Staying Motivated, Tip #10: Reward Yourself at the Right Time for the Right Thing

By , SparkPeople Blogger
There's no doubt that rewarding desirable eating behaviors is a very good way for us humans to get ourselves to stick to healthy eating plans, even when we’d rather go for the gusto.

But not just any reward will do the trick. You have to be careful to reward yourself for the right things at the right time.

There are three very common mistakes people run into when they try to use rewards to motivate themselves. Read on to find out how you can avoid them.

  • One common mistake is to reward yourself for something other than your own behavior. The most common example of this is giving yourself a reward every time you reach some lower weight on the scale. This rarely works, in terms of helping you stick to your goals on a consistent basis.

    The problem here is that you’re not reinforcing your own behavior—you’re rewarding the scale, which really couldn’t care less. Rewarding yourself for what the scale does is like trying to train a child to tie her own shoes by giving her shoes with velcro straps. It doesn’t work.

    If you want your rewards to make it easier for you to stick to your goals, you need to reward yourself for for doing the things you need to do, not for outcomes that aren’t totally in your control. So, use rewards to reinforce specific behaviors like sticking to your calorie range today, actually doing the exercise you had planned, or successfully managing some problem that’s been getting in your way frequently.

  • The second common mistake people make is taking an all or nothing approach to rewards—i.e, only rewarding yourself when you do everything perfectly. This can be OK if the behavior you want to encourage is very simple and straightforward, but for a goal that involves several actions or decisions, or takes some time to learn and master, it’s almost always better to reward individual, progressive steps towards the ultimate goal, rather than focusing only on the final product.

    For example, if you’re trying to change eating habits, you could focus on one problem area or meal at a time, rather than on having a “perfect day.” Start by rewarding yourself for getting off to a good start for the day with a healthy breakfast, or for skipping that extra snack you usually have in the evening, or for bringing your own lunch to work instead of going out for fast food.Then as that problem is resolved and the new behavior starts to become routine, add on another problem area or goal, and keep doing this until you’ve got a good routine going for all your daily meals and snacks. Success at establishing a complex behavior pattern like healthy eating has to be built up one step at a time, and you can use rewards to gradually “shape” your behavior in progressive steps--if you avoid the all-or-nothing tendency.

  • The third concern that needs careful attention is the timing and significance of rewards. When you’re first setting out to establish a new behavior, it’s important to reward that behavior as soon as possible—preferably as soon as you do it. The more time that goes by between behavior and reward, the less effective the reward will usually be. It’s also better to reward the behavior frequently at first. As the new behavior becomes more routine, and you start to find it desirable in itself, the timing and frequency of rewards should be reduced. Rewarding a behavior that you'd do anyway can actually make it harder to maintain.

    The perceived value of the reward is also important. It needs to be significant enough that you’ll miss it or feel a little deprived if you don’t earn it, but not so important that not getting it causes other problems of its own. For example, if you really enjoy your morning cup of coffee, make that your reward for eating a healthy breakfast—you don’t get it on the days you don’t have the kind of breakfast you want to. But if missing your morning coffee means that you’re likely to punch out the boss or yell at the kids, find a different reward. If you have a favorite TV show you like to watch in the evening, make that your reward for getting your exercise in. Otherwise, you have to do your exercise instead of watching the show.

    It’s never a good idea to make your reward something that’s inconsistent with the goal behavior you’re trying to establish—for example, don’t reward yourself for eating well by giving yourself a food treat that will blow your diet plan.

    Do you use rewards to keep yourself on track? What works best for you?

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    CECELW 2/5/2021
    reward system is a good way to go...for whatever challenge. Report
    YMWONG22 12/21/2020
    Thanks Report
    PIZZA5152 3/26/2020
    Sparks helps us all. Tk. for the article Report
    thanks Report
    A very good article. I agree that the reward system is the way to go. Report
    I've been giving myself a SparkGoodie Gold Star for every 5 pounds I lose. One of my interim goals is to be able to fit into one of my favorite "Opening Day" suits from years gone by in time for my trade show in January. My reward will be getting to wear it!
    I just have to point out that I train dogs this way! LOL It's a great article and I'm going to try non food rewards for problem areas, like night eating. Maybe that will change something that is as much habit as an actual problem with blood sugar. Report
    Excellent article. Thank you. Yes, I reward myself for monthly behaviors with earrings or an inexpensive blouse. Report
    good points Report
    Wow! I'm only seeing this today 3.4.2011 for the first time!! The first point is profound! I never thought about my "rewards" benefiting the scale... I'm gonna look around and see if this is part of a series of articles to save elsewhere? Or print off a copy for sure. Very useful information. I've always been in a quandary about what kinds of rewards to select or goals to reward or how to do it (I didn't grow up in a very goal-oriented family!). Thanks so much for this article!! Report
    I reward myself for streaks, e.g. every week that I go to the gym. Sometimes it's new clothes, or equipment. A fair amount of the time it's stuff that I'm going to need anyway. But I figure I've proved that it isn't just a waste of money, that I'm buying something that I have demonstrated that I will use. For instance, if I stick with & finish this month's Spark bootcamp, I'm buying new tennis shoes. My old ones are really beat up, but I wasn't wearing them for anything until a few months ago, when I decided to exercise and get in shape. If I prove to myself that I can get off the couch, then I get to buy shiny new stuff that will help me further my progress.

    Also, I do use food as a reward -- but it's a quality thing. For instance, if I'm sticking to a nutritional program, then I get to order the expensive tea, like Jasmine Silver Needles, or go out for expensive sushi, or buy expensive spices like saffron, or buy a really fancy, expensive chocolate truffle. Stuff that I can technically afford as an occasional treat, but don't usually buy because I'm frugal. Because they're expensive, it feels really decadent, like a real reward, to get them, but I don't overindulge, (unlike rewarding myself with a bowl of ice cream). Report
    I appreciated the suggestions that rewards be immediate and simple. For example - drinking a cup of coffee only if I had a healthy breakfast. My problem with the rewards I've been planning is that they usually involve finding the time and coming up with money. Going shopping or buying myself flowers is not immediate -when can I get to the store or florist? What if I have no money at the moment and pay day is two weeks away? In two weeks I may be in a totally different situation and the reward will not be so meaningful.. So I've decided I can sit down with a favorite magazine in the evening only after I have done my exercise. Or if I have a healthy day staying in my calorie limit I'll kick the kid off the computer ten minutes earlier and reward myself by telling my e-mail buddy. I plan to look for other practical rewards. Thanks for the insightful suggestions - now onward to action! Report
    Great article... I'd never thought of rewards that way. Saved to my favorites :) Report
    My big reward was really a coincidence. I have colored my own hair for 15 years and made an appointment to have it done in beauty shop. Just happened to hit the 40 lb. loss mark that morning, so called it my "reward". I was very proud!!! Report
    I am proud of the successes I have made in eating healthier and exercising consistently. The end result is a stronger, leaner body which is reward enough for me. Report
    Isn't God good? I was asking him, why I was having such a hard time being consistent... and was thinking about changing to a different diet that incorporated this change of pace... (JUDD) I hate doing the same thing day after day after day. To me it's such drudgery.... But this is exactly what I needed today. There are certain things I need to do every day regardless of what diet I use.. like exercise....sooo, starting today, I'm going to find a way to make exercise it's own reward... I used to love playing tennis, volleyball, and walking... Now is the time to start again. And while I'm getting back to the place where the exercise is it's own reward, I'm going to find a daily reward for doing my exercise. Report
    I rewarded myself just the other day for drinking over the 8 glasses of water a day. That may sound strange, but I was not a water drinker at all, period. Not only the water drinking gets easier, but I lose another 2 pounds... my reward was picking out a spring color for my nails... I must say, My neails look wonderful and I feel great. Report
    I disagree about the scale. Whatever works for anyone is great for him/her. There was a line in a SP article--the author of which I didn't copy along with the text--that read:

    "My philosophy is that weight loss is not a goal, but the result of healthy habits like a better diet and regular exercise. When you do step on the scale and don't see the reading you had hoped for, ask yourself these questions: Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? Am I making healthy food choices most of the time? Am I exercising consistently? If you are, then trust that your body is making positive changes, and the results will come."

    Looking at it that way, yes, reward yourself simply for sticking with it--drinking your water, eating good-for-you foods, exercising consistently, sleeping more/better, etc.--instead of based on a scale-reading, and in that sense, I agree with you, but at the same time, as RevAngel before me pointed out, we do have weight loss goals and the very fact that we're seeing lower numbers on the scale means we've been doing something (likely, many things) right. And that's absolutely worth rewarding and celebrating. It works for me, and I'll keep using the scale this way. Report
    There have been times when little daily rewards helped--like wearing something special, giving myself a manicure, spending a little time listening to music & doing nothing else. But in my current season, there's a whole lot of intrinsic reward in cooking & eating nutritious & inexpensive food (& seeing a decent bank balance as a result), seeing numbers on the scale inching down, getting sweaty when exercising . . . A good way to reward myself these days is just to notice & enjoy all these positive things. Report
    My most recent reward arrived in the mail today. My Forerunner 405! This reward was for sticking with my running program. I am thinking my next reward might very well have to be a trip to San Deigo for the Spark Convention in to just figure out what the reward will be for!!! Report
    Very true. So, don't reward myself with a doughnut when I lose a couple of pounds? Ah. Report
    The article makes much sense but unfortunately, I rarely reward myself for accomplishments. It is something I need to work on and maybe incorporate into my lifestyle. I have made enormous changes in the way of eating and exercise habits, but still tend to beat myself up when I have not reached a specific number on the scale or feel guilty for having a treat. Instead of focusing on what I think is negative, I should focus on all the positive choices and behaviors I make. The other issue is what to reward myself with? Any how this was a good article. Report
    Love it! When reading this, I thought to myself "Well that makes sense". But I hadn't thought of how I was inhibiting my own progress by rewarding the wrong things at the wrong time. Thanks! Report
    Dean, I'm impressed by your skillful use of behavioral psychology to attack a complex, multi-rooted problem! I don't reward myself and should get in the habit, focusing on each prong, if you will, of my binge-eating problem. Thank you so much! Report
    I need to be better about thing I do is if I work out regularly and push myself I'll set aside a night to relax in the hot tub with a bottle of water for 30 min. I enjoy it and it feels great after a good work out. Report
    Thanks Dean for once again making me stop and think. I, too, have been rewarding the scale. From now on, I'll be rewarding my behaviour. Report
    I reward myself with an item of new clothing that fits and sending the older piece which is too big to the second hand store!! Report
    It seems like some people here are having an problem with the 'rewards' concept. Like seeing it as the antithesis of punishment. I want to give a big cheer for rewards... or another way to call it is mini celebrations. So many of us obese folk are so dang pissed off at ourselves about our weight, that we pledge to beat it this time, to beat ourselves up over our weigh, pledge to beat it.... and will only see ourselves as 'successful' when we get to our goal weight.
    The concept of rewarding ourselves along the way is a constant reminder that life is process, not perfection- that we are doing well by doing right, that we can be winning by doing...
    My rewards are constant these days- tieing my shoes, hiking long hikes, biking for hours. So many of my rewards are now intrinsic- but that is WAY into this process, not the early stages. At first the sheer amount of weight I needed to lose was overwhelming, and I needed the nudges that I could do this major change. I still go to the hot tubs, give myself new biking shorts, and in other ways celebrate my new life.
    Posted to my Facebook... love this man! Report
    My biggest reward is knowing that I am improving my life by improving my health. Report
    I don't use a reward system. When I take the cheese puffs out of the cabinet, then put them right back without eating any, that is my reward. I need to believe I am doing the right things for me, not to attain a reward. Report
    I use rewards for myself. I got a new haircut when I lost the firt 20 lbs, new NB shoes when I hit 50 lbs off. I also have given myself a new pair of Jeans in a lower size for staying within my nutrition and calorie range for 2 months. These things were extras that I may not have gotton if not for the challenge and reward theory. Report
    I reward myself as I go along. For instance, this week I sorted out 2 bags of clothing that doesn't fit (mostly because it's too large), to give to a local charity. Today, I went shopping for some new tops in a smaller size! Action leads to Reward! Report
    i am doing my weight loss through weight watchers which has been more successful for me than any other program. i love the support, the groups, recipes and info that sparkpeople offers and i use daily many things from the website. while i agree with many of the ideals put out here, we each have to make this venture work for us. my rewards come daily in the ease of movement, the clothes that fit more comfortably, not being out of breath after climbing stairs and the general well being that i have finally realized what it takes to live the good life. i reward myself weekly, with food, after i weigh in. i go to starbucks, have my favorite coffee drink, skinny, nonfat, no whipped and a cranberry orange scone. my drink is 4 points and my scone is 9 points. i make sure that i have enough points left that week for my treat and i track it as breakfast for that day. i have lost every week so far and by adding exercise which i track here and get my motivation here and at the meetings, i am on pace to reach a weight loss goal that i have set for myself for the first time in my life. thanks for the pearls of wisdom and keep them coming. Report
    I've never been very good at establishing or sticking to a reward system (either positive or negative) for motivation. Back when I decided to stop smoking, it was a major part of every smoking cessation program, but I never used it and still succeeded in the end.
    I think part the problems I run into when trying to think of rewards is that I've never been particularly excited over tangible things; my actual accomplishments serve as rewards in themselves; & a part of my strict upbringing ingrained the principle that happiness and satisfaction came from having few or no expectations.
    As children, my brother and I were never rewarded with allowances, gifts, or other things for doing chores, getting good grades in school, graduations, etc. Even birthdays were no big deal ... Ma usually asked us what we wanted for a treat for dinner or dessert, and that was it. My brother always wanted a pie (didn't like cake), and my thing was usually canolli (an Italian pastry, also made as a cake).
    And once I became self-sufficient and capable of earning a full-time wage, there comes a point in time when you really don't need anything -- or should I say any "things."

    I lead a pretty simple life compared to most people as it is, so depriving myself of my favorite tv shows, music, reading and small intangibles for not sticking with a goal doesn't seem to work for me either.

    I think maybe you need to write a part #11 for people like me, Coach!
    Hopeless in Chicago,
    Carli 8) Report
    Perhaps to get clothes that will fit now that I have lost.....or maybe just some RELAX time Report
    I like this one! I made some rewards recently and some were around how much I losed and the others were about accomplishing something. My big goal is running a 10k, so I made a midway goal of running a 5k (which I havent done anytime in recent years either. Then for the rewards I tried new things like I cant use my spa birthday gift certificate for a massage until I reach on eof my goals. I cant take a play day off work (calling in sick:-) until I reach another goal. Report
    Thanks for another great blog in this "Staying Motivated" series, Coach Dean.

    I guess I'm just low-maintenance, because I believe the old saying - "Virtue is its own reward." I do mental 'happy dances' for seeing my SparkStreaks increase as I check off met goals for the day for making changes in my life like getting my 8 glasses of water or my 5-a-day fruits and veggies. That is motivation enough to succeed the next day then, as you said, set some new goals to work on making habits of. Getting written 'attagirls' and SparkGoodies from my teammates are also wonderful rewards. I think I'm just finally learning to be good to myself and the improvement in health is my great reward. Report
    for me a reward is shopping! A new pair of pants when the old ones are getting loose! Report
    Wow! As always, very insightful. I am going to stop rewarding myself based on the scale! I also think food rewards and buying something are bad habits to encourage. I like the idea of watching a show, reading for pleasure, or doing something free and non food related! Report
    When ever i accomplish a weight loss i all ways buy myself some kind of reward. Report
    I firmly believe that one should never ever use food for purposes other than nutrition(comfort, reward etc.) Report
    Like a couple of other people who left comments, rewards don't work that well for me either. They actually backfire and work more as a punishment. I'm at a very comfortable place in my life where don't really have to worry about things and feel very fortunate for that. For me, just seeing the difference in how I look and how I feel is reward enough. Report
    Great info. I am always waiting on the darn scale. NO MORE!!!! I am gald to know I am not the only one to mess the reward system up!!! Report
    Good points, coach Dean! I found that rewards really helped me shed my 63 pounds. I set up small rewards on my Spark Page for milestones along the way (and then a HUGE reward(vacation) for getting to my goal weight). The small rewards really helped me focus on one day at a time. Report
    Rewards are good for me as long as the reward is not food. Report
    Thank you for the good article. I never thought about rewarding myself. I was just focusing on the scale. I will give this some thought and start rewarding myself for a good job on changing my habits. Old habits are hard to break, but I will give myself a good uplift every time I need it. Here's an atagirl to me. Good Job. Report
    Very good article. My reward will to buy me some new clothes when I finally reach my goal weight. I treat myself with small things like being happy when I can fit into some of my smaller clothes that I did hang on to. Report
    Wow. This article is definitely food for thought (pardon the pun). I have been rewarding myself for the numbers on the scale, for the most part. I am going to have to re-vamp my reward system. Report
    I have been rewarding myself for every 5lbs lost, and that works great for me. I picked some workouts, clothing etc that I really wanted and set them for that weight. If I have to wait a little longer for it, that's fine, knowing that I really want that item helps me to push myself to get there. The concept of rewarding myself for behavior I think will be very helpful when I reach goal and am maintaining. It's so easy when you're at a good weight to think that 'just this once' you can skip your workout or get fastfood, and have that quickly escalate. Having goals for exercise and nutrition at that will point will hopefully help me to keep on track with a healthy lifestyle even after I am at the weight I want to be. Report