Are You Rewarding Yourself?

Article by Kristine CareyRewarding yourself for a job well done — do you do it? If you’re like most of my clients, the answer is no. You may think that rewarding yourself is silly, as do a lot of people, and for that reason most everybody seems to skip it. It’s not silly, however; in fact, it’s extremely important!

Why reward yourself?

Rewarding yourself plugs into the most basic part of your primitive brain, the part of your brain that keeps track of things in a way similar to how your dog thinks. You ask him to sit; he sits; he gets a treat. When you set up a system like that for yourself, you are giving yourself reinforcement that what you are doing is right. Each right move, followed by a treat of some kind, gives you a dopamine hit (the happy hormone) and makes you want to do more of it. Setting a task, completing it, then giving yourself a treat creates a positive feedback loop that makes it easier to keep going to the next task. In this way you are like your dog: ask yourself to sit (set a task); sit (do the task); get a treat (reward yourself).

When you put it that way, it seems simple, right? Yet what gets in the way? Consider these often cited reasons:

  • It’s self-indulgent.
  • Doing the task is reward enough.
  • I’m supposed to do it, so when I do it I don’t deserve a reward.
  • The reward has to be BIG (cost a lot of money, take a lot of time) and I can’t afford that, time or money-wise, right now.
  • I don’t know what to do that feels rewarding.
  • I should be eating better, so can’t reward myself with what I really want (e.g., ice cream!).

How to begin rewarding yourself

The first step is to acknowledge that the more you reward yourself, the more likely you are to get things done, especially if it’s a task you aren’t looking forward to. Here’s a step-by-step example of how you can set yourself up for success and rewards:

  1. Set a very specific, finite task. The clearer you are about the task, the better.
  2. Think about how hard the task feels, what will be required to complete it.
  3. Make a list of possible rewards, from big to small and everything in between. Pick one that feels commensurate to the task. If that seems too complicated to do quickly, pick the reward that is the simplest, easiest, and fastest.
  4. Do the task.
  5. Reward yourself right away.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

What to use as a reward

Simple rewards work best, as they can be done quickly without a lot of fuss. Some ideas:

  • Take the dog to the park
  • Two squares of dark chocolate
  • Dance to your favorite song
  • Get a cup of coffee or tea
  • Have a warm bath

Timing your rewards

Rewards work best when they happen immediately after you complete your task. The longer you wait for the reward, the more it will not be associated with the task you completed and the less it will act as a motivation when you’re next trying to do the task. As humans we’re wired to think short-term, so adjust your rewards to be short-term, too.

The next time you sit down to a task, take a minute first and line up your reward. Then dive in fully, knowing your reward is just around the corner!

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Reader Comments

As I look at your list of rewards, I see that I reward myself for no reason at all. I’m already drinking tea and eating chocolate just because I want to. My reward is basking in the pleasure that I finished something—and enjoying the physical act of checking it off my paper to-do list.

Maybe I’m kind of messed up?


Hi Diana – thank you for your insight. It seems you’ve set up your reward to be checking off the to-do box, which also gives you a quick dopamine hit. If you take a moment to relish the job, check off the box, and add it a high five to yourself, that is a good reward indeed!