Why is your brain so addicted to quick wins?

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You may have seen my post on Facebook yesterday about that moment when you achieve something that wasn’t even on your to-do list, add it to your list and then tick it off straight away! It seems ridiculous doesn’t it, but there are powerful factors at play here that lead you to behave this way, and these things also heavily influence your approach to your health, fitness and wellbeing. Before we go on, here’s a link to the Daily Planner I took a picture of yesterday to use alongside my post, as there seemed to be a lot of love for it!

Ok, hands up, who clicked on the link straight away? Keep your hand up if you bought it. Why did you do that? Instant gratification. It’s highly powerful, addictive actually and it influences the fitness regimes you choose and your love for online shopping. Plus it was half-price so your brain loved it even more!!!!! Here’s what happens…

Your brain is hard-wired to look for quick wins and it loves stuff that’s shiny and new too. If you can get something done quickly, like buying an organiser with 1-click so that you feel like you’ll be more on top of your busy life, or you can lose four pounds in a day just by using the latest weight loss programme, a part of your brain known as the nucleus acumbens in your limbic system lights up. It’s the same part of the brain that lights up when you reach the next level on that addictive game, the same part that lights up when you tear open that chocolate bar and wolf it down in one go, the same part that lights up when a gambler wins a bet, the same part that lights up when a drug addict takes cocaine, and the same part that lights up during orgasm.

In any of these situations, you release a neurotransmitter called dopamine; often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’. Put simply, it makes you feel good, and boy do we like to feel good. Daniel Levitin, in his wonderful book The Organized Mind, notes the addictive nature of this response. He talks about gamers in China and South Korea who were so compelled to keep playing and receive their next dopamine hit, that they died having gamed non-stop for up to three days. He refers to this desire for a quick hit as hyper-immediacy and notes that it is an ever-increasing phenomenon in our technology-driven modern society.

Take your phone for example - the perfect place for quick wins. It lights up, beeps or plays a cheerful little jingle when you receive a text, email or any one of a raft of announcements. You often feel compelled to reply instantly to messages and you’re rewarded with a different sound when you do, the swooshing of that text zapping across cyberspace in an instant. And how do you feel? You feel like you’ve achieved something and so as a reward, your brain provides a nice little shot of dopamine. You get an even bigger rush when your clear your email inbox, you feel like you want to parade around the office holding your laptop aloft and throw an impromptu party.

This why tech can be so addictive. How many times do you check your phone to see if someone has liked or responded to your social media post? It’s the desire to send off that little rush of chemicals and make you feel good. And this desire for quick wins now pervades all aspects of society.

Take the email or text thing; do you get frustrated when someone doesn’t reply immediately? That wouldn’t happen in days gone by as the expectation that it was possible simply wasn’t there. Nobody posted a letter and expected a handwritten reply the very next day, nobody ran out to intercept the postman early in their rounds, wrestled them to the floor and tore open every envelop addressed to them in the desire for the response. They waited patiently; it probably took them a while to write it and get it sent off and so the same speed was often applied to reading the reply once it arrived.

Not today…compose message…send…stare at screen (hoping to see the little dots come up at the bottom to tell you the other person is reading it NOW…get frustrated if those dots disappear and the person hasn’t replied immediately). They may be trying to escape a burning building at the time, wrestle a bear escaped from the local zoo, be in the middle of a work meeting or making dinner for three kids, but that doesn’t matter to your limbic system, it wants that dopamine hit now!

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What’s this got to do with your health and fitness?

Health and fitness goals are no different; you’re not daft, you know that what you want will probably take some time, but that’s not exciting for your brain as it doesn’t offer the instant gratification it has come to crave and expect.

So it’s no wonder we continuously fall for ‘9-day detoxes’, ‘lose 2-stone in a week bootcamps’ and ‘6-pack abs in 6 weeks’ articles in magazines. Those things light up your brain in the same way that your over-zealous neighbour lights up the entire street with a Christmas display to rival Blackpool illuminations.

You’re not daft, you’re not really fooled into thinking this is the solution I’ve been craving, but you can’t resist the gratification you’ll get from quick results. And for the PT industry, sometimes we struggle to understand why people continuously choose the path of least resistance. But why wouldn’t you choose quick and easy over the long road? It’s far more pleasurable after all and so when the quick fix falls by the wayside, you think, ‘I won’t do that again’ but then that 21-day detox comes along and your nucleus acumbens just can’t say no.

Don’t think that us PT’s don’t do it too; over the last few years there has been an explosion of fitness business gurus and online courses offering ‘6 easy steps to £100k a year’ or ‘earn what you want in just 8 hours a week’. And guess what, PT’s get lured in as their brain reacts like Charlie when staring through the window of the chocolate shop, tongue out, anticipating the instant pleasure from that Wonka Bar and the chance to get his hands on a golden ticket.

Becoming a ‘Haretoise’

Is there a more balanced approach, one that blends the addictive power of quick wins with something healthy that yields lasting results? I think there is, and here’s what I’d suggest.

Do you remember Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare? Well then you know that the tortoise is content to take things slow and steady, aware she’ll get there in the end (in the spirit of modern times, I’ve made the tortoise female as she’s the sensible one who’s good at long-term planning). In the same way, you can use your inner tortoise to good effect. Identify the desire, the long-term or big goal - whatever it might be…losing a stone, dropping two trouser sizes, running a half marathon or lifting 100kg for the first time.

The problem with this of course, is that it’s going to take some time, and your nucleus acumbens isn’t going to stand for that, it wants satisfying much more urgently.

So you break the big desire down into smaller chunks. Why do you think Weight Watcher’s and Slimming world have been so successful? Because there’s a weekly weigh-in, a chance for gratification for your efforts every single week.

But even that’s too log these days, so you need to invoke your inner hare and ensure he’s getting quick wins every single day (yep the hare is a man, short-term thinking for instant gratification required). How can you do that? Here’s where you can use your behaviours to good effect. Most fitness and weight loss regimes focus solely on the outcomes; your brain lights up when it sees the scales tell you you’re lighter or you see your ab’s poking through when just a few weeks before it was more like Play-Doh. You can get the same sense of achievement by setting and achieving daily targets around behaviours, as long as you bring a few tricks into play:

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Let’s use cutting down alcohol as an example. You set yourself the challenge of booze-free weekdays and you use the following tools to get that dopamine release you need to stay motivated and keep going towards your long-term desire (the boring health and weight-loss one that the tortoise is slowly plodding towards).

1) Record it visually - it might just be a piece of paper stuck to your fridge or desk that you can tick each day. You get a pleasure hit from the act of ticking it and even more when your family or colleagues see it too and give you praise or the odd high-five

2) Go high-tech - You might prefer to use an app, like the DrinkAware one, that allows you to set goals, track what you’re doing and gives you awards for achieving them. If you’ve ever used a Fitbit, you’ll know how addictive it can be to hit your steps and get the fireworks display on screen or receive a new badge for total distance covered or floors climbed. That’s because the same fireworks are happening inside your brain at that moment

3) Share goals and updates with a family member, friend or colleague - why do you think people post their latest run on social media or Strava became so popular? People like getting recognition; it keeps the hare happy with quick pleasure hits.

4) Check on the progress of your tortoise - much like Weight Watchers (sorry, WW as of recently), the progress check provides you with another source of feedback that can set off your happy chemicals and keep you on the path to success.

If you can strike the balance with the quick wins for the hare, whilst allowing the tortoise to move along gradually towards her big desire, you have a recipe that satisfies your brain and allows you to achieve lasting change.

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