The tough thing about long term goals is that they’re long term. For example, if you have ever set a new year’s resolution to meditate more and found yourself off track by the 23rd of April, you probably know this feeling too well. It’s not just a meditation thing, our brain finds it difficult to stick to goals when the rewards are not immediate.
The psychological process behind this is hyperbolic discounting: our brains see short term rewards as more concrete and tangible and thus attractive. Long term rewards, on the other hand, are seen as abstract and intangible and thus less attractive.
For example, almost 10 years a go, I set an intention to meditate every day. The long term benefits of meditation like tighter focus and reduced stress may not be seen after months, if not years. It can be difficult to remain motivated because shorter term benefits can seem more wortwhile and distract me from my goal. Why meditate when there are much easier sources of instant gratification around?
play the game
This is where gamification can help. This is the simple practice of taking a goal, breaking it down to a series of steps and rewarding yourself with each step. Instead of getting a big pay-off when the goal is met, you get a small reward for each step you take towards that goal.
When I first started to practice meditation, I would go through weeks of practicing every day and weeks where I wouldn’t practice at all. This isn’t ideal. While the gains from the previous week of diligent practice wasn’t completely wiped out, I was really putting the brakes on my momentum by taking such long breaks.
a simple points system
I needed more immediate rewards to keep myself motivated. So I installed a simple points system.
- If I meditate that day, I gain a point.
- If I miss meditation, then I lose a point.
- The points can be redeemed for various rewards.
- For example, I love playing video games. So for every point I get, I can trade it in for some video game time.
With this point’s system I wouldn’t have to wait for the long term benefits of meditation to kick in in order to get rewarded and keep my motivation up. On the days where I miss a session, the consequence is more readily apparent, I lose some highly valued video game time. And on the days where I sit down and meditate, I can still feel satisfied knowing that I am building a bit more mental wealth each day, and I also get to cash in on some video games.
did it work?
I currently have a twice daily meditation practice (one in the morning before starting work, one in the evening before going to bed). I might miss a day or two every so often but I can’t remember the last time I went longer without meditating. This at least partly due to reinforcing my daily practice with more immediate rewards.
Choosing rewards to reinforce your habit building is only one step is good habit design. If you want to learn more, the Habitling habit building course will take you through a comprehensive habit design progress to help you nurture a habit through the first 21 days and beyond!
While this post has focused on the idea of building a meditation practice, using gamification can work with building any challenging habit. All you need to do is think about a compelling reward to reinforce the habit. What habit will you build today?
Happy habit building!
You might also enjoy these gems 😁