Setting rewards to build new habits is not working and this is why

It’s commonly said that a key component of building a new habit is getting a (timely) reward for doing the habit. Since it’s almost July, I’ve been taking a look at my goals for the month, the new habits I want to build, and have run into a roadblock when it comes to determining a “reward” for these new habits.

Here’s my hang-up: Sure, it sounds nice to say that after I do XYZ, I eat a piece of chocolate or buy myself a new shirt or watch a movie or take a nap, BUT if these are meant to be rewards, then that means I should be restricting myself from engaging in those until I make the habit. Restriction is its own new habit, and I’m not big on it, personally, because it leads to that thing I want having increasing power over myself and my thoughts. If I want to eat a piece of chocolate, I’ll do it. If I want a new shirt (and generally, I’m good at sticking to a budget, so I rarely buy new clothes or things unless I really like them or need them), I’ll buy it. Really, what’s to stop me from rewarding myself without accomplishing the goal, except for the same willpower that is insufficient to get me to achieve the goal without a carrot dangling in front of it? Frankly, I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that I’m rewarding myself for completing a new habit but rather punishing myself for not doing it.

As a mom of a toddler who follows numerous young child behavior specialists on social media, one message seems common — encourage intrinsic rewards. And yet, if I look up “habit rewards” the list of examples is almost always limited to extrinsic rewards (treats, things, escapes).

So, how do you identify intrinsic rewards for habits that don’t provide an immediate result? Or, for example, with my physical therapy exercises to strengthen my abdominal muscles while I’m pregnant and actively pushing the boundaries of those abdominal muscles, how do I continue to motivate myself to do the exercises when even after I’ve been doing them religiously, at my check-up I find out that my condition has worsened?

I think this ties back into my mental exploration of why saying “I should” do this isn’t helpful in that it all comes down to reminding yourself of why you’re trying to make this a habit in the first place. If you can’t see immediate results (or as with my previous example, are seeing what looks like the opposite result) then you need to constantly remind yourself why you wanted to do this in the first place. What are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to avoid? I may have taken one step back in my progress with my exercises but I may have saved myself from taking nine additional steps backwards if I do nothing.

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