Have you ever found yourself wanting to start on a task, only to end up surfing the net for hours? Or you want to eat healthier, but always find yourself grabbing the fast food that's close by? It turns out there's a scientific reason behind our struggle between short-term rewards and long-term goals.
The two conflicting brain regions
According to research from Princeton University, there are two areas of the brain: one that is associated with our emotions and the other with abstract reasoning.
As you might have guessed, the emotional part of our brain responds positively to instant gratification. When given the choice of cake now or broccoli later, this part of your brain pushes you to choose the cake.
The logical part of your brain, though, tries to reason with you. It might tell you that the broccoli is better for your long-term health, and that you really don't need to eat that chocolate cake. The emotion and logic-based parts of your brain are constantly in a battle, trying to show you why you should choose one option and not the other.
So which part of our brain wins in the end? It depends on the scenario. The researchers concluded that impulsive choices happen when the emotional part of our brains triumphs over the logical one.
When people get really close to obtaining a reward, their emotional brain takes over. So if a chocolate cake is staring right at you, things will get dicey.
"Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions," says Laibson at Harvard University. "Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking."
When we see, touch, or smell something that we really want, the temptation is too great to resist. We act impulsively because the dopamine in our brains gets all fired up. When our brain has calmed down afterward, though, we end up regretting our actions.
How to calm your brain and make the right choices
While we have the rational side of our brain to help us out, we can still easily end up making choices that don't work in our long-term interests. So here are four methods you can use to help your brain brain do what's best in the long run:
1. Manage your environment.
I've noticed that cravings happen most often when I see an object. Since I've placed healthier snacks and food nearby, I don't need to expend energy trying to resist temptation.
Managing your surroundings also works when you want to achieve an important goal. For instance, if I want to read a book, I'll put it in a convenient place (such as beside my computer). Making your tasks easy to pick up is the first step towards becoming more productive.
2. Tend to basic needs.
If possible, find ways to work with the emotional side of your brain. If your brain is pushing you towards something, it might be an indicator of your energy levels.
Feeling tired? Take a nap or get more rest. Grumbling stomach? Eat balanced meals throughout the day. Cranky from stress? Go and play. When your energy levels aren't being taken care of, your mood drops and your reasoning skills worsen.
3. Tie emotion to your goals.
Our emotions can easily overpower any logic deduction skills we have. So if you really want to start creating a habit, then associate it with an emotion. For instance, if you keep putting off your idea, remind yourself of the positive rewards you'll experience if you get started.
4. Just do it.
When we feel nervous or scared of doing something, we often try to talk ourselves into becoming more confident. While this method helps boost up our self-esteem, there comes a point when you just have to jump. Going ahead and trying something out might be the confidence booster you need to do it again in the future.
Our decisions are often driven by factors outside of reasoning. Distractions and emotions can lead us away from where we want to go. But if you can find ways to get your brain to cooperate and behave according to your goals, then you're well on your way to tipping the scales back in your favor.