108: Don’t Forget to Treat Yo’ Self

Rewards — How to Reinforce Your Habits so That They Stick

Rewards are the most overlooked piece of building habits.

We all pick up new habits in anticipation of the “reward” of becoming a better, stronger, more disciplined version of ourselves. For habits, rewards have a slightly different meaning. These long-term benefits are only our motivationfor picking up a habit, not what sustains it.

When you hear reward: think reinforcement.

Rewards reinforce the association between a Trigger and a habit Behavior through repetition. Habits stick when regularly and immediately reinforced.

In Hebbian Learning, as we saw with triggers, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” What gets reinforced gets repeated. The more immediate the reward, the stronger the habit reinforcement.

Each time the neuron for a reward fires right after the neuron for a trigger, the association between the two neurons strengthens. When Pavlov’s dogs had become habituated, they directly associated hearing the trigger of the bell with receiving the reward of food.

Anytime we add a new habit, we are making a small sacrifice today which will benefit us in the future. Our Present Self pays the cost, but our Future Self receives the dividends. This arrangement sounds excellent in theory but works terribly in practice as anyone who has experienced the wonders of endless procrastination can attest.

Studies have shown that when we think about our Future Selves, we activate the same part of our brain as when we are thinking about a complete stranger. Lacking self-empathy, we act as if we are strangers to ourselves. We often sabotage our Future Selves because we prefer short-term pleasure or release over a perceived stranger’s long-term fulfillment.

These studies show us that our long-term motivations (i.e., whether that stranger is successful) are not effective day to day. Instead, we stick to habits by internalizing the short-term pleasure we receive as a side-effect of their completion.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

There are two types of rewards. Extrinsic rewards are external and tangible results of doing the habit. Intrinsic rewards are the intangible and internal feelings which come as a result of completing the habit itself.

Extrinsic rewards take the form of “I get” or “I avoid” while intrinsic rewards take the form of “I feel.”

Extrinsic Rewards = [External + Tangible Results]

“I get…”

[Incentives, Compensation, Reputation, Recognition, Progress]

“I avoid…”

[Punishment, Failure]

Intrinsic Rewards = [Internal + Intangible Feelings]

“I feel…”

[Accomplished, Pleasure, Enjoyment, Mastery]

“Both And” not “Either Or.”

So which is better, extrinsic rewards or intrinsic rewards?

The truth is that we need both. Extrinsic and intrinsic rewards both serve a purpose as we progress through the different stages of building a habit.

Intrinsic rewards are more stable long-term but can be very elusive at first. Feelings can be reinforced but not self-generated. We can bring more attention to our enjoyment of a habit but we cannot choose to enjoy it. Intrinsic rewards tend to build slowly with time.

Think about it. If completing the habit made you feel that good, why are you not already doing it every day?

In the beginning, habits:

  • Are difficult (you’re unsure if you are “doing it right”)

  • Require effort to perform consistently (decreased enjoyment)

  • Lack upfront benefits (can be demotivating)

In the early stages, a habit is incredibly fragile and needs all the reinforcement it can get.

Never suffer an exception to occur until the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.

— William James

Extrinsic rewards have the benefit of being both easy to set-up and maintain. However, if we are not careful, we can become over-dependent upon extrinsic rewards.

Self-perception theory shows that we infer our reasons for action by observing our external behavior rather than accessing internal states. If we receive a prize for completing a habit, we might infer that the habit is only a means of winning a prize. Once the incentive is removed, our motivation might also disappear.

Our goal is to slowly wean ourselves off of extrinsic rewards in favor of intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are crucial for keeping us consistent long enough to overcome the initial difficulty and effort. We build up just enough momentum to realize the intrinsic rewards necessary to sustain the habit long-term.

Ways to Treat Yo’ Self [Examples of Rewards]

To demonstrate how we use extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in concert, let’s give some examples of rewards we could use to reinforce a habit.

Extrinsic Rewards:

  • Physiological (have a snack, drink tea, take a short break, go for a walk)

  • Psychological (check into habit app, cross off a day on calendar)

  • Social (text accountability partner, talk to a friend, share to social media)

  • Physical (do a fist pump, victory dance, smile)

  • Verbal (praise yourself, say a phrase like “way to go!”, sing a song)

  • Audial (play a favorite song or sound that makes you feel good)

Intrinsic Rewards:

Pause for one minute immediately after the habit.

Reflect on the:

  • Physical feeling in your body (What feels differently from before?)

  • Mental feeling (Are you more calm, focused, or inspired?)

  • Satisfaction of completion (How do you feel about yourself?)

  • Pleasurable aspects of the habit (Can you experience them more fully?)

  • Subjective experience of the habit (What was different this time?)

(Re)Structuring Rewards

Earlier, we learned that many triggers already existed in our day. You treat yo’ self many times a day too. You just are not earning these rewards… yet.

A shortcut to habit building is to strategically position your preexisting rewards immediately after your most fragile habits. You can automatically reinforce your habits by making this small change to your daily schedule.

Potential everyday rewards for our habits:

  • Eating

  • Drinking tea or coffee

  • Taking a hot shower

  • Going for a walk

  • Listening to music

  • Any leisure activity

There are also other activities which can function as rewards because they release dopamine.

Dopamine is a motivating chemical, released when we anticipate a reward. Dopamine is the brain’s natural reinforcement mechanism. Pairing habits with these dopamine-releasing activities creates a powerful association.

Activities which release dopamine include checking your messages, your social media, and your email. Using these “checks” as incentives repurposes regular actions into useful rewards.

It is critical that these checks not occur until AFTER you complete your habit. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Rewards need to be earned.Do not reward yourself until you have done something worth rewarding!

 

Conclusion

Let the Habit Loop be your guide. The three points of leverage for building and breaking a habit are Triggers, Behaviors, and Rewards. If you are struggling with a habit, the Habit Loop can help you troubleshoot.

You can always add a stronger Trigger or a reminder if you are having trouble initiating a habit. If you find a habit aversive, see if you can streamline the Behavior by simplifying the action. If you find completing a habit unfulfilling, create a more desirable, salient, or immediate Reward.

In the next chapter, I share my methods for habit tracking and setting up external accountability, two critical supporting pieces to habit consistency.