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?

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My husband and I keep a budget in which we each get our own spending money at the beginning of the month. We agreed that if I work out for at least 20 minutes 3 day per week, I get $5 more from our general budget into my own spending money. For each additional day I work out, I get $1 extra. When we added it up, we realized that this would only cost our general budget about the same as a gym membership--but instead of all of the money going to a gym, I work out with a treadmill and videos at home and get to keep the money as a reward! This is the first and only reward system that has ever really worked for me! Report
Okay, so the double fudge cheesecake and drambui coffee won't quite cut it. But my stupid thing of (I don't like drinking most water) using my water as a reward after my exercise (and having to hurry so no germs or dust gets in it) might not be all bad. But to kick the soda thing..have you tried oj instead? Or, I didn't say saccharin (can use natural sweetener) but you might want to try ice water with few squeezes of lemon or lime in it, and sweeten to taste....sure beats the heck out of the salts and carbs that can make you short of breath with soda..... Report
I do buy myself, clothes, books or junk jewelery, music, or tickets to concerts, things like meals or food treats. Report
What a wonderfully insightful and helpful article! Thank you so much for the concrete and actionable suggestions. Report
Love the second jar suggestion. It's also helps you to be a better person and make someone else happy. I've been trying to implement a reward system but have been having a hard time coming up with the right idea for myself. Report
I don't reward myself for something I should be doing. It's like rewarding myself for cooking, doing the laundry, or cleaning the house. I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing. In my mind, that does not constitute giving myself a reward. I might reward myself when I hit my goal weight, but not before. Report
Loved your ideas and laughed when I read about the gift for your nosy neighbor! thanks for sharing. Report
Well written and easy to read and awesome ideas here! im going to try the money jar too! I gave up soda about 5 months ago! Report
Wow. Wow wow wow! I have always had trouble with rewards and here you come along and put it into the best kind of perspective. I'm going to completely rethink my reward schedule. Thank you SO much. Report
Brilliant! Yay for more of the Dean, I have been missing your writing! Report
For reaching 1000 fitness minutes after one year last month, I am getting a new jump rope. Report
awesome idea! i seriously need to reward myself more Report
I gave myself a vitual flower for doing a great job! Something I would not have done in the past. It really is amazing how a simple gift to ones self can boost the spirit. Report
KISAKATT, I love your reward system and may just use it for myself. Thank you for sharing! I currently have a reward/goal combination: I want to go ziplining with my husband for our anniversary and need to weigh 250 lbs or less to be allowed to do it. Meeting the weight restriction to participate is a goal, while I consider the ziplining itself to be a reward. Report
I love this article! I keep track of the days I exercise on a calendar (with pictures of the beach!) with foil star stickers: first day in a week that I workout gets a red star, day two is blue, day three is green, four is silver, and if I work out five days in a week, I get a gold star! Usually I have a reward planned for every four gold stars (a new workout top, album, etc) this means "big" rewards could happen once a month if I really try hard! Report
This article totally turned on a lightbulb in my brain. Nearly all of the dieters I know reward themselves with a cheat meal when they reach their weekly weight goals. Plainly stated, this is so counterintuitive! You wouldn't reward yourself with a cigarette after a week of not smoking, would you? Why do we all think of food so differently? Great article, thanks! Report
I really like the idea of rewarding myself. It's a good motivator. Beginning today , I will set new goals for myself , try to accomplish them in a timely manner, and reward myself with the mani- pedi and spa? The last one--- I'll have to save for a special occasion. Report
I've been rewarding myself with flowers after meeting my weekly fitness goals. And fitness gear, buying new fitness gear (in smaller sizes!) is a huge reward. Report
I really like this idea. It can be so easily modified --colored stones instead of money, dollars or coins, whatever--as long as there is an identified purpose and goal. I'm going to adapt this one to help me exercise. I always like the fact it is based on behaviors, not pounds! Report
I have been emphasizing my behavioral choices over what the scale says for many years - it just makes so much sense. I don't use specific rewards, but come to think of it, whenever something really good happens I tend to write a blog about it, and the satisfaction of writing about it and especially getting a bunch of positive comments on my blog - that's my reward! Report
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 I’d 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