Why We Shouldn’t Reward Ourselves for Good Habits–With One Exception.

Once a week, I have Tips Day or List Day or Quiz Day.

Today: 5 reasons why rewards can be very dangerous for habit-formation.

Of the 21 strategies that I identify, that we can use to make or break our habits, the Strategy of Reward was one of the most difficult for me to understand.

In large part, because the lesson is: be very wary of using rewards to master habits!

Why? It sounds so sensible to reward yourself for sticking to a good habit. But it turns out that rewards are very, very tricky to use well.

Why?

1. One common form of reward is the attainment of a goal, and that reward marks a finish line — and a finish line marks a stopping point. Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.

The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end — and the more effort required to start over. By providing a specific goal, a temporary motivation, and requiring a new “start” once reached, hitting a finish line may interfere with habit-formation. Running the marathon, quitting sugar for Lent, doing a 30-day yoga challenge — once the goal has been met, and we feel the reward of hitting that finish line, the behavior tends to end.

Also, once we decide that we’ve achieved success, we tend to stop moving forward.

2. A reward requires a decision (“Do I deserve this reward?”) Habits are freeing and energizing because they get us out of the draining, difficult business of using decision-making and self-control. We don’t reward ourselves for brushing our teeth, so we don’t have to ask, “Have I brushed long enough to deserve my reward?” We just do it.

When we have to decide whether we’ve earned a reward, we’re forced to employ our decision-making; we’re not on automatic behavior. And every time we make a decision, we have the opportunity to make the wrong choice. So many loopholes to choose from! One for every occasion.

3. It permits an opt-out ( “If I forgo the reward, I don’t have to do this activity”).

4. It teaches us that we’d do this activity only if a reward is offered. A reward provides extrinsic motivation, which tells us that we don’t feel intrinsic motivation. We’re not practicing guitar because we want to practice guitar, but because we promised ourselves a beer every time we practice. Along those lines…

5. A reward makes us associate a behavior with suffering or imposition.  Why else would we need the reward? One person exercises in order to earn points at work to get swag. Another person exercises without that reason. Who, do you suppose, is more likely to be exercising, a year from now?

Furthermore, we often choose perverse rewards. A friend told me, “After I’ve lost this ten pounds, I’m going to reward myself with a big piece of chocolate cake.”

The one kind of reward that does work? A reward that takes you deeper into the habit. Doing lots of yoga? Splurge on a new yoga mat. Bringing lunch to work every day? Buy that expensive set of great knives.  One company had a smart policy: any employee who exercised at least 75 times in one year in the company gym was rewarded with…the next year’s gym membership free. The reward for exercise was more exercise.

For these reasons, rewarding an activity may make us less likely, not more likely, to form a habit.

How about you? Have you noticed this in yourself?

  • debbiedarline

    I agree with what Brene Brown said when she was endorsing your book – “Gretchen Rubin’s superpower is curiosity.” It is so helpful that you mine for layers upon layers upon layers of the “why” behind the things we do. I never thought about the attainment of a goal being a “stopping point”, but in my own personal experience, after a year of giving up sugar several years ago (and losing 20 lbs) I did that very thing. I hit the goal, stopped the habit, started eating sugar again and then quickly regained the lost weight.
    After I read your last book I became a sort of “detective” in my own life with my own habits and looked for clues about some of the limiting habits I am trying to change. I’ve discovered that I am apparently a master at finding loopholes!
    Thanks again for all of your hard work – you are making such a positive difference in the lives of so many people. I am also loving the podcasts, with all of the great and current information. As other people have mentioned, you and your sister have a great yin-yang thing going on there. So informative and so much fun!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! thanks so much —

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Thanks Gretchen! I have long snarled ironically the old adage “virtue is its own reward” . . . now you have proved it’s true! I NEVER have found reward a good strategy – for ALL of the reasons you mention. The vague feeling I have always had, you confirm with acute analysis: rewards can more quickly become habits than the habits I tell myself I’m trying to reinforce.

    Back to the idea of virtue being its own reward — or MORE of the habit being the true reward for the habit — Identifying that as the truth helps me not to be resentful of “virtue is its own reward” . After all it is the “virtue” we tell ourselves we want. We want the identity that comes with the virtue–the identity of being a slender, fit person, the identity of being kind and generous, the identity of being in command of ourselves and our finances.

    Underneath, though, there’s a demonic little ‘other’ that tells us our self control can mysteriously lead to a life without limitations, all the chocolate, red wine, lying in a hammock, retail therapy, self indulgent life we crave. And that is why our rewards can turn out to be so sinister. Such lies. You nailed it once again. Thank you!

  • Molly

    These points seem reasonable, but I would add a caveat. When I was finishing my dissertation, I rewarded the heck out of myself to sit down and write x number of pages: pedicures, restaurants, buying a new book, etc. While I would love to have a better writing habit, when needing to get to a deadline, I set aside worries about the future, and just did what I had to do (within limits…nothing too destructive–no drinking, buying myself into debt, etc.) to get done. It seemed to work as I finished on time.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, works well working toward a goal: finishing a dissertation.

      But if you wanted to write regularly indefinitely (e.g., the way that I must do), it might not have been helpful.

  • cruella

    Well, it all depends on the purpose of the challenge;-) I did a 30 day yoga challenge this year and while I really enjoyed it, I didn’t really expect it to translate into me being a yogi. I enjoyed the 30 days and I took a few good bits and pieces with me. I’m a lousy maker of new habits if the only thing that “counts” is that they should last forever.

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, yes, such goals are helpful – they just may not be helpful if what you want to do is form at HABIT to go indefinitely.

  • Great food for thought for us as adults but also opens up the need to shine a light on all those reward charts used with children to form habits like tidying their room, doing homework etc!!! I often wonder if we are encouraging them from a young age to reply on extrinsic motivation at the cost of intrinsic motivation.

  • Susan Mary Malone

    It’s SO easy to fall into those traps! And the true rewards you mentioned work so very well. My biggest reward after editing is to allow myself to sit and read a really great bound book. And since it’s my business, that definitely takes me deeper into the habit!
    Thank you for the validation, Gretchen!

  • Sandy Green

    I just read this chapter on the subway to work today! For me, the challenge is perverse awards. I love the idea of changing your frame of mind so that the reward is actually a part of the habit you’re trying to create. When I work out regularly, I love the compliments I get on my arms! That in itself is a reward.

  • Gail Minichiello

    A very helpful post, thank you. I do try to differentiate between pairing and rewards. If I listen to a podcast while on the treadmill I think of it as pairing, but is it really a reward? Is it a pairing because the podcast is at the same time as being on the treadmill and not given as a reward after?

    • gretchenrubin

      You have to earn or justify a reward.

      A pairing is just the coupling of two activities.

      If you listen to a podcast every time you’re on the treadmill, and only when you’re on the treadmill, that’s pairing.
      If you think, “I was so good for going on the treadmill, my reward is that I get to listen to a podcast,” that’s a reward. Say you’d gone for a long walk with a friend, you might think, “Well, I wasn’t on the treadmill, but I went for a walk, so I’ve earned my podcast.” That kind of thinking doesn’t arise with pairing.

  • You have enlightened my mind to the power of habit for habit sake and not necessarily for a reward… which I now understand is merely and ending point. This blog post has been very beneficial for me. Thank you.

  • Jeanne

    The results of the good habit need to be the reward. Have you ever read “The Path of Least Resistance” by Robert Fritz? In it he talks about Primary Choice and Secondary Choice. If you make a strong Primary Choice, all your daily Secondary Choices are much easier, and are always moving in the direction of what you most truly want, even if they don’t seem appealing at the time. In a class I took, many people wanted to do things (exercise, meditate, etc.) but were not doing them. George, on the other hand, was brushing and flossing every night before bed, even when he had fallen asleep in front of the TV, and only wanted to drop into bed. His Primary Choice was to have a healthy mouth and keep all his teeth (rare in his family). As you talk about with habits, he did not have to agonize every night about brushing and flossing as if it were a Primary Choice every night. Instead, he just did it (as a Secondary Choice) out of the Primary Choice of oral health, which he really wanted. Most of us do not make strong Primary Choices, either formally or informally (they should be clearly stated or written) and then flounder day by day based on our moods and feelings at the time, rather than deciding based on what we most deeply want. The path of least resistance will lead us where we want to go if we clearly decide where that is.

  • Jessica Miele

    I think it depends. I turned running into a habit by realizing that I actually did enjoy it. So, now I run every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday no matter what. But I hate getting out of bed in the morning, truly hate. And it’s not even about sleep, I’m not actually tired, I’m just way too comfortable in the bed with my head on my pillow. Then I started “rewarding” myself for eating cereal again in the morning. If I get up at 6am, I can have the bowl of cereal. And it’s really worked for me, because I really do want the cereal and it makes me happy to get out of that bed, where as before I would snooze and then snooze again. I could snooze forever! Maybe rewards aren’t the healthiest thing ever, but for me there is no hope otherwise.

    • Anna

      I agree with you – it depends, and for me this sort of thing works, too. I reward myself for going running with a nice, long leisurely bath afterwards. Otherwise it is showers only. So, if I feel like a bath, I have to go for a run first. For me, this works. Let me say though, that running is not a crucially important habit in my case – I’m pretty fit anyway and have no weight to lose. The extra cardio from a run is just a benefit. And, I tend to feel guilty taking baths normally from a green perspective: using so much water and heating energy! So if I have ‘earned’ it, it doesn’t feel quite so bad.

  • I’d never consciously thought about it like that but could not agree more. In the end allowing yourself that piece of chocolate pie after losing 10 pounds is the same distorted logic as saving on calories by ordering a diet Coke with your supersized McDonalds meal… But I would like to add that it might actually also be beneficial to positively reward yourself beforehand…by buying those new running shoes or that fancy slow juicer for example; it gets the motivation going!

    • gretchenrubin

      Those are great examples of one good kind of rewards – those take you deeper into the habit.
      New running shoes help you to GO RUNNING.

      But buying yourself a new pair of sandals…no.

    • gretchenrubin

      Also, I would argue that it’s not a good idea to consider yourself “rewarding” yourself BEFOREHAND.
      You might buy those running shoes to PREPARE. Ok, that’s good. We need to prepare.
      But to tell yourself, “I’m rewarding myself” doesn’t seem like a good idea. You’re giving yourself credit for something you haven’t already done. and which you may not do!

  • You’ve just given me a reason to buy lots of new surfboards :). I actually love this. As a writer I guess I should it makes me feel ok with rewarding myself with moleskine notebooks. I love the idea of rewarding with things that reinforce the habit.

  • Emily

    I love this! Especially the exceptions; thanks for including those. I have some renovation projects I am working on. Not really habits, but it seems we always have a project on the go, so maybe it is. When I finish painting the living room I am going to reward myself with the new light fixtures I want to for the hallway.

  • I love this. I think I’ve been self-sabatoging some of my habits for way to long. I would say things like, “Ok if I clean the house for an hour then I can order pizza for dinner instead of cook.” Then when there was no wiggle room in the budget for pizza that week I didn’t clean (as much). I have plenty more examples, but I’ll stop. Thank you for opening my eyes to the problem!

  • I find this very validating and useful! I worked with a coach (who I loved) who recommended I start rewarding myself for little accomplishments as a motivator, and I felt some major resistance to that. As a parent who has done a lot of research on the downfalls of behavior modification in parenting, I was hesitant to then use that failed method on myself! I especially love the idea of only rewarding myself with more of whatever it is I’m doing – thank you!

  • Rewards have never worked for me. (I either delay the reward beyond a meaningful time frame, or I reward myself without doing the thing.) I’ve written about it before (on my own blog) and you have validated my position and added some good logic to the discussion. I’m a Questioner with a strong Rebel streak.

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