Figure out the reward before you start the work

When it comes to supporting a team, or helping an individual client, or running an organization, if-then rewards are almost always a terrible idea.

If-then extrinsic rewards suck all the creativity and inspiration out of the tasks they are applied to. They are a great way to get people to do things they don’t want to do, but a terrible way to get people to do things they do want to do.

From the outside, that is.

When you impose if-then rewards on yourself, though, things are a different matter. Building a new habit? While you’re building it, the automaticity what you’re doing isn’t really fully installed yet–you’re still in the process of building it. And while you’re building it, you may not be getting the reward of the habit itself; oftentimes those take weeks or months to become apparent. So, in addition to setting up smart cues, you need to set up smart rewards. And the smartest thing you can do is to figure out what the reward will be before you start the work.

There’s two parts to this. Which is the most obvious will depend on the person–I’ve run into folks that report either of these being so clear, and the other a surprise, but for both answers.

  1. Well in advance of any work- or habit-planning whatsoever, build a pool of potential self-rewards.

    There’s generic suggestions around this stuff: have a piece of chocolate! run with your dog! read a book! but scrubbing through that list is a decisionmaking process, and adds to the friction of your process. What do you like? What do you find rewarding? It’s worth considering environments in which you use these rewards: if your life is centered in an inner city, you’re unlikely to take a 20-minute break to go mountaineering, but you could go through your old trip photos or spend time considering your next adventure. If you’re in a rural area, you might not have a lot of options for a quick trip to a museum, but you could spend time looking at art online or reading about the history of a favorite artist.

    Here’s some of my own:

  • go for a walk
  • scrub through recommendations on Steam
  • take a bike ride
  • just sit in the sun if the weather’s nice
  • listen to a new album
  • set a budget and do some online shopping
  • take a nap (though don’t force yourself to stay awake if you can’t)
  • journaling

Some of these will sound like great ideas for you. Some of them will sound like work. Don’t choose the latter as a reward for yourself!

  1. When you’re planning the habit or work, pick a self-reward.

    This give you something specific to look forward to, and frontloads the decisionmaking before the task so you can just coast into a reward without delay once you’ve completed your habit. You can of course flex on this once you’ve done the thing! If you don’t want to do the thing you said you’d give yourself, don’t force it, and be kind to yourself. But having a plan in place will smooth things over.

Give it a shot! Figure out what sorts of things you love (this is fun anyway!) and then pick one to look forward to when you’re planning your next habit or task.

Did that make your day a little better?

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