If you’re trying to lose weight, get fit, reduce stress or anxiety, stay sober, or manage any type of health condition, you know how much work it takes to change old, ingrained habits, set new goals, and commit to healthier behaviors. Ending old, ingrained habits and committing to healthier ones—like eating better, exercising more and following your doctor’s advice for better mental health—can be challenging to say the least and oftentimes it’s just plain hard to stay motivated. 

Reaching your goals and  feeling a sense of achievement are certainly the ultimate rewards, but as you’re striving to get there, the intangible reward of better health may not be enough motivation for you to keep up the good work.

“Most of us could use some tangible rewards from time to time, something to provide a lift and keep us going,” says Katrina Firlik, MD, chief medical officer of HealthPrize Technologies and author of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside. “That’s especially true when the work we’re doing to stay healthy is difficult and seemingly never ends.”

One way to stay on track is to give yourself an occasional reward, something to mark milestones and celebrate the positive changes you’re making, big and small. Here are some ideas.

#1. Motivate Yourself from Inside and Out

Mental health experts use the terms intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) when describing motivations to act. Intrinsic motivation comes from within yourself, and often requires no more reward other than performing the act itself. Extrinsic motivation comes from somewhere outside of the act itself.

Think about it in terms of artistic endeavors. Your motivation is intrinsic if you find great enjoyment in painting a picture or writing a poem. At the same time, if your poem is going to be published, or your painting purchased, those are extrinsic motivations. In the same vein, many people find great satisfaction in helping others through volunteer work, participating in athletic events, or pursuing a career in a field of interest, regardless of the pay scale. If you are internally motivated to do something, there is often no need and no particular benefit to an external reward, because that internal reward of personal satisfaction is enough. 

#2. Find Your Reward Balance

Life is a balancing act, however, and most people have both internal and external motivations for their choices and behaviors. And most people need, expect, and are motivated by the prospect of some type of reward for their hard work. You need to get paid, even if you love your job. You need to see results if you are making difficult changes in your lifestyle in order to lose weight, get fit, stay sober, or otherwise improve yourself.

When it comes to self-improvement, you already know good physical and mental health is your best reward, but you probably also know that it hasn’t always been enough to sustain your best efforts to change. You need more incentives along the way, something to help you stick with it. It can be as simple as remembering to pat yourself on the back or buying yourself a fun new pen, any small thing that feels positive and makes you feel good.

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“When it comes to reinforcing new health-related behaviors, like taking a daily blood pressure pill, for instance, drawing on intrinsic motivation can be difficult, even though avoiding a stroke or heart attack should be reward enough,” says Dr. Firlik. “That’s when external rewards can be particularly helpful, especially in the beginning when you are first establishing a new habit.” Consider treating yourself to a frivolous gift from the pharmacy whenever you’re there on time to refill your prescription, she suggests, something like a fun magazine or a special bar of soap. 

#3. Practice Self-Reinforcement

To help make positive self-reward work for you, make a list of things, big and small, that you will truly find rewarding. Keep that list handy so that every time you accomplish even the smallest thing, every time you meet a short-term goal, you can refer to your list. Rewards can be material things or activities. The best reward is one that brings you closer to your goal, like new workout gear when you’re trying to get fit. It’s important to reward yourself only when you’ve earned it, and to match the size of the reward with the size of your accomplishment, so you don’t run out of positive reinforcers and always have something to work towards, something to look forward to.

It’s also important not to choose rewards that could sabotage your long-term goals. If you’re in the process of losing weight, for instance, and you want to reward yourself for practicing portion control all week, it may not be a good idea (yet) to take yourself out to eat at a favorite restaurant. Instead, choose something non-edible, like an inexpensive new scarf or belt or other clothing accessory. On the other hand, if you are at a point where you can be satisfied with just a small serving of ice cream, or any small snack, lose the idea of “forbidden foods” and go ahead and give yourself an edible reward from time to time.

As you sense that your small accomplishments and changes in behavior are becoming permanent new habits, you can give yourself bigger and more trivial rewards. Buy yourself flowers, special beauty or grooming products, a massage, or a piece of jewelry. Take a day off from work for no reason other than to catch up with yourself. When your new habits are firmly entrenched, you can look forward to bigger rewards, like a a more expensive piece of clothing than you would normally buy for yourself or perhaps a long-dreamed of trip abroad. 

#4. Choose Positive Activities

“You may find after time that you need fewer material rewards and more positive, routine activities to distract you from negative feelings and help you stay on your chosen path,” suggests Dr. Firlik. That’s good news! A positive diversion can be a new hobby, a new way to exercise, a group or club you’d like to join, a continuing ed class you now have time to attend. Smaller diversions can also help you stay on track whenever you’re feeling bored, upset or a little down. Again, keep a list of activities that you can refer to when you think your emotions are about to get the best of you and you need to focus your mind on something else. Some ideas include writing in a journal, calling a friend, taking a walk, listening to music, washing your car or your dog, or taking a trip to the library or a local museum or gallery. These small diversions can help change your perspective and tide you over until the negativity passes.

 

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2019