Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you’re trying to be strict with your spending and only buy essential goods, but you see something on Amazon.com or in the store that you can’t resist. Or maybe you’ve set strict goals for a diet but break your own rules after you walk by a bakery that smells like freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.
In these cases, your short-term behavior is in conflict with your long-term goals. It’s a classic problem, one that dates back through human history. Greek philosophers wrestled with the idea and came up with an idea called stoicism. Many religions tackle the thought of short-term pleasures with threats of punishment.
It’s hard to resist things that make you feel good. It’s easy to break the rules that you’ve set for yourself. Long-term goals are far away, which makes them sort of abstract. The freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie isn’t abstract. You know it’s going to taste good.
A habit can be thought of as an automatic behavior. Looking both ways before you cross the street could be considered a habit. Washing your hands when you get home is a healthy habit. Neither of these offer much reward, but they can be pretty easily ingrained.
Saving money for retirement isn’t so easy, nor is losing weight or sticking to an exercise program. Washing your hands requires little effort, but forcing yourself not to browse the Amazon app can be downright painful. Lugging around gigantic dumbbells isn’t a cakewalk either.
So, how do you stay on track? How do you forgo the short-term reward for long-term gain? Science isn’t clear on this yet, but one answer might help: treat yourself. When you’re trying to make something a habit, one strategy to consider is rewarding yourself. Even though humans are quite intelligent and complex, in some ways we’re simple.
Be careful when deciding which rewards you should use, because it’s easy to get carried away. A pint of ice cream isn’t a great reward for completing a workout, but a small bowl of ice cream probably won’t derail your goals.
Praise from friends or family is also a reward (keep in mind that as you praise others, you give them a reward!). You could even make a piggy bank and drop a few dollars in every time you go to the gym. After a month, take that money and treat yourself to a nice meal or a night out.
The point is, don’t suffer for months or years to accomplish your goal without giving yourself a little reward along the way. The more you reward yourself for working towards long-term goals, the easier it is to stay on track and avoid seeking other forms of cheap gratification.