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.


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?

Do You Watch for the Longest Day of the Year? And Then Miss It.

“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I’ve long been haunted by this line, spoken by Daisy.

But good news: today is the longest day of the year for 2015. So I won’t miss it.

Agree, Disagree? “It’s Better To Be Alone Than Lonely with Someone.”

Interview: Tamsen Fadal.

I was introduced to Tamsen Fadal through a mutual friend. Tamsen is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors the nightly news for a New York City TV station. She’s also just written a book, The New Single: Finding, Fixing, and Falling Back in Love with Yourself After a Break-Up or Divorce.

Handling a big break-up is a major happiness challenge, of course. It’s also a major habit challenge, because our habits are shaken up — for better and for worse — whenever we go through a major life transition. The Strategy of the Clean Slate is the strategy to help us make good use of such transitions.

Gretchen: Given your experiences, what’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Tamsen: Habits are essential. In fact, habits are equivalent to the dedication it takes to move forward after a major life change and achieve goals.

This is true because after a break-up or divorce, moving forward is a scary prospect. Getting out of bed in the morning can be difficult enough. That’s why forming habits and staying dedicated to them – things like being committed to exercise and healthy diet, decluttering your life, and keeping a regiment of positive self-talk are all essential to survival and success.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

My weekends are essentially habitual, in the greatest possible way. And that’s because my weekdays can be so frenetic; I’m always on the go, Monday through Friday. So, my Saturdays look like this—religiously, without fail, as long as I am not traveling. If I am, I simply change the day. I get up and head right to Starbucks and I treat myself to my favorite drink, an Iced Americano. Then, I pack up my yoga mat and go to my favorite yoga class. This is the one sacred time in my week that my phone is off. Totally off. For someone like me, that is not an easy feat, but it is one that allows my mind to wander and my heart to remember what I am truly passionate about.

After ninety minutes in yoga—I head to my favorite juice bar and continue my day with thirty-two ounces of Kale Lemonade. You might think this is an acquired taste, but I love it. Next stop, the A train to the West Village. While I am downtown, I go in and out of shops, I check out a new restaurant or I have lunch at a sidewalk café. I spend time with me. At the end of the afternoon, I put myself back on the radar. I am refreshed. Renewed. And rewarded by the fact this builds my self-confidence.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

This has simply been THE most important thought in my life. When I was twenty-three years old, packing up my car and heading off to my first job in television news in Oak Hill, West Virginia, my father gave me some love advice. He told me, “It’s better to be alone than lonely with someone.” Quite frankly, the sentence made no sense to me. It wasn’t until I was coming out of my divorce did I realize exactly what my father was talking about. At the end of my marriage, even when my former husband and I were together, I had been absolutely lonely standing next to someone else.

So many people, my younger-self included, stay in unhealthy relationships because we are afraid to be “alone.” The idea of walking into a restaurant and having to approach the hostess with “Just one, please” is a daunting, terrifying, and depressing thought for many of us.

The difference between then and now is having learned to cherish my own company. I truly value my alone time. I make time for myself. I do yoga, I go for walks, I have dinners alone, I feel totally comfortable traveling by myself, and I know I’m more than happy to take an entire Saturday or Sunday for self-reflection.

I am a firm believer that you cannot and will not find the right person if you are not the right person already. You have to know who you are and what you want and what you need before you can ever find the person who will be right for you.

 Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I am, by my own admission, a recovering people pleaser. I have had a habit of trying to make sure everything is perfect and everyone is happy, often at the expense of my own happiness. But I am also cognizant of the fact that pleasing other people before yourself does not lead to sustainable, long-term happiness.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

 As I previously mentioned, I do yoga almost every day.   It makes me happy, healthy, and reduces stress. Yoga has allowed me to take that time I needed for myself. To unplug, without apology and to focus on the poses and on my mantra each class. Meditation is now something I try to do daily – so that it becomes a habit. A part of my life and something I do without thinking about it.

Also, I like making lists. I always have, and even more so now because many people over the years told me they were a waste of time. I know that they are not. They are exactly what I need to be doing in my time.

I make countless to-do lists that help me stay organized and help me form new habits based on my needs. I use lists to guide and encourage me through my days, while moving forward rather than look back over my shoulder. And even today, list making helps me remain focused on meeting my own physical and emotional requirements.

And, to that end, another important habit to me is positive self-talk. I am a big believer that everything starts from within. Despite the fact that I built my career in front of the camera, I truly believe that if you don’t have internal peace and happiness and come from a good place, your inner discontent will always come to the surface.

My self-talk in the months following my divorce was extremely negative. Over time, though, I realized that my self-talk was self-destructive. It was filled with excuses and denial, both ways to protect myself from the truth about my new life. So, I decided to take control of my negative self-talk by composing a list of the positive things I should be saying. Including points like “Protect myself” and “Don’t settle. Ever” and “Go after it, 100%.”

I really do loving making lists and positive, sexy self-talk. Because, I believe, that before you love yourself, you must like yourself.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Simply put, I’m not the best cook. I like cooking, but I’m not opening a restaurant anytime soon. With that being said, I also have come to understand that there are plenty of foods that help reduce stress and amp up my energy level. I just feel better when I eat the right foods, and on an appropriate schedule. So, as much as being in the kitchen doesn’t always come naturally to me, I’m learning to love the way it makes me feel to prepare myself a healthy meal or snack.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m a total obliger. That’s because I’m a people-pleaser. It’s an internal struggle I constantly work through every day. The good news is, I’m aware of it.

Just a couple of days ago, I found myself helping a friend make decisions on how to move his own career and creative passions forward. Really specific details on who to make contact with, how to make connections, basically how to jump-start a company. A few days later, I realized: “why wasn’t I giving myself that advice? I know how to do all of those things and the right people, so why was I more worried about someone else’s projects?” It’s a struggle for me to not be an obliger, but I’m working on it.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

I have a secret fear of success. Obviously I want to succeed, but sometimes I find myself (subconsciously) failing to live up to my own potential. It’s easier for a lot of us to get comfortable rather than move forward. So, sometimes I’ll distract myself with other projects (or other people’s projects) rather than focus on the biggest goal in front of me. I’ll find “something else” to do. All of these nasty little negative habits can poison my positive habits in the face of big, potentially life-changing success.

But I’ve also learned to be self-aware. Which is why I’m such a big proponent of making lists, setting goals, and positive and smart self-talk. Positivity overcomes negativity and leads to maintaining healthy habits.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

The night before Thanksgiving of 2007, I read Rory Freedman’s diet book, Skinny Bitch.   It changed my life, and really opened my eyes to healthy eating and the way our animals are treated. I immediately committed to vegetarianism, THE NIGHT BEFORE THANKSGIVING!

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace habits as an essential element to success and happiness.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Sure, a few people have had a big impact on my personal habits. I get up early every day, and I stay up late every night. That’s thanks to Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. He said, “The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have.”

I also like to work with my hands. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t pay for assembly when I buy a cabinet. I do it myself. Thomas Moore had an impact on me in that regard. He taught me that using your hands and doing things like washing dishes can be therapeutic.

And one more, very recently. I’m learning from watching what seem to be the habits of successful people that I admire. In this case, Arianna Huffington. She always answers her emails. My inbox gets jam-packed and sometimes it’s easier to put the replies off until later. But I noticed how quickly Arianna responds to her emails and it really made me turn up my game.

Secret of Adulthood: Someplace, Keep an Empty Shelf.

From Further Secrets of Adulthood: Someplace, keep an empty shelf.

Now, what’s so great about an empty shelf? An empty shelf shows that I have room to expand — I’m not crowded in by my stuff, I have order and space.

For most people — to a somewhat surprising degree — outer order contributes to inner calm, a subject that I explore at some length in Happier at Home and also in Better Than Before.  For most people, outer order helps them stick to their good habits.

We can all agree that in the context of a happy life, something like a crowded coat closet is trivial, yet over and over, I find that getting control of the stuff of my life makes me feel more in control of my life generally. And if that’s an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.

A friend told me, “I finally cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers.” I understand exactly how that feels.

Some people say, “Gretchen, do you really have an empty shelf?” I really do (though I have to protect it against my husband, who never sees an empty shelf without wanting to stick something on it–is this related to the fact that I’m a Finisher and he’s an Opener?). If you want to see my empty shelf, watch here at minute 6:41.

The opposite of a profound truth is also true, however, so someplace, I also keep a junk drawer.

How about you? Do you have an empty shelf, a junk drawer, or both?

Podcast 17: Put Things Away in an Exact Place, Beware “My Preciousss,” and the Challenge of Staying in Touch

It’s Wednesday — which means it’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Coming up: To celebrate our 20th episode, we’re going to do an episode that features our listeners. So leave us a voicemail answer at 774-277-9336, by June 24, 2015, to one of these questions:

— if you could change one aspect of a relationship, what would you change? Huge, trivial, any relationship.

— what happiness demerit would you give yourself? what gold star would you bestow?

Thanks so much to the folks who have already sent in comments. Fascinating.

This week:

Try This at HomeHave an exact place for everything. Agree, disagree?

Happiness Stumbling Block: Beware of anything we call “our preciousssssss.” Whenever Gollum refers to the ring, he calls it “my precious.” “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!“ Want to see a ten-second clip of Gollum talking about his precious, from The Lord of the Rings movie The Two Towers? It’s here. Also, I mention being an “Abstainer.” You can hear a discussion of that term in episode 2.

Listener Question: “What’s some deeper advice for Owls living in a Lark world? And did you realize that the tone of the show was ‘yay, Larks’ and ‘boo, Owls?'” Wow, I certainly didn’t mean to sound dismissive. I’m a big believer in the fact of chronotypes (morning people and night people), and that we should try help shape the world to accommodate a person’s Owl nature.

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Elizabeth feels that she’s not doing a good job of staying in touch with her old friends who live on the East Coast. Elizabeth mentions the “update” habit that we discuss in episode 2.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: I give a gold star to my mother-in-law, who helped me re-frame the experience of plane rides, to make them more enjoyable.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors. Check out Smith and Noble, a solution for beautiful window treatments. Go to smithandnoble.com/happier for 20% off window treatments and a free in-home consultation. Limited time.

And Framebridge.com — a terrific way to get your art and photos framed, in a super easy and affordable way. Use the code HAPPIER at checkout to get 20% off your first Framebridge order.

We’d love to hear from you: does it help you to put things away in an exact place? And what’s your precioussssss? Call: 774 -277-9336 for your questions and comments — especially for the Very Special Episode.

Comment below. Email: podcast@gretchenrubin.com. Twitter: @gretchenrubin and @elizabethcraft. Call: 774 -277-9336.  Facebook Page.

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