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Make New Habits Stick: The Power of Rewards

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Let’s face it, sometimes willpower alone isn’t enough. We all start with those bursts of excitement about a new habit– the fresh gym membership, the blank journal, the uncluttered space. But life happens: we get tired, other things take priority, and that initial enthusiasm fades. This is where the magic of rewards can change the game.

Think about it like this: when something feels good, your brain releases a hit of dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical. This creates a positive association and makes you more likely to want to repeat the behavior. By linking your desired habit with a reward, you essentially rewire your brain to see those early tough days as something worth pushing through.

Rewards not only make the process of forming the habit more enjoyable, but also provide a boost of encouragement when it feels tempting to give up. They serve as tangible reminders of why you chose this new habit in the first place, and a little taste of the good things waiting on the other side of consistency.

Two Types of Motivation

Psychologists often talk about two main types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: This comes from within – you do something because it feels inherently enjoyable or fulfilling.
  • Extrinsic Motivation: This comes from external factors, like rewards or the desire to avoid punishment.

Both types of motivation are important when building habits, but especially in the beginning, extrinsic rewards can give you the boost you need.

The key is to choose rewards that are actually reinforcing to you. Here’s are some ideas:

  • Treat Yourself: Small treats after completing your habit can be powerful motivators – an episode of your favorite show, a delicious snack, buying that thing you’ve been eyeing…
  • Celebrate Milestones: Set rewards for hitting those mini-goals along the way, building anticipation and excitement.
  • Experiences Over Stuff: Research published by Cornell University suggests that experiential rewards (like a fun outing or a massage) can be more motivating than material ones.
  • Accountability Rewards: Tell someone about your goal and have them hold your reward until you hit your target – think of it as a motivation deposit.

While external rewards are excellent jumpstarters, it’s important to look for ways to make the habit itself feel good. As explained by a behavioral therapist interviewed by NPR, finding inherent enjoyment in the process makes the habit more sustainable in the long run. Here’s how:

  • Focus on Progress: Enjoy the satisfaction of each small step toward your goal. That runner’s high? That’s a reward.
  • Choose Meaningful Habits: Habits that align with your values tend to be more intrinsically rewarding.
  • The Power of Community: Practicing your habit with others can create positive social reinforcement.

Important Notes on Rewards

  • Don’t Rely Solely on Treats: While external rewards are valuable, overuse can undermine your intrinsic motivation in the long run.
  • Be Flexible: What feels rewarding can change over time. Keep your rewards fresh to avoid them losing their impact.
  • No Guilt Trips: If you slip up, don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself and get back on track with your next opportunity to practice the habit.

While those little treats and experiences along the way help fuel your journey, they’re just stepping stones toward something much bigger. The true payoff of building a new habit is the way it can change your life. Imagine waking up with boundless energy thanks to your consistent exercise habit, or feeling calm and clear-headed due to daily meditation, or the pride of accomplishing a major goal made possible by focused work. These transformative outcomes are what give your efforts real meaning.

It’s also important to distinguish between habits and one-off tasks. A habit is something you want ingrained into your daily life – a recurring pattern of behavior. Rewards along the way are great motivators for those habits. However, if your goal is to knock out a single task, like deep cleaning your garage, a single, bigger reward upon completion might do the trick without the need to focus on the whole habit-building process.

Think of it this way: the reward system for building a habit is like laying down a strong and steady road. A single reward for task completion is more like hopping across a few stones to reach the other side. Both get you where you need to go, just in different ways!

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