Podcast 120: Rewarding yourself

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This is Podcast 120 and it’s about rewarding yourself. It seems logical that having a reward to look forward to would motivate you to complete a task. You tell yourself, once I finish writing my book, I’ll take a nice vacation. Once I complete the bike marathon this summer, I’ll buy those new shoes I’ve been wanting.

Tony Robbins believes your brain gets positively conditioned by rewards. That the draw of the reward is great enough to overcome an resistance to doing a task. This is basic psychological reinforcement. To do this conditioning, you have to be consistent in giving yourself rewards, or you become like one of those neurotic rats in a maze that sometimes gets a pellet of food and sometimes gets an electric shock.

Rewards don’t always work, though. As Gretchen Rubin points out, a reward can signal that it’s time for us to take a break, permanently. Rewards you give yourself at the end of a task are the ones to watch out for.

Once you complete a project, there’s a natural period of emptiness that follows. You’re no longer putting in a few hours a day training or spending every morning working on that book. Your schedule is disrupted. It has a big hole in it. That creates a vacuum which is reinforced by the reward that often further knocks you off the productive course you were on.

This is one reason I like to have several project to work on concurrently. That allows me to procrastinate on one as long as I’m making progress on another, or work on the one that feels most inspiring to me. It also means that I’m never completely at the end. When one project is finished, the others are still in progress. That helps me avoid the vacuum.

Do kids still suffer from senioritis? This strikes during the last semester of high school and ramps up considerably once you’ve been accepted to college and your biggest exams are over. You lose motivation, big time. If students were being monitored until the last day of school by their future colleges, senioritis could be avoided. But it’s human nature to stop doing something once it’s complete, unless you’ve already lined up your next project.

So that’s another way to use rewards. Enjoy them, but have a specific project lined up to start after that.

Pay attention to what rewards work for you. They don’t have to be elaborate. They just have to make you feel, well, rewarded. I will often work for an hour on a long project and then give myself permission to stop. That’s the whole reward. I can forget about this project for the rest of the day and go on to something else. For me, it’s important to be able to let something go for awhile, even if it’s not finished and even if it doesn’t seem to be going well. Tomorrow is another day.

Do you deserve a reward? You do if you’re honest about your accomplishments. You may not intentionally be lying to yourself, but people are susceptible to feeling a sense of achievement before it’s warranted. According to Kelly McGonigal, whose book, The Willpower Instinct, I’ve quoted before, when you take note of progress you’ve made, your brain says hey, I did it, I can stop now. And then it starts focusing on the other goal it wants to achieve, which is the reward.

When study subjects who’ve made progress on a goal are asked how much progress they’ve made, they’re much more likely to reward themselves in a way that actually negates some of that progress. On the other hand, when those subjects are asked how committed they are to their goal, they easily resisted.

This brings up how you feel about your goal and what you need to do to achieve it. If you really want to climb a mountain but view the daily practice to get in shape as drudgery, you may be inclined to reward yourself more often, which can reinforce the fact that you are not enjoying yourself. It’s a tricky thing, but finding a way to connect your desire to reach the goal with what you have to do to get there probably works better than rewarding yourself.

Back to the honesty point, the kind of thing I’m talking about is feeling so good that you’ve actually written a to do list that you no longer feel compelled to do any of the tasks on it! I write quite a bit about how to give yourself small, doable to do’s and pay attention to your own behavior so you can manage your attention and energy and calibrate your to do list accordingly. Meaning, make tasks as small as you need to to actually get them done without procrastinating.

I’m kind of on the fence about rewards. What about you? Here’s what you can do right now: experiment on yourself. Pick two tasks that you don’t particularly want to do. For the first one, give yourself a reward after you do it. For the second one, simply take a break, relax or shift your attention to something else, which is much more low key and has the added benefit of helping you be more productive later. See which one works best for you.