The importance of rewards

Build in mini-rewards for each baby step

In the last blog post in this series, we talked about breaking your writing habit into baby steps, so as to break down our brain's resistance to starting something potentially big and scary. Today we'll be talking about another aspect of this - which is to make sure that we build in some aspect of reward to each baby step we take.

Eric Barker's article on how to stop procrastinating quotes Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit:

The research shows that every habit has three components. There’s the cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. Then, a routine, which is the behavior itself. Finally, a reward. The reward is really important because that’s how your brain essentially learns to latch onto a particular pattern and make it automatic. Chocolate, after running, is an obvious example of a reward that many people enjoy. It doesn’t have to be chocolate. What matters is that if you want to make a behavior into a habit, you need to give yourself something you enjoy as soon as that behavior is done. It could be a piece of chocolate. It could be having a smoothie. It could be relaxing for 15 minutes and taking a nice shower. What’s important there is that people give themselves a reward.

The risk, if you don't reward yourself in some way for this new behaviour, is that you're training your brain to want to avoid your new habit - if it's hard to start doing a new thing, and there's no reward built in, why would your brain not try to find ways of wriggling out of doing it again next time? As Duhigg goes on to say:

Compare that with how most people try to add an exercise routine to their schedule. They wake up in the morning. They go for a quick run. They get home and they’re behind schedule. They have to get their kids ready for school and out the door. Rush through a shower. Then, they’re late to work. They’re anxious about getting to their desk. What they’re effectively doing is punishing themselves for exercising. Your brain pays attention to whether you had something you enjoyed or something you didn’t enjoy afterwards.

The Stanford academic BJ Fogg has developed a Tiny Habits programme which depends both on breaking a new habit down into tiny baby steps, which he says need to be "ridiculously easy, like flossing just one tooth" and then building in two rounds of reward each time you successfully perform the habit - one for remembering to do it and one for actually completing it. As Jennifer Chang describes in this article:

In building a habit, it helps to reward yourself in positive ways that are as small as your tiny behaviors themselves—give yourself a thumbs-up, a smile in the mirror, or tell yourself good job! “Notice how often athletes celebrate and when they do it—immediately,” Fogg says. Not only do small celebrations reinforce desired behavior, but they design for what Fogg calls “tiny thrills... Our brains are very bad at distinguishing between I did this huge thing and I’m feeling awesome about it and I did this tiny thing and I’m still feeling awesome about it,” Fogg says. “Somehow in our heads we exaggerate, which is a good thing. That’s part of the hack—building success momentum, allowing yourself to feel successful, allowing that success to be larger than it rationally should be, then growing and leveraging that attitude into bigger things.”

One of the cunning things about Fogg's 'celebration' method is that by focusing just on creating the positive emotion of celebration it cuts out the probably-bad-for-you method of getting to feeling good (such as chocolate) and gets straight to the actual feeling good. It takes some practice to find your own best inner celebration, but it is worth persevering. We appear to be hardwired to avoid pain (which is where much of our procrastination comes from) and seek pleasure, so by making sure we make starting the task of writing seem easy, natural and pleasurable, and building in an element of celebration every time we do it, we start training our brains to want to do it, which entirely removes the element of willpower from the equation.