Getting a habit to stick requires that you feel successful, even if only in some small way. Success serves as a signal to your brain that the habits did pay off and that the effort was worthwhile.
It is for this reason that rewards are crucial to habit formation. Pleasure, satisfaction, and enjoyment accompanying a reward are what close the feedback loop and teach your brain which behaviors to remember.
Throughout the first seven lessons, we have talked about making your habits easy, obvious, and attractive.
Our goal in this lesson is to discuss ways to close the feedback loop on your habits in a positive, enjoyable way. As a result, we’ll talk about how to make your habits satisfying by creating an effective reward.
One of my favourite examples comes from a group of city engineers in Stockholm, Sweden.
The engineers installed sensors on the subway stairs, and decorated them to resemble a set of giant piano keys. A musical tone played from speakers nearby when pedestrians walked up the stairs. It was suddenly fun and surprising to use the stairs. With every step, a musical note was played. As a result of the immediate satisfaction of making music as they walked, 66 percent more people chose to take the stairs rather than the nearby escalator after exiting the subway.
Immediate feedback can be a powerful tool for establishing habits. Those who find habits immediately satisfying are more likely to repeat them in the future.
An example of a prank played by college students on a professor comes to mind. According to the story, the professor made frequent gestures when explaining concepts to students and was known for “talking with his hands.”
Some students met on the first day of the semester and agreed that, whenever the professor raised his arms while talking, they would nod their heads heads and smile approvingly at whatever he said. They followed through with their plan and, by the end of the term, the professor was gesticulating so fervently that his arms were flailing wildly throughout the lecture.
Based on how behaviours make us feel, we choose which ones to repeat. We tend to want to repeat actions that make us feel good, like a professor observing a room full of students smiling and nodding. I refer to this as “The Cardinal Rule of Behaviour Change”: What is rewarded gets repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Getting immediate rewards is particularly important during the early stages of developing a habit.
Initially, it’s all about sacrifice. Though you’ve been to the gym a few times, your strength, fitness, and speed have not improved significantly-at least, not in any measurable manner. Only months later, when you have lost a few pounds or your arms have developed, is it easier to exercise just for the sake of exercising. For the first couple of weeks, you need a short-term motivation. It is for this reason that immediate rewards are vital. While you wait for the delayed rewards, they keep you excited.
The actual reward here-when we are discussing immediate rewards-is the ending of a behaviour. The ending of any experience is important because we tend to remember it more than any other phase. The culmination of your habit is what will make it satisfying for you – a relaxing bubble bath after deep cleaning the kitchen, a trip to your favourite coffee shop after waking up without hitting snooze. After a job well done, you want a reward.
Create an external reinforcer that aligns with your desired identity
- Bubble bath for exercise habit (identity = taking care of your body)
- Every time you skip going out to dinner, transfer Rs.1,000 to an account labelled “Trip to Bali”
It would be best if we didn’t have to rely on these rewards to keep our motivation high. A habit itself would be the reward for good behaviour in a perfect world. However, in actuality, good habits are more likely to feel worthwhile only if they provide some benefit. While we wait for those long-term results, external rewards are one of the best strategies for maintaining motivation.
There is, however, one crucial point that cannot be overlooked. Unless you are careful, you may end up chasing the external reward. It may so happen that rather than studying for the sake of learning, students study so they can earn their allowance. A sales representative is only making sales calls to accomplish a quota and not to serve clients and grow the company. Keep in mind your desired identity, and whenever possible, choose an external reward that reinforces this identity. In order to maintain your intended identity, you need to avoid rewards that conflict with it.
It’s fine to buy a new jacket if you’re trying to lose weight or read more books, but it’s not a good idea if you’re trying to budget and save money. You cast one vote for saving and another for spending. Spending time on a leisurely stroll or taking a bubble bath instead are good examples of rewarding yourself with free time, which aligns with your ultimate financial independence and more freedom goals.
A reward for exercising that involves eating ice cream is also casting votes for conflicting identities, so it’s a no-win situation. Maybe you should instead reward yourself with a weekly massage, which is a luxury and a vote for taking care of your body. Your short-term motivation and reward is now aligned with your long-term goal of becoming healthy.
In the long run, you’ll become less concerned with chasing secondary rewards as intrinsic rewards kick in, such as improved moods, increased energy, and reduced stress. Identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes a part of your regular life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through on it.
Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.
Having said that, it actually takes some time for evidence to gather and a new identity to emerge. In the short term, immediate reinforcement keeps motivation high while you wait for long-term rewards.
That’s all for Lesson 8. See you in the next lesson,
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Helpful bonuses and downloads
- 30 days to better habits workbook – This 20-page PDF includes an action checklist (including templates for key strategies) for each lesson of the course, plus lesson summaries and a key terms dictionary.
- 30 days to better habits examples – The examples database is a Excel Sheet of 100+ examples of how to implement each strategy covered in this bootcamp for dozens of different habits.