How to Use Rewards to Get the Results You Want

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Changing long-standing habits can be a pretty slow and difficult process. For most of us, at least, it’s not like we just decide one day to ditch all the junk food and super-sized portions, fall in love with steamed vegetables, and suddenly become an exercise maven after years of being a couch potato. Even the most sincere New Year’s resolutions don’t magically turn into lasting weight loss and a healthy lifestyle without some real effort to let go of old habits and practice new ones to take their place.

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to make these changes easier on yourself. One of the most important is to learn how to use rewards to keep yourself moving in the right direction. But there’s an art and a science to this business of using rewards effectively—you need to reward yourself for the right thing at the right time. The more you know about this, the easier it will be to pick good rewards and avoid some common mistakes.

Rule No. 1. Reward your own behavior, not the scale’s.

One of the most common mistakes people make when using rewards to help with weight loss is that they base the rewards on what the scale does--they give themselves a reward whenever their weight drops to a certain number on the scale. If the rewards are big or desirable enough, this may provide some incentive to keep working on weight loss, but it probably won’t make it much easier for you to change old habits and stick to new ones. For that, you need to reward yourself when you perform the specific behaviors that help you achieve your ultimate goal—things like staying in your calorie range for the day, sticking to your exercise plan, choosing certain foods instead of others, getting enough sleep, and so on. Maybe you’ve also got some even more specific goals or problem areas you’re trying to work on within each of these areas—like saying no to second helpings, cooking at home instead of heading for the nearest drive-thru, or adding a little more intensity to your exercise session.

The best way to use rewards to improve results is to identify the particular actions or behaviors that lead to the overall result you want, and then reward yourself for doing those behaviors. The more specific the behavior, and the more frequent and consistent the reward, the more quickly you’ll “train” yourself to perform that behavior without so much conscious effort. Most people also find it helpful to start by rewarding small, incremental steps towards the ultimate change they’re trying to make, instead of trying to do everything at once or demanding perfection right from the beginning. If you set your reward up so you have to be perfect for a whole week or month or whatever to earn it, you can actually end up de-motivating yourself.

What kind of reward is best, and when?

There’s no theoretical right or wrong kind of reward. When it comes to modifying behavior, any reward that actually gets you to do what you need to do more often counts as an effective reward. It could be positive, like giving yourself something you enjoy, or it could involve letting yourself out of doing something you don’t like, like leaving the dishes for someone else to wash after you’ve cooked a healthy meal. It’s usually a good idea to make your reward consistent with the goal you’re trying to accomplish. For example, using some favorite food treat as a reward for sticking to your diet all week probably sends a pretty confusing message to your brain. And it’s also a good idea to choose rewards that don’t generate other stress or conflict in your life—for example, you don’t want to give yourself rewards that are so expensive they bust your budget or cause conflict with other family members. But other than some common sense considerations like these, the key is to choose rewards that actually work for you.

What does matter, though, is the timing and frequency of the rewards. The evidence is pretty clear that you get the best results when the reward follows the desired behavior pretty quickly, and when you reward the behavior frequently and consistently until it becomes part of your normal routine. This does not mean you have to reward yourself immediately every single time you do the right thing. But it might mean, for example, that you’ll get better results (especially with behaviors that are hard for you to change) if you come up with an approach that includes smaller rewards delivered that same day, as well as larger rewards for making (and sustaining) improvements over longer periods of time.

Putting It All Together

Here’s an approach that illustrates how you can combine all these elements in a simple way. It usually works well for me.

One of my goals this year is to kick a pretty bad diet soda habit I’ve developed over the past couple of years, by replacing the soda with plain water. I figured out that I can afford to spend one dollar per day (about the same as I’ve been spending on the soda) on rewarding myself for not drinking any soda, so at the beginning of each month, I put $30 in one dollar bills in a jar that’s labeled “Mine.” Alongside that jar, I have another empty jar. If I get through the day without having any soda, that day’s dollar stays in the “mine” jar; if I have some soda, I take a dollar out of that jar and put it in the other jar. At the end of the month, I get to spend all the money that’s still in the “mine” jar on whatever I want (right now, I’m saving up for a new pair of hiking boots). The money in the other jar gets spent on something or someone I’d really rather not spend my money on—last month, for example, I used it to buy a small birthday present for a noisy neighbor I don’t like very much.

Obviously, you can adjust all the specifics in this kind of plan to suit your situation. For example, you can put more money in your “mine” jar on the first of each month if that motivates you more, or you can use something other than money. If you live (and share chores) with someone else, you could use “get out of doing the dishes” cards instead of dollars. Use your imagination. You can also have more than one behavior change you’re focusing on—just make sure you reward each one separately.

Do you use rewards to keep yourself motivated? What works for you?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


I have been trying to give up coffee.....or at least cut down my consumption. The jar idea sounds like a winner to me. Thanks for the idea! Report
My son-in-law told me about a website that convinces people to put up front a significant amount of money that will automatically go to an organization to which you are diametrically opposed (think like Planned Parenthood vs. anti-abortion/"right-to-life" type or Sarah Palin's Presidential campaign vs. MoveOn or some liberal political group, for example) unless a third party verifies that you have met a significant goal (such as logging your food 5x/week or losing # of pounds or giving up smoking) by a pre-determined date. There is a minimum dollar investment up front. It claimed negative reinforcement or whatever is the right term for avoidance of the painful stimuli? worked better than positive rewards for motivation. I didn't like the whole mindset, and said I'd rather re-energize towards Spark People and the positive goal-setting and feedback, etc. He agreed to be my monitor-- to check in and remind me if I were not keeping myself accountable to my pledge to log foods at least 5x/wk. until I met my goal weight or a year is over, whichever comes first.... In any case, I agreed to submit to trying that website IF I were not able to keep my end of the bargain. So, without the dollar investment per se, I guess in a way there is that slightly negative motivation in there as well, because I definitely want to prove that I CAN do this with my own internal decision-making and with the positive motivation of Spark People's articles and support network.
For those who might like to read about the alternative approach, here is more about the website as quoted from Technology Review: "Ian Ayres, a behavioral economist at Yale, developed a website called, on which users set a specific goal and then pledge a sum of money to forfeit should they fail to achieve it. Unlike other sites that track weight loss and fitness goals and offer support via social networking, StickK leverages another discovery from behavioral economics: our extreme dislike of losing money."The specter of losing money is twice as motivating as the possibility of gaining the same amount of money," says Rose. Users can even designate an "anti-charity" as the beneficiary of their money should they fail to meet their goals." Report
I really like your jar idea, and I laughed when you said you went out and bought a birthday gift for a neighbor you weren't crazy about. What a very clever idea. If you thought about that ahead of time and knew that's where the money in the 2nd jar was going, would that be a deterent? The flip side of the whole present for the neighbor scenario is that it might make the relationship between you better! Win-win! Report
Like many of my generation, I was raised with the idea that good behavior was expected and bad behavior was punished. So the idea of rewarding myself for doing "what I'm supposed to anyway" is kind of foreign to me. And since part of my plan for 2011 is clutter-clearing and living lighter, I don't want to reward myself with more "stuff." So I guess my reward for staying on track will be a day out a month to just do something fun. Report
I love the reward system, I do this with my students, and it works, so now I'll try it with my goals!!! Thanks! Report
I'm trying the "chart" trick. I read about it in a WW magazine. I put down my weekly measurements (scale & measuring tape numbers) in a chart per week (every Friday). I hung it up beside my treadmill. Maybe i'll be less tempted to skip exercising or start eating crap if i constantly see these numbers in front of me! ............ah well, whatever works i guess! :) Report
I really like the money jar idea! Thanks for sharing! Report
This was great for me to see. I've never been very good with using a rewards system, but I can greatly see the benefit after reading this blog. I think the concept of rewarding the behavior makes so much sense. I'm going to do some thinking about that, because that's a whole new way of looking at things for me. I'm a firm believer that it's about progress, not perfection. Thanks for the great insight, Coach Dean! Report
I like the 2 jar idea too. I have a hard time being consistent with my cardio workouts. I'm going to implement this idea and see if I can make it work for me. I don't know yet what to do with the other jar monies. Maybe I will give it to charity. Thanks for sharing this with us. Report
This is a good idea. I've been trying to think of a little rewards system for myself.

I like the idea of buying a magazine or book - that's not too expensive for a week's worth of meeting a goal (we have a used bookstore where I live, so that would be reasonable for me - or there's Amazon!). I could use some more ideas, free ones, too. I'm trying to think of a way to reward myself when I pass on a sweet treat when I'm just having a craving or responding to others eating around me. And a reward for when I don't over-eat on the weekends or at parties. These are my biggest problem areas! Report
Great blog! Love the jar reward idea, very motivating. I'm going use this idea starting today!! :-) Report
Coach Dean, I want to share a way that drinking lots of water became fun for me: getting & using bite-valve water bottles! I use one when I'm exercising at home & have another that I keep filled up here at the office. I also have a Camelbak hydration pack for when I'm out walking/running. Somehow the bite valve makes ingesting water WAY more satisfying than it used to be!

Of course Sparkpeople itself works on reward principles, giving us points for so many good behaviors. There are also inherent rewards when the pounds do come off, clothes fit better, people compliment us, & Sparkfriends cheer us on. I think it's great to add another layer, such as with the dollar jars, to reward ourselves day to day for diligence in working on a new habit that will bring inherent rewards in the long term. Report
I like the jar idea, based on your own behaviors. I've been contemplating getting some type of e-reader. It will motivate me to start accumulating that money and maybe purchasing a Blackberry Playbook, when it's available. Thanks. Report
Great idea. Believe I will use it with my candy issue. Report
I give myself a weekly reward for doing three things each week: Mindfully eating healthy food every day (no grazing and no late-night munchies!), exercising 6 days, and dealing with stress by talking it out, not eating or being mean. My reward is a fitness magazine, like Runner's World, because reading it motivates me to keep eating healthy and exercising!

Only problem is, those goals aren't as hard any more, I hate most women's fitness rags (they're self-esteeem killing fashion mags in disguise), and I finish the RW issues in just a few days at the gym... so I think I need a new rewards system soon. Report
I like this idea; Report
I have a big trip coming up and I ALWAYS blow my eating habits on a trip. I am going to schedule a massage for the day after I get home. If I stay within my calorie range every day on the trip, I can keep the appointment. If I go over, I have to cancel the appointment. I think this will work! I hardly ever treat myself to a massage so it is a real treat for me. Report
I like the jars idea, similar to the chores motivation I have in place for my 6 year old! If it works for him then it could work for me! The key to success for him is having a goal to save for. Last year he was collecting particular cartoon figurines, I made a picture chart showing before prep and after prep routines (very simple, he was only 5) & if he got enough stars for the week, he was rewarded- I am going to apply it to my goals. Thanks spark people, great reward tip! Report
I LOVE books. Adore them. But, I haven't treated myself to new books in a long time. Thus, this seemed like a perfectly wonderful treat and reward for being consistent in my healthy behaviors and I've rewarded myself with 2 new books (which I devoured and found delicious-even better than brownie sundaes). I've earned a new one I'm going to buy tomorrow!

Also, it's a little silly, but I really get a kick out of the Sparkpeople awards...they really do help motivate me to log on, participate, and follow the plan. Report
To me - it seems reasonable that the jars should be reversed. Fill a jar with a month's worth of rewards and then put a dollar into "mine" when you do the right thing for the day. I think part of the reward would be to move that dollar over to my jar. I also think that using the remainder to buy a gift for another is still a form of reward (even if it is to someone you don't like so much) and so the money should go back into the grocery account. Report
I love the specificity of it--both the particular behavior and the particular reward. I tend to go all woo-woo abstract and general, and, unsurprisingly, have had relatively little success with changing some of my longest-standing habits. AND rewarding the behavior (something I can control) rather than the outcome (so often dependent on things beyond/besides my choices) is so smart. Thanks, Coach, again, for your clear thinking and gentleness with yourself and others. Report
I love the jar idea.... mine will be for the days I don't eat sweets.. Report
I did reward myself for weight lost. But it was extremely frequent intervals (every 5 lbs, every 5% off, etc. etc.) And it did keep me moving in the right direction.

Now I'm working on using rewards for maintenance over time.

I like buffs. They're colorful, and I wear them when working out. I order a batch at a time (to save on shipping) but I can't actually HAVE them (or wear them) until I reach my goal. Report
I like your idea of rewards for what YOU do, instead of what the scale does. Report
No I do not use rewards for doing stuff. I do not know the tricks to make it work for me. I guess I am just too pragmatic with my life style, it is balance with my creative, out of the box engieering style. Report
Rewards has always been part of the SparkPeople program. One that I have never gotten the hang of. I'm trying to focus on those areas that I don't do well, like rewarding myself, so need to put some effort into. I'm pretty frugal with very low needs, and have the income to get those things I really need. I love that "the money in the other jar gets spent on something or someone Id really rather not spend my money on." That might work for me. Report
I read some where that we are more motivated when he have something to lose than we have something to gain. So, putting the money, tokens, whatever in the pot at the begging of the month is a more motivating approach than rewarding yourself as you go. I used to do this to motivate me to exercise. But, that is a habit now. I can't figure out how to do this for eating right. THAT's my biggest challenge. Choosing one thing at a time, like vending machine visits, might be the way to go. Report
I really like the idea of putting money in the jar at the beginning of the week and having a second jar to give to someone else, especially if it is someone you don't like very much. It really gives a good incentive. I think I'll try this one for not buying a morning tea. I have a teapot at home (really nifty with multiple settings) and a large tea steeper that will give me a good sized cup of tea at home. So I have no excuse except habit and time for not making my morning tea at home and taking it with me.

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful idea. I've never before figured out how to make them work for me. Report
For the jar idea----you could use tokens (think chuckie cheese or old time game halls) and once you have so many tokens you can use it for whatever. Maybe each represent a certain amount of money without there being actual money in a jar. Or maybe they represent hours of the day/week that you get to do something fun or to be by yourself. Just a thought.

-sarah Report
Love this idea. Awesome! Thanks for sharing it! Report
Love the jar idea! Report
I love this idea for trying to kick the diet soda habit! I have been thinking about a similar approach - just putting the money into a jar each time I don't buy a soda and then buying something with the money, but I like this better. I also like the idea of rewarding behavior vs the pounds. I came up with a reward system for the pounds, but I think I will also come up with one for the behaviors I want to change! Report
I sometimes treat myself to something like a special treat, a DVD or peice of clothing. I like the 2 jar approach. That may be more meaningful to me. Report
Dean, you are ALWAYS so practical & helpful. Thank you! - Sometimes I feel "simple" when I haven't thought about the ideas you shared. I guess even though I gave daily verbage to "lifestyle," I was still attached to the numbers.

There are numerous times when I've made poor choices and wanted to beat up on myself, but right alongside were a LOT of good choices earlier in the day. I give myself less credit for good choices than the amount of time I spend "kicking" myself for bad choices. (And I know you've addressed this in other blogs, writings, etc. - the whole mental process of how we treat ourselves.)

I was reading earlier today about listing the things we are doing right each day as a means to gain perspective with the negative self dialogue. And appropriate rewards, such as you've presented, gives me something added to consider.

Again, I really appreciate your practical, useful approach to this LIFESTYLE! Report
It's funny you should use this example. I'm working on kicking the DC addiction too...right now! Report
I like the two jar concept... I am going to try it out on my 12 yo daughter. She needs to lose about 15 lbs. She is physically handicapped, and somewhat limited in her abilities (her biggest problem is lazy and likes to eat junk food)... BUT She would be much encouraged to eat healthy snacks, or walk home from school if she thought she would earn money for doing it. She has been asking me about starting a dog walking business.... so the jar idea will no doubt work with her.

I also like the idea for me, cause I feel bad about rewarding myself--I feel like I dont deserve it. So; giving myself $1 a day when I stick to my goals seems fair. Report
Love the jar idea! Report
Hmm...Either diet soda is real cheap where you are, or... When I started SP a couple of months ago, except for the water I took my vitamins with, I drank nothing but diet soda, with an occasional unsweetened tea. I have cut way back, but I still go through about 3-4 liter bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper a week, especially during the week when I'm off. It's not so bad on the weekends when I'm at work. It's easier for me to drink water at home. I like the jar idea, but I may have to adapt it for my tendency to dip into my change jar etc. when my paycheck runs out before my payday.
LOVE the Jar Idea. Report
I love the idea of taking the power from the scale and giving it back to me, since it has been my choices & decisions that has lead to me being at this weight. I'm in control of me not the scale!!!!!!! Report
I like the jar idea. However, it's not for me. I do like it for my younger brother though. He's an overweight 10 yr old and I want to motivate him to be healthy. He's a very smart kid. Very tech saavy and an awesome inventor. He's got a very creative mind. I may use this jar idea to get him to eat healthy.

I also want to share what my reward will be. I am 278lbs and in the process of training for the 2012 L.A. Marathon. I want to do it and complete it with all my heart so I have one year to train and get healthy in the process. Currently I cant run the first week of a C25K program completely still. My legs usually give out at interval 5. So my goal is to be able to complete week one with no struggles AND be able to run 1/4 mile without stopping. Not much, I know, but it's a LOT for me. My reward? I will buy myself a pair of workout/running pants and 2 sports bras. Once that's accomplished, I will move on to my next milestone and reward: conquering a 1/2 mile... uuuuhhhhh! LMAO! I know, but slow and steady wins the race, right? Report
Love this!! I always try to think of rewards, but they end up being the same ol' thing over and over again.. Thanks. Report
I liked the idea of the "Mine" jar also. I had decided to reward myself with clothes or a manicure, something I could see and enjoy. Rewarding myself with food seemed like a disastrous mix. Report
I like to look for someone else to reward after I have earned one myself. I know how much I like it, and its fun to spread the joy. Report
I like the jar idea. Maybe I can do that to help myself eat more fruits and veggies. Report
someone blogged about using being at the gym as a reward - time to himself, time to think, other benefits besides the fitness one.. I morphed that idea into using my walks with my dog as reward.. Time outdoors, opportunity to see nature.. it works! I'm going to try out the jars too! Report
I'm also new to spark, so the whole idea of getting points for almost anything keeps me motivated! Report
I have gone from a size 22 to a size 12 during this process, and at each size change I rewarded myself with a few nice clothes that I felt good in. Before then, I just wore "whatever", not feeling good in anything. Report
I use a different version of the "two jar" approach. I have one notional account that I allocate money to when I achieve certain daily and weekly goals and another for when I totally blow my goals. I don't subtract one from the other. At the end of a certain period of time, I spend the money in the goals achieved account on something totally frivolous, and I donate the money in the other account to charity. Somehow, making donations to a charity I support when I'm having a bad day with respect to goals stops the downward cycle of motivation. Helping someone else when I'm having a hard time gives me a lift that helps me focus again on living a healthier life. Report
Close email sign up
Our best articles, delivered Join the millions of people already subscribed Get a weekly summary of our diet and fitness advice We will never sell, rent or redistribute your email address.

Magic Link Sent!

A magic link was sent to Click on that link to login. The link is only good for 24 hours.