Forming Habits Myth #4: Rewards Alone will Help You Stick to a Habit
I don’t think I focus on rewards enough. Or I reward myself too early. I tried M&M’s once. My rule was to take one with a particular action as I sat at my desk. Well, let’s just say that didn’t work…
Here’s the scoop from Thorin Klosowski’s blog on this topic.
If you look at just about any advice for forming a habit (or breaking one), you’ll see suggestions that you should reward yourself as you go so you stick to it. This is a great idea, but it’s not the whole story.
In his book, The Power of Habit
, Charles Duhigg sums up the problem with relying just on rewards:
Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment-—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
Duhigg’s saying that you can’t rely on rewards to get that habit to stick. It’s a whole system, which he calls the habit loop
. It looks like this:
So, if you want to get rid of a bad habit, you need to identify the cue and come up with an alternative reward. For example, let’s say you want to stop eating a cookie everyday at lunch. First, you need to identify the cue. Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? Take some time to think about what launches that initial craving.
To figure out what the craving is, Duhigg suggests you start experimenting with rewards. This can help you figure out how that craving works and replace it with something else. So, when you’re craving that cookie, adjust your reward. Instead of getting a cookie, go outside and take a break. Or buy an apple. Maybe try getting a coffee instead. When you choose to do something that isn’t eating a cookie, you’ll eventually figure out what you’re craving so you can replace the cookie with something useful. For example, maybe that cookie was just a convenient excuse to get up from your desk and wander around for a bit.
Once you isolate that craving and reward, you can even start working out the habitual cues so you can really solidify the habit. Experiments suggest these cues fall into five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. When you’re trying to figure out what the cue is, make a note of these five things when you’re craving that cookie. Take a few days to collect all this data. Once you do, you’ll probably know exactly what’s triggering that cookie craving. Now, with all that data, you can start replacing that bad habit with something good.
The point is that cues are just as important as reward, so don’t concentrate solely on the reward. Find that cue and find a way to work with it as well. The same goes for forming good habits too. Want to exercise more? Duhigg suggests choosing a cue like going to exercise in the morning, then rewarding yourself with a smoothie afterward. The cue can even be as simple as leaving your running shoes by the door if you’re trying to get into running.
Do you have a reward that works for you? Please share, fellow writers and friends!