Why Rewarding Your Wins Don’t Work


When I was establishing a regular study habit, I diligently rewarded myself for every accomplishment. For instance, after an hour of studying, I treated myself to an episode of anime. When I scored an A on an exam, I would celebrate with a movie or a video game night with my friends. However, these rewards never seemed to provide me with sustained motivation to establish the habit I desired. I realized that these rewards were only a temporary fix for a long-term goal. What was missing?

There’s a difference between “rewarding” yourself and “awarding” yourself.

A reward is something you give yourself for completing a task. This can be a large reward, such as the $1M prize money for winning a championship, or a small reward, like the delicious dopamine hit of treating yourself to ice-cream after finishing your homework. However, the issue with rewards is that they motivate you for the wrong reason. They are incentives.

  • I will study hard today because I want that ice-cream afterwards.
  • I will go for a jog because I want to play video games afterward.

Rewards are much weaker when compared to awards. Awards are a form of recognition for an achievement. The difference is that they can have zero extrinsic value: getting a medal at work for good performance, or getting that Youtube gold play button for hitting 1 million subscribers. You can’t really sell that play button for any specific amount of money. But that’s the whole point of an award: it’s priceless.

The true worth of an award is to celebrate your accomplishment. It reinforces the intrinsic motivation you had to complete the task.

  • I will study hard because I want to become a good student. The award will remind me of my commitment.
  • I will go for a jog because I want to become a healthy person. The award will reinforce that identity.

No one is incentivizing you to work harder, because the motivation is already coming from within.

So when I looked at what I was doing wrong with building habits, I was solely relying on incentives, and forgetting to celebrate my victories. But how do you celebrate?

According to Stanford behavior scientist Dr. BJ Fogg, a celebration is a positive and meaningful experience. Celebrations don't require a huge parade and balloons, it can be as small as a high five. No matter how big or how small it may seem on the outside, the celebration’s success is measured by how meaningful it is to you on the inside.

Think back to your favorite athletes. Every time they score a point, they will celebrate with a small gesture: a little fist pump, or a short cheer. Even when it was just scoring 1 point, they still celebrate the win. It’s the summation of these celebrations that build our pride and lead to more intrinsic motivation to keep going.

Try this in your life by awarding yourself every time you accomplish the smallest step toward your goal. If you managed to stay focused for a full 25 minutes to finish your homework, then award yourself. Look in the mirror, pump your fist, and tell yourself that you are a winner. You don't need a piece of chocolate to tell you that; you must feel it within yourself. Rewire your brain so that you associate accomplishment with pride. That is the ultimate form of positive feedback when it comes to building habits. Of course, adding a piece of chocolate as a reward wouldn't hurt either ;)





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