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How to Spend More Time on Meaningful Activities

by Beth on September 17th, 2021

Two types of activities contribute to our well-being: 1) activities we like to do because they bring us immediate pleasure and 2) activities we want to do because they give us a sense of meaning in life. We tend to spend a lot more of our time on activities we like for a couple of reasons. First, our brains have a present bias, which means we prefer immediate gratification over something that will benefit us in the future. Second, the reward system in our brains reinforces this by making us crave what feels good in the moment.

This is why I’d prefer to stay snuggled in bed rather than getting up to start a Peloton ride. It’s why I keep scrolling through my Twitter feed instead of writing a blog post. And why my fingers are stained from eating Takis instead of making a healthy snack. This craving for activities that bring immediate pleasure can prevent us from doing things that would bring us greater life satisfaction.

In order to live a more meaningful life, we need to figure out how to resist the temptation to do what we like, so we can do more of what we want. Mindfulness can help.

Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that has been shown to help addicts resist temptation. The first step is to notice and acknowledge that you have an urge to do something. Next is to refrain from doing it. Yep, this is the hard part, but cravings are temporary. They are like a wave that grows bigger, crests, then crashes on the shore. It might be easier to delay action at first. This will help you see that the craving will go away. I’m trying to restrict my eating to a smaller window of time, so I delay or skip breakfast most days. I still get a feeling of hunger some mornings, but I’ve learned to distract myself and then it goes away. The process of mindfully noticing a craving without acting on it because you know it won’t last long gets easier with practice.

Turning your attention to the negative aspects of the activity you are craving also helps. Imagine how tired and sluggish you’ll feel when you get a sugar crash after eating those cookies. Or the disappointment you’ll experience tonight if you skip exercising.

Savoring is another mindfulness technique that can motivate you to engage in more meaningful activities that require effort. In this case you want to think about the positive aspects of the experience. When it comes to exercise, I think about how much I enjoy listening to the music while I ride, how energized I’ll feel for the rest of the day, and the sense of pride that comes from doing something that aligns with my value of healthy living. To get started on a blog post, I think about how much I enjoy entering a state of flow when writing and how it supports my goal of helping people increase their well-being by sharing information.

Resisting the momentary urge to give in to a craving and mindfully savoring the future benefits of an effortful activity can help you spend more of your time in ways that will give your life more meaning.

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