Reward Yourself in the Moment

Photo by tourist on earth

It’s a new year and many of you will be setting new goals for yourself as part of your New Year’s resolutions. I want to give you an important nugget you can use when you implement your goals and start to face some potential discomfort or pain.  This insight may be exactly what you need if you’ve ever failed at changing a habit or meeting your goals in the past.

Creating New Habits and Reducing Friction in Your Goals
I actually wasn’t sure whether to title this post with “catch yourself in the act,” “reward yourself in the moment”, or “how to change a habit” but I think “reward yourself in the moment” is a simple enough rule to remember and it’s more precise. The key point is to reward yourself in the moment. If you do so, you can actually rewire your associations of pleasure to a task you don’t typically enjoy.  It has to be “in the moment” when you are actually “feeling” the pain. The very precise point is that it’s in the moment versus after the fact.  “Timing” and “feeling” are the keys.

We’re Creatures of Habits That “Feel” Good
How many habits do you have that you don’t enjoy? I don’t mean a habit that’s not good for you. I mean, are your habits things that make you feel good or things that make you feel bad … in the moment? I bet that most of your habits you have, make you feel good and you do them for exactly that reason. It’s in the moment. (You might feel bad afterwards or you might “think” the habits are bad, but you “feel” good while you actually do them)

“Thinking” vs. “Feeling” Associations
When I was younger, I didn’t understood why you had to catch the dog while they are in the act of making a mess, and not after the fact. I knew the rule, but I didn’t get how important the timing was.  It’s because you have to associate negative in the exact moment of “feeling.” It’s also why immediately rewarding your dog with a snack when they show good behavior has a powerful effect. Unless your dog is Scooby Doo, it isn’t going to reflect (think) on its behavior. They are simply responding to feelings from one moment to the next. They’ll move toward pleasure and away from pain. If you punish or reward them after the act, it’s too late.

Reward in the Moment, Not After the Fact
Here’s an example I heard where this finally hit home for me. In this example, you want your kid to clean their room, but they want to go out and play. You tell them they can go out to play when they are done. However, they “feel” pain the entire time while they are cleaning their room. They internalize hating it. The promise of playing when they are done doesn’t help. They still hate how it “feels.” What happens when you step in and sincerely thank them *while they are doing it*? They “feel” good and now associate pleasure while cleaning their room (assuming you showed them appreciation in a way that resonates for them.)

How You Can Apply It
You can use this insight on a daily basis to reduce friction and find the joy in tasks you normally hate. The key is to find ways to enjoy how something “feels” when you normally don’t, while it’s in the moment, not after the fact. You’ll get better at this, once you figure out your own reward patterns, so it’s a skill that gets easier over time. Since it’s a little bit of thoughtful work, don’t overload yourself. Just pick a few things that hold you back the most and work on those first. The challenge with this is that you have to figure out your personal reward system. The upside is, your the best person to know what you like and don’t.

You can actually game yourself to enjoy some things that you normally don’t. Here’s how I applied this to my workouts when I was “feeling” the pain. When I realized that the pain was growth, I suddenly “felt” differently about the “pain” and it became pleasure. I didn’t just “think” differently; I “felt” differently about it (your thoughts create your feelings.) I also make it a habit to play my favorite music so I associate pleasure in the moment. This is an important distinction. It’s why promises of rewards at the end of the month don’t work. It’s disconnected from “in the moment.”

On the job, I try to catch people in the moment, and show appreciation “in the moment,” particularly when they are performing a task they don’t enjoy. A little appreciation, at the right time, goes a long way.

How Not to Reward Yourself
I’ll use the principle of contrast to show how NOT to reward yourself. Let’s say you want to drop 10 pounds this month. One way is to tell yourself you will reward yourself by going to your favorite restaurant when you are done. Well, you might give yourself motivation, but you haven’t changed how you feel when you workout. If you don’t find a way to enjoy your workout, then you may eventually give up.

Chunk It Down
Find a way to enjoy all the friction points you feel along the way. If you work out in the morning, this includes finding a way to enjoy getting out of bed. Sure this takes some thought and preparation up front, but eventually you’ll not only get used to your routine, you will enjoy it. We’re creatures of habit. In this case, you’re building good habits that you’ll keep up simply because you’ll enjoy them. How many habits do you keep up that you really don’t enjoy?

Best Wishes on Meeting Your Goals
Best wishes on meeting your goals and changing your habits in the New Year.  I hope you find this nugget of insight helpful and use it as another tool for your personal effectiveness.

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  1. It makes sense why you should do it J.D., but I think I could do with some more practical examples of how you actually go about implementing it.

  2. Basically it’s finding a way to enjoy the tasks we want to enjoy so we’ll keep doing them without it being a struggle or a force. I’ve heard this strategy before, but I keep forgetting to use it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  3. JD,
    the story about kids and room cleaning resonates a lot w/me. I am a father for two girls and my learning curve is not that great. Recently I changed my approach to something similar you describe here. The result was amazing. They just played chords w/me
    Good post!

  4. This is awesome post, to be honest what you have put together is something most of us should do, and I bet lot of us are doing. But then it makes whole lot more sense when you articulate it and make it so easy to understand and implement.

    Please keep posting such insightful tips.

  5. @ Louisa

    Sure. Next time you work out, play your favorite song. At work, when you do a task you normally hate, play your favorite song. I don’t mean a song you just like … I mean a song that rocks. It has to be a song that makes you feel. Your body will learn to like how you feel, while you do the task that sucks.

    @ Broderick

    That’s a good way to put it.

    Sometimes it’s about just shifting how you think about something. For example, if you lift weights, it might be easy to say, geeze, this resistance sucks or hate the pain. If you tell yourself that the resistance makes you stronger, you’ll feel more positive about it. That works for me for benching, but didn’t work for running. For running, I had to just play my favorite songs.

    @ Alik

    The room example is where it finally clicked for me. It always sounded logical to promise a reward after you did something good. The problem is you never internalize the reward then. It’s external. And worse, you don’t change how you feel about the task itself. When you reward yourself in the moment, the task sucks less or in some cases you shift completely and really do enjoy it.

    @ Prashant

    Thank you. It’s funny how just a little concept can make a very real difference when there’s a way to turn it into action. I’ve learned to use this technique a lot and it serves me well.

    Whenever I find myself in a task that I’m hating, I find a fast way to turn it around. An example that I didn’t mention is, pairing. If you pair on a task that sucks you can enjoy it more if your pairing with the right person. You can make it a game. Ultimately, the goal is to change how you “feel” about the task, not just how you “think” about it.

  6. Hi JD,

    I like that phrase “reward in the moment” and the linking up to the pain or in work-outs the burn a little different from pain actually.

  7. @ Diane

    It’s one of those little “ah has” that suddenly makes sense. For the longest time, I only had one strategy … no pain, no gain. It makes a lot of sense to work some pleasure in there, even if it’s just a mind shift.

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