sure – or a matter of life or death if that fails:)
Finding a way to make it a matter of life or death would be pretty powerful, indeed 🙂
thank you for these tips