What Are Your Treats? Do You Have Any That Don’t Look Like Treats?

I’ve asked this question before, but I’m asking again, because I find it so fascinating: Do you have any “treats” that don’t look like treats? What are your treats?

In my forthcoming book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits — really — I identify a bunch of strategies we can use to change our habits. Perhaps the most delightful one is the Strategy of Treats. (To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

What exactly counts as a “treat?” A treat is different from a reward, which must be justified or earned. A treat is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it.

Treats give us greater vitality, which boosts self-control, which helps us maintain our healthy habits. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which in turn boosts self-command. When we don’t get any treats, we feel depleted, resentful, and angry, and we feel justified in self-indulgence. We start to crave comfort—and  grab that comfort wherever we can, even if it means breaking good habits. “I deserve this, I’ve earned this, I need this”…Loophole-Seeking!

I embrace treats but I’m also very wary of treats. Treats help us feel energized, appreciated, and enthusiastic–but very often, the things we choose as “treats” aren’t good for us. The pleasure lasts a minute, but then feelings of guilt, loss of control, and other negative consequences just deepen the lousiness of the day. An extra glass of wine, an extra brownie, an impulse purchase…

As I’ve thought more about treats, and tried to lengthen my list of healthy treats, I’ve been surprised to realize that many treats don’t look like treats.

Someone was telling me the other day that she loves to do laundry. Go figure. Someone else told me that he loves to make travel arrangements.

It dawned on me yesterday that one of my unconventional treats is clearing clutter. Some kind of clutter is difficult–letting go of things with sentimental value, sifting through papers–but some clutter I find very refreshing to clear. I drive my daughters nuts because I’m always wandering into their rooms to clear clutter.  (It’s a lot easier to clear other people’s clutter than my own clutter.)

Again, I realize the importance of the Fifth Splendid Truth about happiness: I can build a happy life only on the foundation of my own nature. Which means that I must recognize the truth about myself. Be Gretchen. And go clear some closets.

How about you? Do you have any treats that most people wouldn’t consider a treat? What are your treats?

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    * Making a pretty table setting up from the all-too-big collection of dishes and table linens made up of my and my Mom’s combined ‘crockery.’
    * Choosing an outfit carefully that somehow reflects and suits the occasion for which I am wearing it.
    * My season ticket to the Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcasts on Saturday afternoons.
    * Choosing a CD to listen to while I am sewing.
    * Selecting fabrics for a project or reorganizing my sewing room.
    * Buying a magazine that features pretty photography of domestic scenes and home design and recipes (Tea Time and Victoria are favorites) or gorgeous and dramatic photography as in the National Geographic.
    Beautiful sounds and sights obviously mean a lot to me and lift my spirits greatly!

  • theshubox

    Treats for me:

    – a treadmill run w a new magazine
    – a yoga class
    – a new notebook or piece of stationery
    – browsing thru a cookbook
    – taking the time to write a list or clear clutter
    – a pay per view movie at home
    – a nap

    • theshubox

      And traditional treats :
      Starbucks lattes 🙂

      • Lulu

        I was saying, yes, yes, yes, to everything on your list Shu Box

  • I like pairing treats with noxious tasks. So i listen to audio books while clearing up at the end of the evening, and I knit during boring work meetings (are there any other kind?). This tactic definitely makes me happy! I also tend to do annoying personal admin (e.g., paying bills) while “watching” TV. The ultimate treat is to knit while watching telly or listening to an audio book. Rock & roll lifestyle 🙂

    • Penelope Schmitt

      What a lovely form of companionship!

    • Mimi Mugler

      While i sort of like folding laundry (it’s satisfying to make a nice pile out of chaos), i.e., it’s not a noxious task, I have paired it with the treat of watching TV. I get satisfaction while indulging in TV. Of course, I get disappointed when there’s not enough laundry. 🙂

    • Laurie


  • Caroline Roberts

    My most lasting treats are:
    – sitting in my favorite chair reading a good book guilt-free after I’ve done my chores, or an allotted time of a boring task

    – drinking my morning coffee on the deck and just being there, listening to the birds
    – looking at the pictures in an art magazine
    – a tidy desk or work area (although I resist tidying up I love the results!)
    – listening to music and doing nothing else
    – going for a walk or hike in nature, whether a city park or a state park

    • Caroline Roberts

      And one more: in January I started keeping a journal as my January habit and two months in it is still a treat to write in that moleskine with its soft pages.

  • sassysparky

    I don’t enjoy “tidying up” in terms of putting things away or clearing clutter, but I love cleaning. Sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing floors and tubs? Love it. On Sunday mornings my husband goes around and clears clutter while I play with the toddler, then we switch and I get to dust and mop. Nothing makes me happier than shiny appliances and floors. I also clean my bathroom mirror almost every day because I love clean mirrors. Another treat for me is yard work – I like raking and planting flowers. We just bought a house so I’ve got lots of spring yard chores to keep me happy (and busy).

  • lady brett

    i think my biggest treat is having the luxury of time to do necessary tasks the hard way (or, in my mind, well).

    i hate doing laundry usually…i *adore* doing laundry if i have the time to hang it out on the line.
    i hate using the dishwasher…i love doing the dishes by hand (and drying them).
    i would rather spend a day canning than go to the grocery store.

  • Jamie

    There are things that I love doing that I wouldn’t put in the “treats” category. I love braiding my daughter’s long hair in the morning. I love cuddling with the kids. I love putting my favorite earrings on. I love the daily ritual of taking off my glasses, putting on my contacts and a bit of undereye concealer and blush. And likewise I love the finishing ritual of taking my contacts out and putting my glasses on in the evening. For some reason the term “treats” do have that indulgent quality, like, it’s not necessarily the best thing for you or the best use of time. Otherwise I’d call it just something you enjoy doing.

  • Ellie

    I have a lot of non-obvious treats!
    -Lighting scented candles (I even have “normal” candles and “treat” candles)
    -Reading the NYT Book Review
    -Doing a Friday or Saturday NYT crossword
    -Listening to Planet Money or History of Rome podcasts while falling asleep – I reward myself for getting in bed before midnight by choosing History of Rome
    -Wearing my favorite socks
    (Reading this list, I feel like I am spectacularly boring . . .)

    One thing is that I have to be careful of not “denying” myself these treats as a form of self-punishment, which I have a tendency to do sometimes. These are all small things that boost my happiness, and I can sometimes find myself avoiding them because I’m “saving” them for a time when I am more pleased with my accomplishments, feeling more productive, etc., but it actually isn’t productive to behave this way because I would feel better overall if I just lit the candle, read the Book Review, etc. So I think about the Happiness Project principle of using up, not saving, in this context too.

    • mom_interrupted

      Ellie – I LOVE that you have normal and treat candles!

  • The fresh first page of a new note book, my morning coffee made purely with hot milk, a little bit of lone time and pottering around the house for no particular reason but to potter.

    • UnearthMyMuse

      I absolutely agree! The fresh first page of a new note book … so much promise!

  • Meredith

    Changing into a fresh, clean pair of socks….not just any socks–my favorite ‘kind’ of sock. In my life exists a specific sock that softens my foot in exactly the way I prefer…it doesn’t over hug my ankle, and when worn with sneakers, creates the perfect athletic appearance I’m attempting to achieve in my daily wardrobe. Anyway, they are dry-fit, yet SUPER cozy…I love them…morning, noon, and night. When I sort them in my laundry, it actually makes me smile–only a few choice (intimate) articles of laundry have that same effect on me (namely my husband’s).

  • I really hate doing dishes (we have no dishwasher), but my husband and I recently figured out how to make the dishes get done without either of us being upset about the other person not doing them: He reads out loud while I do the dishes. Now, I get a bit disappointed when I don’t have time to do dishes because of homework, because it means we don’t get to read together! But I’ve found that reading is a treat that goes quite well with dishes 🙂

    • Penelope Schmitt

      This is such a thoughtful and companionable way to share a task!

    • gretchenrubin


      • I used to read to my mother when she was doing the dishes when I still lived at home! We both considered it a good deal – I did not have to help with the chore and she did not mind doing it when I read to her

        • gretchenrubin

          Great strategy —

  • Summer Day

    I have lots of treats… Some of my less obvious ones…
    Taking the “long” route to school pick up. It goes past two beaches and the view is stunning.
    Parking a block away from school so we get to walk through a bush lined walkway and over a little stream to and from school (it’s a bit longer but the boys must take after their mother… They have never complained about the distance- although they will complain if they think the car is too far up the road the school is on… A far shorter walk!)

  • AnnaKate

    Some of my favorite treats are: kissing and spending time with my boyfriend, doing a foot soak and new nail polish, reading a good book, watching TV, going on the internet, writing in my journal. I think a treat that might not see like a treat so some is going to church. I love church.

  • Caroline Donahue

    Treats… I am trying to think of free treats as one of my new habits has been following a budget.

    -taking a bath and reading
    -reading in bed
    -listening to an audiobook helps make my long commute feel a bit more like a treat
    -a cup of earl gray tea at about 4pm at work
    -looking at my financial accounts and watching my savings pay off
    -going on air bnb and making wish lists of places I’d like to stay
    -adding book titles to my library wish list
    -staying in to watch netflix and do laundry- a new treat since i now have laundry in my building and don’t have to drag things to a laundromat or a friend’s house.
    -de-cluttering. for spring I am trying to get rid of 5-10 things a day. It feels great!
    -spending time out of doors. I love going to the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena on weekends. magical. I feel like I’m inside a Jane Austen novel.
    -making lists. I find this soothing and good for any anxiety that I’m not getting enough done
    -meditating. A new treat- it used to be a habit I was forcing myself to do. But committing to do it every day has turned it into a treat.

  • cruella

    I make bread or do the laundry! Gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment with very little effort. Mostly this treat comes into play when I don’t feel energetic enough to tackle “real stuff”. My treats in the form of simple kitchen creations can get me out of a negative mind set if I’m lucky. Also I love pampering my kids (far to old for such pampering;-) with an afternoon snack, cooked breakfast on weekends etc. Very rewarding for me, even though I don’t crave their appreciation as such.

  • Chelly

    I love to write on my book journal, to update with the recent books I’ve read and I love even more when I remember a book I read when I was younger. It’s such a treat! I also love to treat myself with a frozen yoghurt (light version 🙂 with Nutella on top.

  • Randee Bulla

    Fresh flowers. With all the gray weather this winter, their bright colors and scent make me feel indulged all day at work (I put them in my home office). Before learning to be who I really was, I used to resist because it seemed frivolous, but the payoff has been well worth it. So now I cut back on a food treat to pay for the flowers, which actually works out better anyway. No guilt over eating something that makes me feel good for just that minute, and the pleasure lasts for a week or two.

  • Nyssa

    My treats:
    *I hate to grocery shop, meal plan, food budget, but I love to put the groceries away. I like lining things up in the pantry, opening the candy to refill the candy jar, stocking the freezer, etc.
    *I buy adorable cup cake liners. I must have hundreds, but they are beautiful, they are preparation for some future celebration and they don’t break the bank. I can’t get enough, and there is no guilt when I indulge.
    *I love to wrap beautiful presents. I spend a lot of time choosing thoughtful gifts for loved ones, and nearly as much time choosing the beautiful paper, the bow, the tag. It’s a treat for me to wrap presents.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I had a friend who kept a ‘stash’ of wrap and ribbon and decor for presents. We don’t see each other often any more, but I will always remember how her packages were so beautiful that one hated to spoil them by opening, even though her gifts were lovely too.

  • Holly

    I have few ordinary treats
    a cup of tea
    decluttering a closet or room
    writing list and crossing things off the list
    cooking and loading the freezer with meals…makes weeknights so much easier
    organizing drawers, closets and my jewelry box
    reading a book….without feeling guilty
    going to bed at 8 or 9 pm…..you feel so refreshed the next day…..try it.

  • Jen Johnson

    I turned 50 this year and gave myself the regular treat of horseback riding lessons. I always loved horses as a kid but we could never afford lessons. So once a week I get to play in a barn with my buddies Heathrow and Dollar, get good muscle aches, and have an entire evening off to myself. What a treat!

  • Emily

    I share the same concept of treats like many others who have commented. A few of my favorites:

    – Watching the CBS Sunday show
    – Walking my puppy in the evenings after work
    – Sticking to tasks in which I am practicing self-discipline
    – Following my monthly budget and having money left over at the end of the month to pay a little more off of my student loans
    – Listening to the beautiful music on Pandora
    – Preparing my lunches on Sunday so that each week day that is one less thing on my mind
    – A new library book find
    – Cultivating my home to reflect more of my personality
    – Re-reading a favorite book

    Now that you have me thinking about this…I hope to discover more non obvious treats!

  • Heather

    My treats: yoga at yoga studios, getting pedicures, watching a TV show (I only watch about 1-3 hours of TV a week), flossing my teeth (I love flossing my teeth), piling books up on my nightstand that I want to read (I may not actually read them), coloring with my daughters

  • Stephanie

    My favorite treat is sneaking out of the house to go to the park and swing on the swings. It’s a feeling I have loved since I was a little kid.

  • Kath

    cutting a few flowers or foliage from the garden and placing in the bathroom and on the kitchen table; looking at them regularly gives me pleasure every day.

  • Vicky Alex

    Just ran across a video that backs this up- why change is so hard and why we need treats. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpiDWeRN4UA

    • Susan

      Thanks for this video. It helps me to see change in a new light. No more being so negative with myself and I am structuring my environment so change does not eat up all my energy.

  • Jill

    When pulling weeds or deleting e-mail’s I “hear” these “dings” of satisfaction… got another one of you suckers! I enjoy small triumphs. 😉

  • PolarSamovar

    Grocery shopping
    Keeping a day clear on the calendar and spending all day reading
    Going to bed early

  • Laura

    I find a strange satisfaction from polishing silver and feel like it is a treat to get time to do it. There is something so gratifying about making something shine.

  • Jennifer

    I love to cross things off my to-do list! It’s… exhilarating.

  • Jen S

    I love making to-do lists! My husband thinks I’m a slave to my list-making, but I never see it that way. A good to-do list is motivating and exciting, helps me prioritize and gives me things to look forward to doing, or at least to look forward to crossing off! 5 minutes of time alone to make my list for the day, without the kids needing me, is a gift.

  • Jessica Crawford

    Working outside in my yard even though winter is still here. Just picking up debris and assessing the condition of everything llifts my spirits.

  • MWags

    Late to this, but as a build on the post by the person who loves to do laundry, a treat at our house is the very satisfying pile of perfectly-pressed cotton napkins I get after spending about 10 minutes with the teen-weeny steam presser that lives on top of the clothes dryer. Everyone who sees this is sold!

  • Christine

    I like dancing and exercising. It is a treat for me to dance but I don’t make time for it oftentimes. That is my treat

  • Chandra

    I don’t drink very often but sometimes I like to feel like I am by walking around with something cool and sexy looking so I make mineral water with lime and bitters. Now the kids enjoy that too (though they like tonic water) here is a pic http://instagram.com/p/lljH4vPPgr/

  • Leslie Rieger

    Researching genealogy – even for people I’m not related too. I’m currently working on a project (on my own time) tracing families related to a photo collection we just processed and put online at work. I also enjoy making up genealogies for my fictional characters.

  • A walk in nature and the beauty and quiet that goes with that experience. Always a sure bet for a pick me up or simply to relax/refresh.

  • Fred

    Nail polish! I found this treat (that I now enjoy both as a treat and as a “motivation”) in the comments section of another of your posts on treats. The person who recommended this painted their toe nails. I started doing that and enjoyed the fun aspect of it. Later I also started occasionally painting my finger nails. Sometimes it’s a treat but more often it works as a motivation for when I have a lot of writing to do. I love seeing the colours (I usually wear at least two different ones) dancing in the key board confetti style. It’s the perfect kind of “silly” for me and reminds me of my childhood.

  • Ginger Horton

    I am definitely saving this post for the comments alone. I just started a list of “Free Richness” for when I don’t want to spend the time/money/energy/calories, but I want to feel refreshed. So far, I have: going to the library, grocery shopping (or household goods like paper towels), and a walk down a pretty street or in the park.

    I didn’t include this on my list, but I secretly love paying my credit card bills. In fact, I often find myself “clearing them off” more than the once per month they are due. It feels so nice to have a zero balance. I don’t know why it’s so addictive. I also love looking over my budget.

  • Ginger Horton

    Reading through this list, I’ve added a few new ones to mine:

    -going to the post office to stock up on a few of their free flat rate shipping boxes (always comes in handy later when I need to mail something that I have a couple stashed away and can have my packages already ready for when I get in the line)

    -going to a garden store to buy some fresh herbs to plant on my back porch

    -folding laundry or ironing (or mending) with a good episode of Gilmore Girls or Downton Abbey or some other “treat” show

    -reading a chapter or two out of a home book (Home Comforts) or a cookbook

    -making my grocery list

    -preparing a batch of something that makes lunches or dinners easier (salt and vinegar baked chickpeas are a favorite, a batch of naan bread, or no-bake cookies)

    -flexibility stretches

    -checking out the newest uploads on the Jimmy Fallon show YouTube channel

  • Deb Anderson Weaver

    *Buying and having a wide selection of pretty notecards (I love sending handwritten, small notes. Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor says that you include a bit of your DNA with every note you send. I love that idea!)
    *library visits
    *getting books
    *paging through magazines
    *making muffins or coffeecake
    *scented lipgloss or chapstick
    *bath salts in my bath
    *soft slipper socks
    *puttering with projects and picking up
    *hot, ginger-peach tea (Republic of Tea) in a favorite mug
    *a favorite CD
    *reading or journaling in my reading nook while listening to the birds chatter on the deck nearby

    Deb Weaver

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  • Lana

    My treats:
    Libraries & book stores
    Long walks with music or audio books
    I used to hate cleaning house but now with a good audio book I don’t mind.
    Drawing home floor plan designs.

  • Lisa Savelson

    Some treats in our home (with kids and teens) now include a family ski day, a trip to the local trampoline place, a family dinner out for sushi… an outing or experiential event rather than an item. Works great so far!

  • JD

    -Having a clean kitchen. Walking into a spotless kitchen makes cooking a joy.
    -Getting a new book at the library.
    -My monthly Bunko group. Greatest group of ladies in the world!
    -Watching the 1970 musical Scrooge. It’s not Christmas in our house until we watch it…and sing every song.
    -Getting up an hour before anyone else to just enjoy having the house to myself to eat breakfast, read, and do laundry.

  • Jaime

    Painting my nails–it’s a treat that keeps on giving because I get to have pretty nails!
    Sending fun things in the mail–I love to put stamps on weird stuff like a bouncy ball or box of candy or even a flip flop and send it in the mail to my nieces and nephews. It makes me so happy to think about them getting it!

  • Marcia

    Accounting geek here: I love balancing the bank statements (we have 7 of them) at work. That’s a relaxing afternoon at work for me. And for some reason, I enjoy doing surveys – particularly online surveys, since they don’t require actually talking to anybody. Oh, also starting a new knitting project, even though I already have 5 or 6 projects going. Even *planning* the next one is a treat.

    • gretchenrubin

      That is the most UNCONVENTIONAL treat I have ever, ever heard.