When I was in high school and forced to read for class, I was desperate to find a way to make Dickens less painful. So I devised my own reward system. After finishing each assigned chapter, I read one chapter of a book I wanted to read. Sure, the execution was imperfect. Often I’d get caught up in my novel-of-choice and realize three chapters later that I should have been reading the torture-book a long time ago. But it worked; it got me through.
The science behind using reward to establish or perfect a new behavior is enduring and vast. Although he didn’t first discover it, Skinner popularized what he called operant conditioning in the 1930s and 40s. The experiments he published demonstrated his success in training animals to perform specific behaviors by rewarding them with food. His techniques have since been expanded and implemented in homes and schools world-wide, often in the form of token economy. (Note: if you don’t know what that is and you have children, you might want to check it out!)
The trick to applying these principles in our own lives lies in a) determining the most suitable reinforcement for a given target behavior, then b) implementing it regularly.
A Reward Must Be Sufficient Motivation
A Snickers bar isn’t much of an enticement if you don’t like chocolate. And even if you do, if candy isn’t something you have a strong desire or need for, it’s not going to be enough to power you through something unpleasant.
Consider: Would you act like your dog for a Klondike bar? I wouldn’t. Maybe Klondike should have considered their audience more carefully when airing that commercial. But perhaps if I’d just run a marathon in 90-degree heat, for example, it might be a stronger temptation. Put some thought into what will really work for you and your circumstances.
A Reward Must Not Be Harmful/Counter-Productive
A Snickers or Klondike bar is probably not a good idea if your goal is to exercise more or stick with a diet. Similarly, don’t reward yourself with something that costs money when your aim is to save it. (Unless, of course, the “something” is your savings goal!)
Intrinsic or Extrinsic Rewards?
People automatically think of the tangible upon hearing the word “reward”, but research has shown that intrinsic rewards are more powerful. Finding ways to tap into the intrinsic can be a tremendous asset in achieving your goals.
In this article, Michael Hyatt reminds us that the things we regularly enjoying doing – tasks that come easily and need no prompting – are in fact intrinsically motivated. The motivation is the enjoyment felt when we watch our favorite movie, read a good book, or savor a glass of wine. He goes so far as to point out that attempting to reward these things extrinsically might be counter-productive.
Of course, you can’t force enjoyment of something, and feelings like accomplishment and confidence take time to develop. Fortunately, there are still ways to incorportate intrinisc reward into your game plan. Consider enlisting a support system (which is an awesome predictor of successs, anyway) to cheer you on. Better yet, grab a buddy to join you in your quest – spending time with a friend is a reward in itself.
If these aren’t applicable or doable, get creative. Write congratulatory notes to yourself and plan to read them upon reaching defined milestones. Alternatively, pair the behavior you want to strenthen with a pleasurable activity, preferrably exclusively for a time. (For example, only watch TV or listen to your favorite podcast while you exercise.)
Distant vs. Instant Gratification
People are far more likely to fail at maintaining any behavior when the impetus is in the distant future. As human beings, we are driven to seek instant gratification. Unfortunately, that can mean slipping up and spending the hundred bucks you meant to save for a trip to Europe on a new gadget you can use right now.
The only way around this is to have incredibly strong willpower (don’t count on it!) or to work it into your plans. Try staggering some small rewards along the way that can serve (or at least don’t contradict) your larger goal. In the vacation example above, this could be planning parts of your dream trip when you reach smaller savings goals ($700 to book the hotel, $400 for the plane tickets, and so on.) Or try harnessing the power of intrinsic reward by keeping a small photo of the vacation locale in your pocket for times when you’re tempted to spend the dough.
When (and If) It’s Time To Stop Rewarding
Some things – like saving to purchase a home, losing a specific number of pounds, or completing a project – come to a natural end. But what about behaviors that are more like habits you’re trying to master? Maybe your goal was to give up electronics before bed or make healthier meal choices when eating out. Once those behaviors have settled into your life with a ritual-like frequency, do you still need a reward?
Fortunately, science is encouraging in this regard. After a behavior is repeated x number of times, it becomes habit and requires less active choice and motivation. So how long does that take? The most recent research has shown that habits generally take a little more than two months to form. Thankfully, this allows for messing up a time or two. A more encouraging statistic: in Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body, he writes that once you perform a target behavior for 5 consecutive sessions, you’re far more likely to stick with it.
My advice? Commit for five days and follow through. Then another five, then another. Throw in a reward for every five day streak you complete. These small goals will add up and lead to big gains! Once you feel like you’ve achieved success as you’ve defined it, enjoy a big reward. Going forward, taper off established incentives as you would medicine – reward every other time, then every third time, etc. By then, you should have achieved the best reward of all: the satisfaction of success.