Hack Your Brain to Use Cravings to Your Advantage
Cravings are not a good thing. In fact, the triggering of the stress response means we usually feel uncomfortable when a craving comes on. Because of that, we don’t want to overuse a lot of these methods, but you can create temporary triggers that can help you form better habits in the long run. First, let’s take a look at how you can overcome those negative cravings.
Overcome Your Negative Cravings
We know that cravings tap into the part of your brain that wants immediate gratification and when it does, the brain ignores your long-term goals. However, you can train you brain to motivate itself toward long-term goals naturally. Here’s how to do it.
Create Competing Motivations: Dr. McGonigal suggests you train your brain to recognize the difference between motivations and cravings. To do this, create competing motivations so when your brain craves something, you can properly weigh it against what you really want. This means writing down your goals, keeping them available to you, and constantly reminding yourself of what positive goals you want to achieve. This allows your brain to automatically shift to remember your long-term goals and ignore the cravings that have a negative effect on them.
Be mindful of your actions: Did you do the potato chip exercise above? You can use that same experience to train your brain to stop and think about your negative cravings. In an experiment published in Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, smokers slowly and methodically opened a pack of cigarettes and had to think about each action. Over time, their urges were reduced because they had to think through each of their actions. If you did the potato chip experiment above, put your mind back in that place where you’re still feeling the urge to eat even after you’re full. Remember the fact the chips didn’t taste so good after a few bites and how awful you felt afterwards.
Overcoming your negative cravings is great, but how about manipulating those urges into achieving your positive goals? Let’s look at some of the tricks you can play on your mind to do just that.
Use Triggers to Initiate Positive Cravings
A craving is often created from a trigger. Since something as simple as reading the words “potato chips” can make you crave them, the same triggers should exist for what you want to crave. It’s not a long-term solution to dealing with harmful cravings, but you can use those cravings to accomplish positive goals you have trouble starting. Here are a couple ideas for how you can use them.
Change your environment: Dr. Mcgonigal describes this as “dopamanizing your willpower challenges.” Take something that triggers a craving and then pair it with something you want to get done. For instance, if you have to get paperwork done, combine it with a task you enjoy, like eating a muffin at a coffee shop. If you hate exercise, but enjoy shopping, start speed walking in the mall. The flush of dopamine and stress hormones still come out, but you can associate them with the task you want to accomplish. This eventually wears off and stops working, but it gives you enough time to form a new and healthy habit.
Alter your environment: Placing things you truly want around the house is a way to create a competing motivation for your cravings. The idea is that when you’re reminded of you positive goals, like exercise or eating better, you have quick access to what you need, not what you want. Make subtle changes to your home or work environment. Keep your running shoes by the door or store fruit in the same place you store Pop-Tarts. This trains your brain to not only balance your motivations and cravings properly, but also creates triggers for the positive change you want to make. You can’t crave what you don’t want, but you can train your brain into wanting what’s healthy for you. Fixing your environment to use triggers to your advantage is just one option. You can also use your instinctive reward system to rewire the brain to want to chase a new craving.
Alter Your Reward System
Your instinctive reward system is designed to make you pursue or chase a goal. If you’re trying to start a new habit you want something less abstract than “being healthy” to chase after. Using those cravings to force yourself into accomplishing goals is a great way to provide the temporary reward system needed to establish a long running habit.
We’ve all heard that dangling a carrot across large projects is a great way to reward yourself, but using whatever you crave, say, that bag of potato chips, as a reward for accomplishing a project can motivate you to finish a project quickly. It’s a bit simplistic, but it works to help establish habits and get things done.
The same can be said for more abstract motivations. For instance, let’s say you want to put more money in your savings account, but you always waste a good portion of your check on lottery tickets. Use those lottery tickets as the reward. For example, every time you deposit $200 into your savings, you can spend $20 on lottery tickets. This captures the consumption you crave (the lottery tickets) and turns it into a useful reward (saving money).
Listen for the Rewards in What You Really Want
Mr. Hofmann recommends taking the idea of using the mindful tactics (the potato chip exercise you did above) to create new, positive cravings. Here’s what he suggests:
If one wants to be successful with regard to a certain goal, my suggestion would be to try to “listen” to the rewarding aspects of the activity one wants to cultivate (e.g., the feeling of accomplishment after a good workout or trying to appreciate the taste of veggies and other healthy food) and thus to work towards “re-programming” the mind to develop reward signals toward these activities, perhaps even turning these into “good” cravings.
The idea is that you might be able to gradually rewire your brain into craving activities, foods, or behaviors that are healthy. Think about the “runner’s high” when you push yourself, or the burst of energy you have after a healthy meal. There’s no guarantee, of course, but if mindfulness can work to help repress urges by identifying the negatives, the same is possible in reverse. You will still have the dopamine and stress responses, but at least the brain will push you toward a positive goal instead of a negative one.