Rewards and Judgement (Blog and Podcast)

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

This podcast episode forms part 5 of 6 in the “Goals and Habits” series. Listen here.

In Short:

  • Set up your new habits so they feel rewarding to you, right from the start
  • Develop a sense of acceptance – of yourself and your fallibility. A slip doesn’t mean it’s ‘game over’. It means you need to rethink what happened and use the information to help yourself do better next time.

In Detail:

If you’re deliberately starting a particular habit, it’s likely you intend for it to become a normal part of your life – perhaps a part of your daily routine or something you do consistently on a weekly or monthly basis.

You stand a much better chance of making that happen if your brain associates that habit with pleasure. We already know that our brains pleasure to pain. Even without studying the brain, the preference for pleasure over pain seems logical and obvious. But, even knowing this, we often set our habits up so that they’re painful from the start with the promise of reward somewhere in the distant future. For the subconscious mind (the part I’ve referred as the ‘Elephant’ in previous episodes) that’s simply not enough of a draw. The rider (your logical, conscious mind) knows the new habit is good for you and there’s a treat waiting for you at the end but the ‘elephant’ says, “Forget this! It hurts and I don’t want to do it. Keep your reward. It sucks anyway,” and before you know it, you’re back on the couch, the new habit lying in tatters in the “I tried” box in your mind.

Getting clever about rewards

When you start a new habit, a two things are likely to be true:

  1. You won’t be that good at it to start with
  2. There is probably something you’d rather be doing

For example: If you’ve joined a gym for the first time – or you’re returning after a long absence – your fitness level won’t be where you’d like it to be yet. You’ll also need to fit your workout into your day at at time when you’d normally have been asleep or at home relaxing after work (unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to fit it in during the work day). None of that feels great when you’re first starting out. Most of us set the promise of rewards up something like this:

  • When I finish my workout, I’ll buy myself a coffee / I’ll be able to eat…
  • When I’ve lost ….. weight, I’ll buy myself a new ….
  • When I’m able to lift ….. weight, I’ll feel….

Although these rewards can act as motivators, they’re the fodder of the conscious mind – the rider. The elephant doesn’t really care. Even the last one, “I’ll feel….”. The elephant is less concerned about what you’ll feel in the future than it is with how you feel right now.

If you can link the reward with how you feel right now, you’re more likely to get the elephant to come with you.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Stretch your comfort zone gradually. The elephant doesn’t like being pushed way out of its comfort zone. It likes keeping things as they are. If your new habit is a big leap away from your current habits, consider how you can take small steps so the elephant gets proof that ‘it’s safe’. Let’s stick with the workout example – if you haven’t done any exercise in over a year, going to the gym for just a few minutes is still a massive improvement. Even doing a few push ups in your living room is a massive improvement. It costs the elephant nothing and you avoid the stampede.
  2. Make it as convenient as possible. If your new workout routine means you spend the rest of your morning running about like a headless chicken, getting stressed and forgetting things, it’s not rewarding at all. If you can fit in a shorter workout and then amble through your morning routine feeling more awake and energised as a result of staring with a workout, that feels far better.
  3. Link to things that make you already enjoy. If you love comedy, find a hilarious podcast and listen to that while you exercise. If you’re into politics, find something that stimulates your thoughts around the topic and listen to that. Great music to lift your mood is also a wonderful reward. If you love being outside, combine your exercise routine with a chance to get out in nature. Even choosing workout clothes you love wearing will feel rewarding.  These types of rewards are instant – and coupled with the new habit so your brain ‘chunks’ them together and begins to associate the new habit with something pleasurable.
  4. Ask the right questions. Before you start, ask yourself, “How can I enjoy this more?” / “How can I get the most enjoyment from doing this?”

Choose Acceptance over Judgement

Starting new habits is difficult and there are about to be setbacks but there is little benefit in judging or berating yourself. Taking a harsh, judgemental stance shuts down your thinking. It forces the elephant to defend itself and you don’t learn as much about why the setback happened.

Instead, actively accept yourself and the setback. Get curious about it.

  • Was the elephant in search of a reward? What was the reward?
  • Was the elephant trying to avoid something else? Anxiety? Fear?
  • What were you imagining / thinking / feeling when the setback occurred?
  • What would help you manage similar circumstances better next time?
  • What small steps and rewards could you build into similar situations to make them easier to manage in future?

Use this information to set up better rewards and appropriate steps to challenge yourself.

So What?

If you plan to change your habits over the long term and ultimately end up living a healthier, happier life, it’s ok to start small and build slowly. Taking this approach gives you a substantially greater chance of success than the “burn bright, burn out” approach.

Taking this approach also encourages greater self-reflection and therefore builds self-awareness, making you stronger in yourself and better able to use the information you gather in order to shape other habits and choices.

Earlier Episodes in the Goals and Habits Series

To catch up on earlier episodes in the series, click the links below.

  1. Goals: How to set good ones
  2. Values: Why they matter
  3. Habits: What they are and why they form
  4. Keystone Habits: How your habits can change how you see yourself

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