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How to Use Rewards to Get the Results You Want


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  105 comments   :  67,522 Views

Changing long-standing habits can be a pretty slow and difficult process. For most of us, at least, it’s not like we just decide one day to ditch all the junk food and super-sized portions, fall in love with steamed vegetables, and suddenly become an exercise maven after years of being a couch potato. Even the most sincere New Year’s resolutions don’t magically turn into lasting weight loss and a healthy lifestyle without some real effort to let go of old habits and practice new ones to take their place.

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to make these changes easier on yourself. One of the most important is to learn how to use rewards to keep yourself moving in the right direction. But there’s an art and a science to this business of using rewards effectively—you need to reward yourself for the right thing at the right time. The more you know about this, the easier it will be to pick good rewards and avoid some common mistakes.

Rule No. 1. Reward your own behavior, not the scale’s.

One of the most common mistakes people make when using rewards to help with weight loss is that they base the rewards on what the scale does--they give themselves a reward whenever their weight drops to a certain number on the scale. If the rewards are big or desirable enough, this may provide some incentive to keep working on weight loss, but it probably won’t make it much easier for you to change old habits and stick to new ones. For that, you need to reward yourself when you perform the specific behaviors that help you achieve your ultimate goal—things like staying in your calorie range for the day, sticking to your exercise plan, choosing certain foods instead of others, getting enough sleep, and so on. Maybe you’ve also got some even more specific goals or problem areas you’re trying to work on within each of these areas—like saying no to second helpings, cooking at home instead of heading for the nearest drive-thru, or adding a little more intensity to your exercise session.

The best way to use rewards to improve results is to identify the particular actions or behaviors that lead to the overall result you want, and then reward yourself for doing those behaviors. The more specific the behavior, and the more frequent and consistent the reward, the more quickly you’ll “train” yourself to perform that behavior without so much conscious effort. Most people also find it helpful to start by rewarding small, incremental steps towards the ultimate change they’re trying to make, instead of trying to do everything at once or demanding perfection right from the beginning. If you set your reward up so you have to be perfect for a whole week or month or whatever to earn it, you can actually end up de-motivating yourself.

What kind of reward is best, and when?

There’s no theoretical right or wrong kind of reward. When it comes to modifying behavior, any reward that actually gets you to do what you need to do more often counts as an effective reward. It could be positive, like giving yourself something you enjoy, or it could involve letting yourself out of doing something you don’t like, like leaving the dishes for someone else to wash after you’ve cooked a healthy meal. It’s usually a good idea to make your reward consistent with the goal you’re trying to accomplish. For example, using some favorite food treat as a reward for sticking to your diet all week probably sends a pretty confusing message to your brain. And it’s also a good idea to choose rewards that don’t generate other stress or conflict in your life—for example, you don’t want to give yourself rewards that are so expensive they bust your budget or cause conflict with other family members. But other than some common sense considerations like these, the key is to choose rewards that actually work for you.

What does matter, though, is the timing and frequency of the rewards. The evidence is pretty clear that you get the best results when the reward follows the desired behavior pretty quickly, and when you reward the behavior frequently and consistently until it becomes part of your normal routine. This does not mean you have to reward yourself immediately every single time you do the right thing. But it might mean, for example, that you’ll get better results (especially with behaviors that are hard for you to change) if you come up with an approach that includes smaller rewards delivered that same day, as well as larger rewards for making (and sustaining) improvements over longer periods of time.

Putting It All Together

Here’s an approach that illustrates how you can combine all these elements in a simple way. It usually works well for me.

One of my goals this year is to kick a pretty bad diet soda habit I’ve developed over the past couple of years, by replacing the soda with plain water. I figured out that I can afford to spend one dollar per day (about the same as I’ve been spending on the soda) on rewarding myself for not drinking any soda, so at the beginning of each month, I put $30 in one dollar bills in a jar that’s labeled “Mine.” Alongside that jar, I have another empty jar. If I get through the day without having any soda, that day’s dollar stays in the “mine” jar; if I have some soda, I take a dollar out of that jar and put it in the other jar. At the end of the month, I get to spend all the money that’s still in the “mine” jar on whatever I want (right now, I’m saving up for a new pair of hiking boots). The money in the other jar gets spent on something or someone I’d really rather not spend my money on—last month, for example, I used it to buy a small birthday present for a noisy neighbor I don’t like very much.

Obviously, you can adjust all the specifics in this kind of plan to suit your situation. For example, you can put more money in your “mine” jar on the first of each month if that motivates you more, or you can use something other than money. If you live (and share chores) with someone else, you could use “get out of doing the dishes” cards instead of dollars. Use your imagination. You can also have more than one behavior change you’re focusing on—just make sure you reward each one separately.

Do you use rewards to keep yourself motivated? What works for you?

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  • AMBER461
    Very good ideas. - 12/1/2017   9:50:18 PM
  • 104
    Great ideas! - 11/23/2017   11:20:59 AM
  • 103
    Great article! - 11/23/2017   10:54:17 AM
  • 102
    When I cycle somewhere instead of driving or using the bus I put the most valuable coin in my purse in a cute china cup when I return home. Sometimes I get lucky and have a £2 coin in my purse, but sometimes I only have a penny in my purse and that has to go in instead. I use the money for any new cycling equipment or repairs that I need (just "treated" myself to a lovely new high viz jacket) and plan to use the extra for spending money on my next holiday. Every now and again I really like to see how much is in there. - 11/23/2017   5:33:55 AM
  • 101
    Itís always good to reward yourself to keep your motivation up. - 11/23/2017   3:23:12 AM
  • 100
    Good ideas - 11/22/2017   12:07:39 AM
  • SUNSET09
    Good rules to live and adhere to. Thank you, SparkFriend! - 9/28/2017   1:01:10 AM
  • 98
    I am learning to reward myself - 7/21/2017   5:43:05 AM
  • 97
    Glad I read this today. I can figure out when and what to reward for. Its what to reward that I have the problem with. - 3/24/2017   2:31:11 PM
  • 96
    I reward myself with a new book or magazine, or by going to a new movie. - 3/7/2017   8:54:08 AM
  • 95
    Awesome article! I usually buy myself a new church dress or jewelry for my reward.. - 10/15/2016   2:55:34 PM
  • 94
    This was an outstanding article. What a great idea. I may try something similar. Thanks! - 9/22/2016   8:47:29 PM
  • 93
    For my lifestyle change is interesting. Mine was almost a ah ha moment. One day I decided to do research on the food that I grew up eating. The good and the bad. Once I realized that everything that my parents cooked for us may not have been the healthiest I decided to add healthier things and take out others. Before I knew it,my whole thought process changed for the better. Not only health wise, but weight, skin hair and nails. My family and friends were the first to recognize the change and now it has become a habit. - 9/22/2016   4:19:01 PM
  • 92
    Love the pop jar idea. I would change the second jar to 'medical bills' or something similar, though, since pop is not healthy. (and since I find it a joy to buy people things-even irritating neighbors, lol). Well, NOW, I'm interested in making my OWN list! - 9/22/2016   4:19:00 PM
  • 91
    What a great article and a wonderful reminder that it's not all about the scale. Changing habits is important and when we make progress with changing those habits it's time for a reward. Eventually those changed habits will show up on the scale, but don't ignore your other successes! - 9/22/2016   7:46:11 AM
  • 90
    I like the jars idea. I also like the comment that mentioned using colored stars. I originally rewarded myself food for achieving goals. It hasn't worked out well lol. I have recently started run and will reward myself depending on how many miles I run. - 6/22/2016   10:22:07 AM
  • 89
    I really like the idea of the two jars I think that is something I'll try! - 2/5/2016   5:06:01 PM
  • 88
    I've always struggled with the whole rewards thing. I'm pretty self-indulgent: so if I want something and it is good for me to have, I get it for myself. But this article helped me look at rewards a bit differently and stimulated me to think a bit.
    Thanks, Dean. - 8/29/2015   11:48:48 AM
  • 87
    Oh I love this idea. I have got into the habit of having a glass of wine while cooking dinner and of course this adds up the calories and I a trying to limit alcohol. I am going to try this and then use the "mine' dollars to buy a new spring jacket (it might take a couple months). Thanks Dean!!! - 1/31/2015   3:21:46 PM
  • 86
    Thanks Dean, your articles are always very interesting and inspiring! - 1/20/2015   12:41:46 PM
    before i had not idea about what aprize should be .now, you gives me such agreat idea - 11/24/2014   9:06:29 AM
  • 84
    I love the idea of a money Jar! - 2/12/2014   1:44:00 PM
    I love the money jar. - 11/9/2013   8:47:33 AM
  • 82
    I've started giving myself SparkGoodies as Non-Food Rewards when I have a Non-Scale Victory! I pick out a Goodie (sometimes a gold star), and put an explaination of the NSV in the note section.

    For example: I baked cookies for a friend's wedding, and didn't eat a bite of cookie dough, or even sample a finished cookie. I gave myself a gold star.

    I worked my way out of a negative attitude when I gained weight at my last weigh in. I gave myself a trophy!

    It's fun to see the goodies I've given myself add up. - 11/8/2013   4:00:09 PM
    I made up a REWARDS JAR - a jar with a wide mouth. Then I took squares of colored paper and wrote things that I would most enjoy OR could use on the squares and folded them in quarters. Then I set a goal in mind...usually consistancy of going to the gym, or number of miles I have logged walking. When I get to the "goal" I allow myself to pick a reward from the jar. Some times it is something extravagant (with in budget) that I want but don't allow - like a bottle of my signature perfume, sometimes it is just a new notebook or pen (I am a writer and have a thing for stationery!).
    My most recent reward was for the realization that my underwear had become baggy due to loss of inches!!! Some days I reward myself for being good - based on not allowing myself to fall back on food when I have gone through a rough time.
    Ladies: something that is really nice to reward yourself with...At WalMart in the Cosmetics area there are little packets of facials - these cost $1.79 and come in all sorts of "flavors". I buy a bunch and on a day when I feel I need it I put the mask on, set a timer and play my favorite music while I lie back and relax. BUT before I induldge I tell myself why I am getting the "reward". When the timer goes off I feel relaxed and like I can do anything!!! - 11/8/2013   1:25:02 PM
  • 80
    Amazing article! Funny punishment. Loved it. It makes sense to me because I may be doing almost everything I'm supposed to do and my weight does not cooperate and I don't get my rewards then I get discouraged and stop my healthy habits. So I will reward my healthy behavior from now on. Thanks dude! - 6/9/2013   8:26:24 AM
  • 79
    Great idea. I am looking for the best reward for me. - 5/11/2013   7:02:38 AM
  • 78
    I rarely reward myself but I have marked occasions (like finishing a round of ChaLEAN Extreme or P90x, etc.) with a fitness purchase (like a heart rate monitor or new pair of trainers). Really, it's not a REWARD as much as something I need -- but put off buying til I reach that mark. - 5/10/2013   10:20:00 AM
    My husband and I keep a budget in which we each get our own spending money at the beginning of the month. We agreed that if I work out for at least 20 minutes 3 day per week, I get $5 more from our general budget into my own spending money. For each additional day I work out, I get $1 extra. When we added it up, we realized that this would only cost our general budget about the same as a gym membership--but instead of all of the money going to a gym, I work out with a treadmill and videos at home and get to keep the money as a reward! This is the first and only reward system that has ever really worked for me! - 5/1/2013   12:05:21 PM
  • 76
    Okay, so the double fudge cheesecake and drambui coffee won't quite cut it. But my stupid thing of (I don't like drinking most water) using my water as a reward after my exercise (and having to hurry so no germs or dust gets in it) might not be all bad. But to kick the soda thing..have you tried oj instead? Or, I didn't say saccharin (can use natural sweetener) but you might want to try ice water with few squeezes of lemon or lime in it, and sweeten to taste....sure beats the heck out of the salts and carbs that can make you short of breath with soda..... - 4/9/2013   10:57:54 PM
  • 75
    I do buy myself, clothes, books or junk jewelery, music, or tickets to concerts, things like that...no meals or food treats. - 4/5/2013   5:49:38 PM
    What a wonderfully insightful and helpful article! Thank you so much for the concrete and actionable suggestions. - 4/5/2013   3:50:09 PM
  • 73
    Love the second jar suggestion. It's also helps you to be a better person and make someone else happy. I've been trying to implement a reward system but have been having a hard time coming up with the right idea for myself. - 4/5/2013   12:38:23 PM
  • 72
    I don't reward myself for something I should be doing. It's like rewarding myself for cooking, doing the laundry, or cleaning the house. I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing. In my mind, that does not constitute giving myself a reward. I might reward myself when I hit my goal weight, but not before. - 4/5/2013   11:02:08 AM
    Loved your ideas and laughed when I read about the gift for your nosy neighbor! thanks for sharing. - 4/5/2013   9:08:03 AM
  • 70
    Well written and easy to read and awesome ideas here! im going to try the money jar too! I gave up soda about 5 months ago! - 4/5/2013   7:38:31 AM
  • 69
    Wow. Wow wow wow! I have always had trouble with rewards and here you come along and put it into the best kind of perspective. I'm going to completely rethink my reward schedule. Thank you SO much. - 4/5/2013   6:35:28 AM
    Brilliant! Yay for more of the Dean, I have been missing your writing! - 4/5/2013   2:27:22 AM
  • 67
    For reaching 1000 fitness minutes after one year last month, I am getting a new jump rope. - 4/4/2013   5:29:39 PM
  • 66
    awesome idea! i seriously need to reward myself more - 4/4/2013   3:20:35 PM
  • 65
    I gave myself a vitual flower for doing a great job! Something I would not have done in the past. It really is amazing how a simple gift to ones self can boost the spirit. - 4/4/2013   3:12:56 PM
  • 64
    KISAKATT, I love your reward system and may just use it for myself. Thank you for sharing! I currently have a reward/goal combination: I want to go ziplining with my husband for our anniversary and need to weigh 250 lbs or less to be allowed to do it. Meeting the weight restriction to participate is a goal, while I consider the ziplining itself to be a reward. - 4/4/2013   1:59:16 PM
  • 63
    I love this article! I keep track of the days I exercise on a calendar (with pictures of the beach!) with foil star stickers: first day in a week that I workout gets a red star, day two is blue, day three is green, four is silver, and if I work out five days in a week, I get a gold star! Usually I have a reward planned for every four gold stars (a new workout top, album, etc) this means "big" rewards could happen once a month if I really try hard! - 4/4/2013   12:18:00 PM
  • 62
    This article totally turned on a lightbulb in my brain. Nearly all of the dieters I know reward themselves with a cheat meal when they reach their weekly weight goals. Plainly stated, this is so counterintuitive! You wouldn't reward yourself with a cigarette after a week of not smoking, would you? Why do we all think of food so differently? Great article, thanks! - 4/4/2013   12:02:25 PM
    I really like the idea of rewarding myself. It's a good motivator. Beginning today , I will set new goals for myself , try to accomplish them in a timely manner, and reward myself with the mani- pedi and spa? The last one--- I'll have to save for a special occasion. - 4/4/2013   11:47:56 AM
  • 60
    I've been rewarding myself with flowers after meeting my weekly fitness goals. And fitness gear, buying new fitness gear (in smaller sizes!) is a huge reward. - 4/4/2013   10:53:47 AM
  • 59
    I really like this idea. It can be so easily modified --colored stones instead of money, dollars or coins, whatever--as long as there is an identified purpose and goal. I'm going to adapt this one to help me exercise. I always like the fact it is based on behaviors, not pounds! - 2/23/2011   7:34:10 AM
  • 58
    I have been emphasizing my behavioral choices over what the scale says for many years - it just makes so much sense. I don't use specific rewards, but come to think of it, whenever something really good happens I tend to write a blog about it, and the satisfaction of writing about it and especially getting a bunch of positive comments on my blog - that's my reward! - 2/21/2011   3:57:15 PM
  • 57
    I have been trying to give up coffee.....or at least cut down my consumption. The jar idea sounds like a winner to me. Thanks for the idea! - 2/21/2011   10:31:13 AM
  • 56
    My son-in-law told me about a website that convinces people to put up front a significant amount of money that will automatically go to an organization to which you are diametrically opposed (think like Planned Parenthood vs. anti-abortion/"right-to-life" type or Sarah Palin's Presidential campaign vs. MoveOn or some liberal political group, for example) unless a third party verifies that you have met a significant goal (such as logging your food 5x/week or losing # of pounds or giving up smoking) by a pre-determined date. There is a minimum dollar investment up front. It claimed negative reinforcement or whatever is the right term for avoidance of the painful stimuli? worked better than positive rewards for motivation. I didn't like the whole mindset, and said I'd rather re-energize towards Spark People and the positive goal-setting and feedback, etc. He agreed to be my monitor-- to check in and remind me if I were not keeping myself accountable to my pledge to log foods at least 5x/wk. until I met my goal weight or a year is over, whichever comes first.... In any case, I agreed to submit to trying that website IF I were not able to keep my end of the bargain. So, without the dollar investment per se, I guess in a way there is that slightly negative motivation in there as well, because I definitely want to prove that I CAN do this with my own internal decision-making and with the positive motivation of Spark People's articles and support network.
    For those who might like to read about the alternative approach, here is more about the website as quoted from Technology Review: "Ian Ayres, a behavioral economist at Yale, developed a website called StickK.com, on which users set a specific goal and then pledge a sum of money to forfeit should they fail to achieve it. Unlike other sites that track weight loss and fitness goals and offer support via social networking, StickK leverages another discovery from behavioral economics: our extreme dislike of losing money."The specter of losing money is twice as motivating as the possibility of gaining the same amount of money," says Rose. Users can even designate an "anti-charity" as the beneficiary of their money should they fail to meet their goals." - 2/20/2011   12:44:20 AM

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