Sometimes, it’s helpful to think of ourselves as little kids: kids who want a piece of candy and will do anything to get it.
That’s sort of why habits form. At some point, our brains learn that if we perform a certain behavior, we will get a reward at the end. For instance, my brain has learned that if I scroll down my social media feed, I’ll be rewarded with puppy pictures.
Left unsupervised, this reward system can result in unhealthy habits. Here's how to hack it to jump-start a new, healthy habit. I'll illustrate this reward system using the example of wanting to get more sleep.
Try this. Go buy a pack of plastic Easter eggs—the kind you can hide things inside. You only need five to ten. Pack these Easter eggs with a treat (for me, it’s candy), but don’t put the same amount in each egg. Put just one piece in some eggs, a few pieces in a few eggs, and really pack one with your favorites. That’s the jackpot egg. (If your treat doesn’t fit inside the egg (like potato chips), use slips of paper like a coupon you can redeem for your snack.)
Put the eggs into a small basket and leave it in your bedroom. Whatever candy or other reward you put in the eggs, make sure you don't allow yourself to have those things at any other time. This has to be a reward that you can’t get any other way.
Now every night, after dinner, go make up your bedroom for sleep. Think of your bedroom like a hotel. Close the blinds, pull back the covers a bit, check your alarm, and turn on a soft light. Pick an Easter egg at random (maybe let a partner pick so you don’t search around for the heavy jackpot egg) and put that on your pillow,like the turndown chocolate at a hotel. Once you finish, leave the bedroom and go about your normal activities.
What you’re creating is a bedroom experience you’re excited to get back to. Now you’re eager to go to bed and see if you got the jackpot egg. Even if you didn’t, you know there will be a treat. (We’re going to argue that this short-term trick to get better sleep is worth the few extra calories and candy after brushing your teeth.)
By setting up a reward for your desired behavior, you’ll be more likely to do that thing. Now, when you’re watching TV at night, you’ll be more incentivized to turn it off and go to bed because you’re looking forward to your reward.
This can work for other habits too, like staying in touch with people. If you find it hard to remember to call someone and catch up, have a reward basket like this and give yourself an Easter egg every time you call someone.
You don’t need to maintain the Easter-egg technique for very long. Go for two weeks and then see if the habit is starting to kick in automatically. Eventually, your brain will learn the behavior and you can phase out the candy... though I won't tell anyone if you want to keep it going.