Rewards, Habits and the “I Deserve It” Trap

Over the past several weeks, the subject of “rewards” has come up multiple times. Each instance was within the context of reinforcing a behavior, not an outcome. And each instance brought out varying degrees of resistance from me, so much so I exercised my “phone a friend” option to get some help unpacking what was going on.

I’m at the tail end of the last generation before everyone started receiving participation awards. Every single award I received, I earned, whether it be first place ribbons for music competitions (I played trumpet from the time I was 9 until I was 19), prize money for a poem I wrote about trash in the 6th grade or placing in the top three during a Speech competition.

But it goes further than being a generational thing: I was reared on outcome based rewarding. If I wanted my driver’s license, I had to give my parents straight A’s. 3 YEARS IN A ROW. And then I had to KEEP my grades where they were in order to keep driving. That’s actually the only example I can give because otherwise, all reinforcement was negative i.e. so I didn’t get yelled at.

So rewarding myself because I DID something I said I would feels very “participation award” to me. But as I dig deeper into the research I’m starting to understand something key: rewarding the behavior is like focusing on progress as opposed to the goal. You’re reinforcing pleasantly something you want to keep doing so that you eventually reach the goal. The goal is a reward in and of itself. It’s about progress, not perfection.

Eventually, in this conversation with my friend, I agreed to try rewarding myself though I didn’t do exactly what we talked about. By the end of the week, I knew I’d reached an obvious reward point: I completed the first week of a new strength training program. I want to reinforce this behavior because I want to complete the program, something I’ve never actually done. But the second I started thinking about how I could reward myself, I came up with my daily movement goal as a trump card.

I try to get some type of movement in every single day, whether it be a walk with my dog, yoga, or even 25 kettlebell swings. Because I missed a single day of movement due to my work schedule last week, I wanted to negate the fact that I’d completed the strength training program as prescribed – 4 days, each day with a different focus. I even managed to get in a mobility day and a walk. And yet, I didn’t want that to be enough.

Eventually, I saw reason and decided that I had done what I said I would. So I chose to paint my fingernails, something I rarely take the time to do anymore.

This is where we get into the “I deserve it” trap. Sometimes people take things too far and decide that EVERY behavior is worth reinforcing, including the negative. I hear an awful lot of “I deserve it” when it comes to unhealthy rewards. This often looks like rewarding with food/drink or spending money, two behaviors that often generate guilt and can be (and often are) forms of self-sabotage. As a matter of fact, one of my rules is no rewarding with food/alcohol or by spending money (though a small expenditure can be warranted and/or necessary sometimes).

Here’s why: most people have health goals they want to reach or financial goals they are working towards. By rewarding your week of no missed workouts with a donut, because let’s face it, we don’t reward ourselves with healthy food, you’ve already undone any positive emotional progress. The same goes for buying yourself a new $300 handbag because you just paid off one credit card while you still have $20k in student loans. And what you’ll almost always hear when something like this happens is “I deserve it”.

The question you should always ask when rewarding yourself is what am I rewarding? Am I rewarding a behavior I want to reinforce? The follow-up question should be how do I reinforce this in a way that is positive and not in a way that might set me back?

Ultimately, I ended up painting my nails while I had my Sunday night bath. That might sound risky but I assure you everything worked out just fine. Multitasking is something I kind of have to do presently, so I ran with it. I have no idea what I’ll do when I complete this week, but I will reward myself when I complete all the workouts for the week.

What’s your relationship with rewarding? Are there any behaviors you want to reinforce that you think might benefit from rewards? I’d be really interested in your thoughts and experiences.