Fun Tricks to Beat Bad Habits by Outsmarting Your Own Brain

Yum.I'm a terrible gardener. I have a pansy out on the balcony that had grown into a sad looking plant, with long, dead-looking stems that held only fragments of green and sparse flowers. I finally figured out that pruning the longer stems that no longer held blooms cleared the way for lush, green, new growth that could bloom again with beautiful flowers. Yes, I had to figure this out. Stop judging me. Did I mention I'm a terrible gardener?

Read More: Feel Better and Accomplish More: How to Make Your Routine Work With Your Bad Habits and Energy Levels

This obvious metaphor also works with the bad habits in our lives. When we finally buck up and prune the less desirable time-suckers from our lives, we pave the way for better opportunities and a more fulfilled existence.

Read More: Tips for Kicking Bad Habits: Get 'em While They're Young, But Don't Give Up if You're Old

How Dopamine Works Against You

Do you ever wonder why you stay up late checking Facebook or surfing your favorite web sites when you'd be better off sleeping? Or why you dive face first into chocolate cake or ice cream when such indulgences run counter to your health and wellness goals? Blame it on dopamine.

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., writes:

When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn't create happiness itself -- the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.

Dopamine makes us feel desire and stress simultaneously, and we mistake the fulfillment of our desire with happiness. The crappy thing is that we may only feel a brief sense of relief when we give in to our hankerings. (I've never heard anyone say, "I'm so happy I ate a whole pint of ice cream an hour ago!") If we can distract ourselves from the craving, we can interrupt dopamine production, while obsessing about what we want only makes it worse.

In actuality, when we do give in to a craving and pay very close attention to what happens while we're indulging, the experience just about never lives up to our expectations. Maybe a bite or two of cake tastes fabulous, but if we're really tasting it instead of shoveling it in, by the fourth bite we feel a little queasy from all that sugar. Perhaps a little bit of Facebook is fun, but it starts to feel disappointing when we really pay attention to our experience of sitting in an uncomfortable desk chair while our eyelids droop and sleep is lost.

Read More: 5 Tips for Making a New Habit Stick

Get Dopamine to Work for You

Sometimes it can be tough to take care of boring, routine tasks like cleaning when there are temptations to do anything but that all around us. McGonigal has some strategies for making dopamine work in our favor.

1. Fantasize About the Payoff: I hate emptying the dishwasher. However, I can imagine what it's like to cook dinner when the kitchen is spotless and the dishwasher is empty. It makes cooking a joy when I can just drop a dirty pan into the dishwasher when I'm done, furthering my goal to keep the kitchen clean. It gets me off my duff to put all the dishes away before I have to start dinner, and to keep the kitchen clean when I'm done.

Far more exciting to me than the tedium of the dishwasher is thinking of the freedom of never having my workdays confined to a corporate office again. This is what spurs me to write and take on new entrepreneurial projects, even when trashy TV and a glass of wine beckon. My fantasized payoff (a life of living free, working when and where I please) gives me that hit of dopamine I need to fuel my ambitions.

2. Reward a Dreaded Task: Speaking of trashy TV, a great example of rewarding a dreaded task is to watch your favorite show while you work out. (Hmm, maybe I should consider this tactic.)

Far and away my favorite way of rewarding hard work is to bring a project to a restaurant for a long, leisurely lunch. I get to people watch and eat great food while I enjoy my accomplishments, which is the perfect enticement for me to show up and undertake anything that's been causing me to drag my feet.

Next time you're tempted to give in to old habits and time wasters, think back on these tips: fantasize about a better payoff by doing something more productive, or reward a dreaded task with a fabulous treat. You just might find new possibilities blooming before your eyes.

This post was written by Katie Morton.

Top Articles on Bad Habits
Feel Better and Accomplish More: How to Make Your Routine Work With Your Bad Habits and Energy Levels
Tips for Kicking Bad Habits: Get 'em While They're Young, But Don't Give Up if You're Old
5 Tips for Making a New Habit Stick