We Must Have Treats! Here’s Why.

In my book Better Than Before, I describe the many strategies that we can use to change our habits. We all have our favorites — but I think most of us would agree that the Strategy of Treats is the most fun strategy.

“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role.

When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.

Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.

When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about treats, and he told me, “I don’t give myself any treats.”

This comment prompted me to pursue two different lines of thought.

First, whether or not he did give himself treats, he thought of himself as a “person who doesn’t give myself treats.” In terms of habits, that seems risky to me.

It might seem stoic, or selfless, or driven not to give yourself treats, but I’d argue against that assumption.

When we don’t get any treats, we start to feel deprived — and feeling deprived is a very bad frame of mind for good habits. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to put ourselves back in balance. We say, “I’ve earned this,” “I need this,” “I deserve this” and feel entitled to break our good habits.

Second, I suspected that he did in fact give himself treats, he just didn’t think of them as treats. And indeed, after one minute of questioning, he came up with a great example: every week, he buys new music.

For something to be a treat, we have to think of it as a treat; we make something a treat by calling it a “treat.” When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat.

For instance, once I realized how much I love beautiful smells, a whole new world of treats opened up to me.

We should all strive to have a big menu of healthy treats, so that we can recharge our battery in a healthy way. Sometimes, treats don’t look like treats. For example, to my surprise, many people consider ironing a “treat.” (To read other examples of people’s quirky treats, look here and here.)

Do you find that when you give yourself healthy treats, it’s easier to stick to your good habits? What healthy treats are on your list?

  • I think the idea of giving yourself a treat is an absolute must. Treats keep us moving forward to our goals or whatever it is we are determined to achieve. Some treats I give myself are a cold iceblock on a hot day, or a walk in the nearby gardens to enjoy the flowers that are blooming and to watch the wildlife. The walk in the gardens is restful, peaceful, and very calming. Just talking to a friend for half an hour is another special treat for me. Thanks for your post. http://successjennarator.com/welcome/

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Definitely a treat is a necessary part of the working process. For each step completed in a difficult or scary project, I promise myself a small treat (a FB moment, a walk, a phone call to a friend) in order to get things underway… and keep the momentum. Like our dog, I too ‘work for treats’.

  • Mimi Gregor

    “Treats” are just a normal part of my life, so I don’t necessarily think of them as treats either. I don’t deprive my loved ones of anything, so why in heaven’s name would I deprive myself? After all, I am a loved one also! Once a week, I take a couple hours and go somewhere special by myself. Could be a used book store, consignment shop, or a hike through the woods. Julia Cameron, in her book, The Artist’s Way, calls this an artist’s date. I call it a “Muse date”, but same thing. During this “date”, I will often buy things that delight me: some Lapsang Souchong tea from a tea shop… a cashmere sweater that costs less than a plain wool one because it’s on consignment… armloads of books that cost less than a single one in a regular bookstore. They are never expensive “treats”, but they do delight me. On fine days, it may be a hike in the woods, which does even more for my mind and my soul than it does for my body. These are never “rewards” for a job well done, but just a part of my life. A job well done is the reward for a job well done.

    • Gillian

      What a beautiful feature, Mimi, to incorporate into your regular lifestyle! I love your attitude. This is what I call a “good habit” – I think I will work on adopting a version of it for myself.

      One of my treats is a negative one – on weekends, I don’t do my regular 5-minute morning stretch routine. It’s only 5 minutes but I still find it a nuisance and it’s a treat to skip it. Other than that, my only regular treat is that I relax every day after lunch with a coffee (and sometimes a square of dark chocolate) before getting on with whatever is on my to-do list. Definitely not in the same league as your weekly outings.

      • Mimi Gregor

        The weekly outing makes such a big difference in my mood! Weeks that I cannot go on one for one reason or another, I can really feel my mood flag. I never plan my outing; it is always a surprise to me where I am going. How do I manage to surprise myself? Glad you asked. I write on little slips of paper various destinations that I would like to go to on my Muse date. (the names of various consignment shops, used book stores, local parklands that I can hike through, artsy areas in nearby towns that I can stroll through — whatever floats your boat). These papers all go into an urn. On the morning of my outing, I reach in and pick a destination at random. That is where I go. Not planning definitely makes it so much more delightful! The only rules are I must go alone (This is about what I like to do. If another person were to come along, I would be deferring to them too much.) and no errands. It’s just things that are fun to me. Errands are not fun. I highly recommend this; it will quickly become a highlight of your week!

        • gretchenrubin

          What a terrific idea.

  • Anne

    Some of my favorite treats don’t cost anything! Or cost very little. My membership to Spotify radio means that I can have access to literally almost every song in the world, and a treat for me is to sit around and browse new music/artists, read reviews of their latest work on the internet and decide who I want to follow and who else I want to listen to. Or I will often pair a chore or a task I don’t love, like doing dishes or getting ready in the morning, with whatever music feels right for the mood (or whatever will help me get into the mood I want to be in!) My family makes fun of me because I never grow tired of listening to the same exact songs over and over again, but that’s cause listening to them brings back good memories and that feels like a real treat.

    I LOVE the sun and in warm enough weather, sunbathing (with sunblock to feel less guilty) is definitely my favorite treat. But in nice weather I also like going for a drive down back roads with the windows down. Also playing with the dogs (and giving them food treats – no calorie guilt for me!), unplanned naps on the sofa, and getting on the ground and doing 5-10 minutes of stretching – when I have been sitting at my computer for a long time, I often find that my muscles get tight. Now that I’m in grad school, SO much of my reading is very dense and demanding, I haven’t felt very motivated for my pleasure reading to be novels or the newspaper so I just kind of went with it and reading blogs or light-hearted “beach reads” is my treat to myself for getting all my work done. And last but not least would definitely be cuddling… I am lucky that my boyfriend is a snuggler too! If he’s not around then the dogs work too. I feel silly saying that, but it’s definitely a favorite source of happiness and comfort for me, especially now that the weather’s colder. Even if I have a TON of work to get done, I never feel guilty spending 10-15 minutes of my night cuddling on the couch : )

    I LOVE these lists of what people do for treats, especially free ones!!! I think I’m going to buy some holiday scented candles

  • Anne

    And COFFEE! How could I forget coffee. When I want to get crazy and really treat myself, I will even add a couple drops of chocolate milk to it – in the morning!

  • Megan

    Does a treat have to be intentional to be considered a treat? Sometimes spontaneous things can be a treat, like an extra hug from a child, or hearing a favorite song on the radio. I wonder, if I made a conscious effort to register these “treats” during the day, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to indulge in a sweet treat in the evening… worth a try!

    • gretchenrubin

      Unexpected treats are great, but I think that we also need treats that we can give ourselves – that we can make happen. That way, we get them when we want them. That’s part of the feeling of taking care of yourself.

      • Megan

        Right, I guess there’s a different between appreciating the little things that “just happen” during the day, and making an effort to treat oneself to a special something. The power of treat-dom is within us. 🙂

  • allison

    Back when my mom was single and in the working world, she used to find it hard to put money away for savings. But then she discovered that if she just bought herself a treat on payday – even something as small as a candy bar – she found it a whole lot easier to put money in the bank after she ‘paid herself’. I think this is along the lines of your treating theory. And I like “self-regard isn’t selfish” – that’s good to remember.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example.

    • sewyuleknead

      After his second-shift job, my dad used to go and buy 2 1/2-gallon containers of ice cream on his payday. Such a treat to find it in the freezer the next day and know that that evening there would be a treat after dinner.

    • HEHink

      Thank you for sharing this example! It really clarifies Gretchen’s idea that if we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

  • Gina

    Hmmm….Food for thought. Well, that’s probably the wrong thing for ME to say, because when I hear the word treat, I really only think of something to eat! Something that I shouldn’t have if I want to lose weight or be healthy is how I ‘reward’ or treat ‘myself’. You’ve inspired me to sit down and come up with a Treat List of non edible things to do/see/buy. I will then go to this list, instead of the bakery, when it’s time for a treat.

  • Tana

    My problem with treats is that once I start, I don’t stop. I work from home, and if I let myself do something fun over my lunch hour, it can easily consume the rest of my day. Or if I do return to my work, I feel like my treat was cut short. So rather than using treats as a direct reward, I try to build them into my life so I don’t feel so deprived. If I’ve had my share of treats (the things that really recharge my batteries), I am much more effective at everything else. It’s hard to make treats a priority when there are so many things that need to be done, but if I make a point to do those things, I get more done in the long run.

  • Linda Charlton

    Unfortunately, I am rather self-indulgent and treat myself every day (although I have never called it that). After reading this, I realized treats can be many things other than food which I have always use….To my detriment might I add. I will be sitting down later and look at the habits I have that could actually be classified as treats. Thee
    s are things I do on a routine basis and thus skip things I need to do. What a thought.

  • Amanda Kendle

    People consider ironing a treat?????? Those people better hop over to my house!

    • gretchenrubin

      I know right?

  • Sonya Lea

    I have a health condition that limits the amount of wheat and sugar in my diet. And I just feel better without those items. I give myself the treat of using healthy fruit essences, and making a weekly treat for teatime or dessert. It’s been fantastic for my body, and I’ve learned about Wax Orchards here in Washington, which makes sugar-free chocolate and sugar replacement that is actually a food, not a chemical. This makes the holiday season a happy time for this woman.

  • I totally agree, Gretchen — I think that we just need to think outside the box when it comes to “treats” by choosing things that don’t sabotage our goals, namely snacking or spending we’ll feel bad about later. I love your idea of creating a list of “quirky treats” and am going to share it with my clients!

  • Anne Westlund

    I have a whole “treat” or reward system. I get rewards for doing things that are difficult or I want to make a habit of or both. I have 20 index cards that have 10 X marks on each card. With a hole-punch I punch holes in the cards whenever I do something off my list of things I don’t do enough of: exercise, homework, fiction reading, half hour of writing, or watching a movie. I then have a list of 20 rewards, most of them $5 or less. When I get 10 “punches” I get a reward. I got the idea from Trent at The Simple Dollar (website). He has a similar system to motivate his kids. Some explanations: I read a lot of non-fiction but find it hard to settle down and read fiction. I share my living space and don’t get a lot of movie-watching time. Anyway, this is one way to motivate yourself.


    • gretchenrubin

      Great ideas.

      In my view, “treats” are NOT the same as “rewards.” A reward you earn or justify. A treat is something you get just because you want it. I think they have very different roles to play in habit-formation. But everyone should figure out what works for THEM!

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  • Ha, you are goingto laugh. I had a very unexpected day off yesterday while my son was in school (which is ending soon, so this was indeed rare– the next time I get to be home alone will be like September). I spent a good portion of the morning cleaning the kitchen and living room floors. Which are generally gross. I didn’t even watch the clock while I did it. I hate floors. But I felt so good after.

    • And today, I stopped at the library to pick up a hold DVD, and I treated myself to a tiny cow sticker that was in the “stickers for kids” bin. It graces my dashboard now.