Rewards Keep Us Coming Back for More

Nicholas Licalsi
April 23, 2018

Have you ever wondered why you keep going back for another donut after you know you’ve had enough? Are you baffled by people that can push themselves through the pain of running 26.2 miles just for fun? The reason that both of these things happen is the reward at the end of the action. By understanding rewards, you can learn how to encourage yourself to build powerful habits that will push you towards your goals.

As we’ve mentioned before all habits follow a cycle each time they are executed. Habits are kicked off with a cue which pushes you to follow through with a routine, and once you’ve finished the routine, you get a reward. This reward encourages you to come back and complete the whole habit over again at another time.

So far we have covered the cue, which is what gets you started and the routine which is the meat and potatoes of the habit. Today we are going to address rewards and how you can leverage them to repeat actions that will eventually carry you towards your goals.

We’re going to explain what a reward is, the difference between long term and short-term rewards. Then I’ll explain how to use them to do your bidding and get your body to want to come back and do your habit.

What Is A Reward?

At their base rewards are the reasons we keep coming back to the habit. If you were punished for doing something you certainly wouldn’t do it again. The only time we do anything is when the reward of completing the action is greater than the effort or risk of doing it. This means that by rewarding yourself sufficiently, you can make yourself eager to come back to do the action again. Positive reinforcement is what completes the habit loop and keeps the cycle turning.

Some good examples of rewards are:

  • endorphins kicking in after a run
  • checking something off of a to-do list
  • a bump in your sugar or caffeine levels
  • money in your bank account
  • anything that helps you survive

The list is endless, but there are two significant kinds of rewards. Long-term and short-term rewards. Both are critical to having a habit that will positively affect your life. We can also create rewards that are artificial, or we can depend on biological rewards.

Aiming For Long-Term Rewards

You’re likely reading this blog post for a long-term reward. You likely want something to happen in the future, and you believe that habits are the way to achieve them. Your frontal lobe, the part of your brain that plans – and the only part of your mind that has its ducks in a row – sees the long-term benefits and wants to act on building habits. Some typical long-term rewards are:

  • having a beach body
  • writing a novel
  • building a successful business

Bad Long-Term Rewards Indicate Bad Habits

You can quickly identify a bad habit by looking at its long-term “rewards.” For example, Smoking cigarettes have no positive long-term payoff. Neither does picking your nose or watching television.

I consider my practice of watching YouTube as a bad habit because long-term I won’t have a significant increase in knowledge. If I watched YouTube for ten years what would I get out of it? Hours of time where I could have been writing, talking with friends, or reading a book.

Long-Term Thinking Isn't Great For Habits

While long-term rewards are the easiest to imagine and aim for they aren’t the best for building habits. These kinds of rewards are the hardest to achieve and are hard to repeat. A valuable reward needs to be as close to the completion of the Routine as possible. It’s even better if the prize is inside of the routine. Long-term rewards don’t do this. Which brings us to an alternative kind of payoff.

What Have Short-Term Rewards Done For You Lately

Short-Term Rewards are the hit of excitement you feel after finishing a routine. Some short-term rewards in my life are the excitement of prolonging my streak of writing. With YouTube my short-term reward is is the relief I feel from watching a video and not worrying about work. This reward even comes while I’m still in the routine which makes YouTube even more addicting for me.

The basal ganglia, the small part of your brain that deals with habits, only really cares about short-term rewards. It is always asking “What have you done for me lately?” If you can’t answer this question, then you won’t be able to maintain or build a habit. But if you can convince it that you’re doing something for it by rewarding yourself immediately after a routine, then you will have this habit creation stuff in the bag.

The best part of short-term rewards is that the habit doesn’t have to be directly tied to them. If my goal is to write rewarding myself with M&Ms afterward would work to reinforce the habit loop. These two things aren’t even remotely related, but the basal ganglia don’t know or care! It doesn’t think long-term, it exists at the moment. And with unrelated rewards, you can teach your basal ganglia “If you write, then you will get M&Ms.”

Other potential short-term rewards are:

  • listening to your favorite song or podcast after or during a workout
  • relaxing after a hard day’s work
  • Spending time with friends after finishing homework
  • checking off the task from your daily to-do list

How To-Do Lists Build Habits

Don’t underestimate this reward. Checking things off of a to-do list is strangely powerful. It rewards you with a quick win, you feel productive and has positive reinforcement no matter what you’re working on. If you feel like a loser and then check something off your to-do list, you have hard and fast evidence you’re no longer a loser!

Additionally, if you feel on top of the world one day and you check something off your to-do list, then you can back yourself up and add more fuel to your motivation fire. This quick burst of success is one of the reasons why making your bed every morning is helpful. A neat bed is a quick win you can have before even leaving for the office.

How Streaking Maintains Habits

To grow on the idea of using a to-do list as a short-term reward, I am a big fan of streaking. Not running through a stadium streaking instead having a habit streak. Doing things day in and day out for a long period works for me. When I’ve done the habit ten days in a row, I know that if I don’t do the habit today, then I’ll lose those ten days of progress.

My favorite app for keeping track of streaks and habit building is Productive (Download for iOS) or HabitHub (Download for Android), we use them at Rockwall OpenSpace, and I’ve been using it since November of 2016 to track my writing habit. So far I’ve logged over 500 days, and each time I maintain the streak I feel like a stronger writer.

Action Items:

For the past few articles, I’ve been talking about analyzing the cue and the routine. With rewards, you can have a little more control. Since you can create artificial rewards like reading a book you enjoy or having a snack you love you can modify the rewards after a routine. Experiment with different rewards and spend time this week understanding why you repeat habits that you don’t want to.

Next Article: Mini Habits

I hope this overview of the habit loop was insightful. If you want to learn more about habits, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, and come back next week to learn more about creating new habits using the big idea of Mini Habits. Feel free to stop by the OpenSpace any time to talk to us about habits, productivity or leading with value. And if you’re looking for somewhere to work in the Rockwall area, OpenSpace is a peaceful environment for you.

Nicholas Licalsi