Rewarding yourself can backfire. If you tell yourself “I’ll only listen to my favourite podcast while I’m at the gym,” it takes just one moment of weakness to realise you can cheat and listen to it any time you want. Instead, try this: Reward yourself with something that has no enjoyment value whatsoever. Like a checkmark on your calendar.
I first heard this tip from writer Tim Clare’s podcast. If you want to stay motivated, he says, the reward has to be so crappy that you’re not actually working for the reward. He said that he puts a checkmark on his calendar every day he writes, and at the end of the week enough checkmarks earn a gold star.
Another writer, Jill Twiss, recently tweeted that she awards herself stickers for going to the gym:
Well I have purchased stickers so that every time I go to the gym I get to give myself a sticker. Most humiliatingly, it is working.
— Jill Twiss (@jilltwiss) August 30, 2019
Clare tells Lifehacker that the technique has since worked for him for fitness habits as well as for writing, and that there’s a theory that a crappy reward can make you more interested in the habit because of cognitive dissonance:
Changing our behaviour for a token reward causes a mismatch in our brains – according to this theory – so it’s easier to resolve that unpleasant, distracting ‘dissonance’ by shifting our beliefs about how much we value the thing, activity, whatever, than to change the now established habit.
Whatever the reason, it seems to work for many of us. I have a calendar where I mark each day I work out (“L” for lifting, or a number for mileage, like “3” if I ran three kilometres). This system has evolved for me over time. I used to colour-code the days instead. Either way, I love to glance over at the calendar and see the week and month filling up.
The best part: It’s pointless to cheat. What are you going to do — lie to yourself when you didn’t actually go to the gym? But building up that row of numbers or stickers becomes its own reward. You’re really just rewarding yourself with the satisfaction of having stuck to your habit.