Stop Rewarding Yourself

behavior change Aug 01, 2012

Most people think that extrinsic motivation or rewards will lead to ultimate weight loss success. Carrots and sticks are the obvious solution, right?

‘If I work out today, I can have chocolate cake tonight.’

‘If I eat well throughout the week, I can have a cheat day or cheat meal.’

Two very popular ways to lose weight.

Just reward yourself every time you’ve done something good. Try to reinforce good behavior with a reward.

If I do good, I should give myself something good.

Not only does this not work in the long-term battle, it actually decreases your chances of success.

I realize I’m discouraging a popular weight loss behavior but if you’re doing this now, let’s break the cycle before it becomes a bad habit.

Why You Shouldn’t Reward Yourself

Essentially what you’re doing every time you give yourself a reward for a good behavior is typically concreting the reward, not the behavior.

It develops a bad, ‘if, then’ pattern of behaviour or a ‘click, whirr’ response to typical circumstances.

If I do this, then I get this, emphasis on the ‘get this.’

Try it with a 3 year old, and see where it gets you…

We all have that friend with the nightmare kid right? You’re obviously a better armchair parent. :-p

Basically you end up conditioning yourself to expect a reward every time you demonstrate the behavior.

In the case of the 3 year old, giving him a treat every time he behaves for a long enough period of time to concrete a pattern of behavior, will make him misbehave intentionally the moment you stop rewarding him.

Receiving a reward feels good, it releases all our feel good hormones, which makes us feel very satisfied with ourselves and what we’ve accomplished.

The release of these hormones stops the moment you remove the reward though.

For instance, you give yourself chocolate cake every time you exercise.

Not only are you essentially putting about the same number of bad calories into the system that you just removed — hindering your ability to lose weight — the moment you take the reward of cake away from your exercise to actually make progress the lack of reward now encourages the release of fight or flight hormones (stress hormones), which literally discourage you from acting on the good habit or behavior.

No cake, means I’m not exercising!!

Ultimately you end up killing the inspiration to workout or eat right, and the ‘intrinsic motivation‘ to workout and eat right.

What To Do Instead

Move from within and seek satisfaction from the activity itself.

If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing to move, change it, find something you do enjoy.

Make the activity the enjoyable part.

Find purpose in the activity.

Seek mastery of the activity.

And achieve autonomy doing the activity.

Now most people dread the gym, sure, but have you ever left the gym not feeling satisfied with yourself?

Unlikely…

You’d likely dread it less if you were confident in your skills.

Ever had a great healthy meal cooked to perfection, leaving your stomach full but not aching and not felt satisfied with yourself?

Again, unlikely…

It is perfectly possible to get satisfaction and results from food without giving yourself a cheat meal every Sunday.

And if you break routine, don’t worry about being perfect, just get back on the horse.

What About Cheat Days/Meals?

I hate this term. Use free or fun meals or days instead mmmkay?

These meals or days will almost always happen on their own but it doesn’t hurt to plan them until you get good at planning. Your brain likes knowing when things are starting, stopping or about to happen.

If you know you’re going to take a vacation in a few weeks, plan to be a little lax on your diet then instead of now. Your brain will be more motivated to follow your eating approach in the meantime.

On the other hand, learning to be flexible with your planning eventually helps in a HUGE way. Friends will call you to go out from time to time without much notice, how will you swing that change into your plan?

I highly encourage you start by intentionally planning to break your routine on a consistent basis, but progress to being flexible (life isn’t rigid) such as you’ll have one free meal a week or a free weekend a month, something like this. Free or fun days/meals keep you sane.

However, DO NOT plan to consistently reward good behavior with them either.

It creates the same habitual behavior system, because these planned ‘cheats’ are essentially the same as planned rewards.

Planning to eat pizza Friday night because you trained is very different from every Friday night I know I have pizza night with my family. Don’t let planned free or fun meals/days (whatever approach you use) remove too much of your flexibility to screw up when it’s most appealing and practice getting back on the horse.

Practice reducing the impact of free meals or day if they come up without much planning, but flipping the switch faster off those days. Don’t let them extend out into multiple hours or multiple days.

For example, your friend is in town for Sunday night and you haven’t seen them in ages, they want to meet up for a drink and dinner at a nice restaurant, but it’s not your free day, so you either have a fun meal anyway and then again on your free day, or say no?

Unlikely that you will say no, but if you simply gave yourself the flexibility and permission to adhere to your program 90% of the time, rather than a strict day or time, not only would it reduce your stress levels, you’d also find that the randomness gives your diet and exercise plan the ability to adapt to your social life or career.

Start with more planning, then practice being more flexible over time.

When Can I Reward Myself Then?

The best method is at random, and ideally the reward should never come from you, it should come from an observer you admire or respect as your equal. A coach maybe!

For example, your spouse notices how hard you’ve been working out and takes you to dinner at random one evening as a reward. If you want to share this article with them and tell them Darren says it’s OK, go right ahead…

Just don’t let them telegraph that reward. K?

This is a small enough dose that it is unexpected, therefore you will never concrete an ‘if, then’ pattern of behavior, not expecting them to do that for you every time you exercise.

It actually becomes the unexpected treat, it should be, and leaves you guessing when the next reward or treat might come.

“I’m trying to lose weight, and I could really use someone to reward me at random when I do well”

Click to Tweet

As a final note, it has been shown that rewarding good behavior — particularly at random by an outside person — is consistently more effective than punishing bad behavior. Reward your effort, not the act of doing something. Don’t praise yourself just for praise itself.

Rewards should be used sparingly, or they lose their effectiveness.

You’re turn, when was the last time someone in your corner rewarded your efforts at random?

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Darren Beattie

A former University Strength & Conditioning Coach. Now aspiring tech entrepreneur and developer exploring fitness and nutrition to deep specific levels.

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