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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too: A New Way to Think About Guilty Pleasures

My friends all joke about my sweet tooth, but one thing I love more than dessert is life hacks. Getting the most out of an action, a meeting, an email, or a day gives me huge amounts of satisfaction, and I always look for new ways to accomplish more than I previously thought possible.

One thing in my life I hadn't figured out how to hack until recently was my guilty pleasures. With all of my productivity and decision-making ability directed toward work, when I was "off," I'd find myself at the mercy of my penchant for TV procedurals and baked goods.

Studies show that willpower alone probably wouldn’t kick these habits, so, I tried a different approach based on interesting new research: Using "I don't" language instead of "I can't." (Think: “I don’t watch reality TV on weeknights.”) It’s a subtle switch, but one that signals to your brain that not having or doing something is an active choice, not a rule imposed on you.

While this helped, I realized I wasn't trying to cut out the fun entirely—I just wanted a better way to think about my choices. In fact, I'm 100% OK with my guilty pleasures, so long as I’m making smart tradeoffs.

So, I took the idea of making a choice, but modified the rule to “I don’t do X unless I’ve done Y.” Or, in other words, "I only do X if I've done Y.” I can have my guilty pleasure, but only as a reward, after I’ve done something that I really want or need to accomplish. For example:

  • "I only watch TV if I've done a 7-minute workout."
  • "I only browse Twitter when I've called a friend or family member to catch up first."
  • "I only bake decadent treats when I'm entertaining other people."
  • "I only buy a new item of clothing if I can sell or donate something from my closet."
  • See? It’s a sneaky way to have your cake and eat it, too. The best part is, you can use this strategy for any goal.

    Watching Your Budget? Try:

    • "I only pay for dry cleaning when I've chosen to walk or take the subway instead of taking a cab."
    • "I only go out for drinks with a friend when I've brought lunch to work all week."
    • Trying to Kick a Social Media Addiction? Try:

      • "I only go on Facebook when I've first tackled a work task I've been avoiding."
      • "I only check Twitter at lunch if I've done more than half my goals for the day."
      • Trying to Cook More? Try:

        • "I only eat out on weekends if I cook a few meals on Sunday to prep for the week."
        • "I only order takeout for dinner if I brought in my lunch."
        • Stop saying no to your guilty pleasures, and start making smart tradeoffs. Life will be more fun—and more productive.

          Photos courtesy of Shutterstock and Thinkstock.