Good Habits - Reward or No Reward?

If you’ve been following along, January is all about habits and change. We now have embraced our “why” in regard to making changes to hold on to for the long haul. And we’ve taken inventory of what habits serve us well, the one’s we want to keep around. We even have a better idea of how we each individually perceive change and better yet, set good habits in motion that we can more easily keep in our repertoire for the long term. Our challenge now is in keeping up the motivation we initially felt as a new day dawned on January 1st. Are rewards the way to go? And if so, are there different ways to look at a reward system? Let’s explore:

Traditionally, parents, teachers and even your boss might have attempted to encourage good habits by offering rewards that really didn’t have much to do with the action they were intended to support. Research now shows us that rewards actually really don’t tend to support long term habits. At least those rewards that are clearly unrelated to the outcome desired. Even Dr. Maria Montessori – anyone also have children in a Montessori school? – was a big proponent of this way of thinking valuing intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards. We’ve seen it in action and it’s fascinating to tune into what truly motivates our children. It’s so pure.

To be motivated, and yes that’s certainly our goal!, means to be moved into action, to be moved to do something. And the underlying cause of ‘why’ a person chooses to do something is key. And we now have our ‘why’ … so how do we continue to tap into those intrinsic motivators to keep up the momentum?

If you’re intrinsically, or internally, motivated that relates to doing something because it is interesting and enjoyable. The activity itself is the reward. From birth, humans are “inquisitive, curious and playful creatures” who show a willingness to learn without being given a reward to do so. This just comes naturally to humans. Researchers say that this is a critical element in social and physical development; acting naturally on one’s interest the person will grow in knowledge and skills. That in itself seems reward enough.

Extrinsic Motivation is the opposite. It refers to doing an activity only because of the reward or outcome. It’s much less likely that any behavior change will be a success if the motivation constantly comes from something unrelated to the positive outcome the change will drive.

With this knowledge at hand, how then can we spur on our own internal motivation if at all? While extrinsic rewards often undermine habits because you wouldn’t do a particular activity for its own sake, but only to earn the reward, you learn to associate the activity with an imposition, a deprivation, or suffering. And rewards pose a danger for habits because they require a decision. If you’ll recall, a habit is something we do without decision-making, so making a decision such as, “Do I deserve this reward?” or “Am I due a reward today?” exhausts precious mental energy and moves attention away from sustaining the good habit to instead a focus on the reward.

Although – and here’s the “Aha” – there is indeed one way to use a reward to strengthen a habit – by choosing a reward that takes you deeper into that habit. If you’ve taken up running, new running gear might be a great reward. If you’ve incorporated yoga, how about a new mat? If you’re now taking your own coffee to work rather than a stop at the local coffeeshop, how about a beautiful new travel mug? And so on. Hoping now you can brainstorm your own rewards that help to spur the good habit building process along.

In the end, the outcome of continued investment in the habit itself becomes the reward! When we embrace that inquisitive, curious and playful nature we all innately have, change becomes more of an adventure and habits more easily fall into place!

Next up: Blast Starts. What happens when all the hoopla is gone and you’re exhausted from an all out effort? A big step can indeed be right for many! Stay tuned to see how!

Annette Shafer
Annette Shafer