Spoiler alert: Don’t Reward.
Here’s the deal. You’ve been working on a habit. Let’s say cutting out soda. You’ve been doing so well for 2 whole weeks that you decide you need a reward for your good efforts. So you go buy a soda. Man, I earned this. But then the next day, at the same time, your craving for another soda is so strong and you’re just so tired and stressed…you decide it’s OK to get another soda. Long story short, you’re back in full swing with your soda habit. What went wrong? You undermined your efforts by rewarding yourself with the thing you were trying to avoid. DOH!
“The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” -Emerson
Rewards, while they seem like a perfectly good thing, are not helping you build your habits. According to Reuben, here’s why:
1- Rewards teach you that aren’t doing a particular activity for it’s own sake, but rather to get that shiny prize at the end of the tunnel. And often times, when the reward is over, the behavior is too. This happens a lot with brides getting skinny for their weddings. Once the wedding is over, the weight come back. They weren’t building good eating habits for the sake of life long health and wellbeing, but rather just to look good for their pictures. The day is over, so is their effort.
Another example is telling your child they can watch TV for an hour only after they’ve read for an hour. This turns TV into the reward and reading into the thing you just have to do to get the reward. They’ll build up a distaste for reading this way. The behavior of habitual reading, in and of itself, is rewarding.
2- Rewards require making a decision. “I’ve earned this soda today.” But as we’ve learned already, habits shouldn’t require decision. They should be automatic. Like brushing your teeth. You don’t reward yourself every time you do that. So if you’re truly wanting to build the habit of not being a soda drinker, it needs to become a part of you in the same way. Remember to build your identity of being someone who doesn’t drink soda.
There are some exceptions, of course. Potty training a child often works best with rewards. My aunt potty trained her daughter by allowing her to go pick a small toy from a special box every time she used the potty. It certainly motivated her to use the potty. Once my aunt took the reward away, my niece still used the potty because the reward of the habit itself (not walking around in a wet diaper) was enough to keep her doing it.
At the beginning of habit formation you may need rewards to keep building that behavior. If that’s the case, fine, but don’t reward yourself by having the thing you’re trying to avoid.
Example…morning yoga. This is a habit I actually have. I just got up one day and decided 5-10 minutes of yoga each morning would be a good thing. That was almost 2 years ago and it’s so automatic I can’t not do it now. But let’s say at the beginning of forming the habit, I told myself, “ya know, I’ve been doing yoga for 16 days in a row. I deserve a day off.” Well, that would have been a bad call. Because it would have taught me that I can take days off…that I can decide whether or not to do yoga every morning. Instead, if I felt the need for a reward, I could have bought myself some yoga pants. That compliments my new habit, instead of contradicting it. I didn’t need a reward though, because doing yoga makes me feel good, and that’s rewarding.
So instead of drinking a soda as your reward, do something completely different. Go buy a new water bottle that you’ll enjoy drinking (water) out of. Go to Goodwill and buy some new pants because maybe you’ve lost a few pounds. Whatever you do, don’t undermine your efforts towards developing that new behavior!
Let the reward of a good habit be the habit itself.