January is a time for goal-setting. With that in mind, I wanted to talk about the idea of rewards. Not the reward of doing something good for yourself (though we will touch on that as well), but more about the idea of rewarding yourself with something (think clothes, spa day, food, etc) for reaching one of your goals. While this seems like a logical way to get yourself motivated, it turns out the truth is as the title states…”You are not a dog” and this particular rewards system does not work for our species.
I know some of you have already started an internal argument with me. You may have had results increasing a good behavior or decreasing a bad behavior by using a reward as a shiny, gold, dangling carrot. This could be true, but let me ask you, how long did these changes last? Was it something short-term? Were you able to continue this changed behavior over the long-term? Are you motivated to continue?
While research still continues to pick apart motivation and change, there are some concepts that come up time and time again. For example, the idea that there are 4 main motivators. On one side people are extrinsically motivated, meaning they are motivated to do something for a reward or out of fear of a punishment. Close to this is an external motivator. These are the things you do because you feel you “should” and feel guilty when you do not complete them. On the other side of the spectrum we are looking at internal motivators or things that align with our values. Next to this are the intrinsic motivators or the things you LOVE to do, no real persuasion needed.
So the rewards I am talking about are those in the extrinsic category. These are the deals you make with yourself (“after I lose 10lbs, I can buy a new dress”) that involve a reward or punishment. This reward system has shown to increase the wanted behavior immensely in the short-term, but for long-term change, can actually hurt your motivation.
Let’s use exercise as an example. You hate running, but you made a New Year’s Resolution to “get in shape”. So you decide that for every day you get up and run, you get to buy yourself a fancy coffee. So you head out every morning and suffer through your 45 minute jog, distracting yourself with music, and thinking only of your coffee reward. After about 2 weeks, you decide it is not worth the coffee. It is too awful. So you start up your coffee pot at home, have a little session of self-loathing and resentment, and throw the idea “getting in shape” in garbage.
Now, let’s try this a different way. You decide you want to “get in shape”. So you decide to experiment with different ways of moving to see what feels best to you. You decide you love swimming. You love the silence in the water, the rhythm of the stroke, and the time away from your phone. You exit the water feeling energetic, calm, and ready to take on the day. You LOVE it. You can’t imagine starting your day any other way. That is the reward.
By taking the material reward away, you were able to focus on the things that were important to you. The things that aligned with your values. This was the reward for your changed behavior. When you added the reward in, that was your main focus. The reward undermined your intrinsic motivation and undercut the success of accomplishing your long-term goals.
So how do we connect with our internal and intrinsic motivation? Well, start by asking yourself why you want to accomplish a certain goal. What would change in your life if you accomplished it? Why are you making it a priority in your life right now? These questions will help reveal your values.
Now choose a step in the direction of your goal. Is there an easy step? Something that does not even feel like a sacrifice , something you may even enjoy? For example, say you want to move more, but you don’t really like exercise. BUT you do love spending time with your friends. Is there a way to ask a friend to join you on a walk or at the gym so that you can socialize and work toward your goal of being healthy?
If you can’t find a way to easily motivate yourself, take a look at your values. How do your values align with the next step toward your goals? For example, you don’t have a friend that can meet before work for a walk, but you value moving better and feeling healthier and those values align with the act of walking. So now, you are walking for your health, not just because you feel you should. This also leaves room for variety. Health could also be represented in a different movement, a mediation, or cooking a healthy meal. You are not committed to one activity in order to reach your goal.
So when you think about all you want to accomplish, first ask yourself why. Then get very clear about your values. Try to find something that you already like to do or is easy to do to start moving towards your goals. Then, move forward with your values in mind. Get rid of the material reward and let your accomplishment, discipline, and transformation to becoming who you want to be in this life be your ultimate reward.