How to Build a Reward System

Despite my best intentions, I do not always feel as motivated as I would like to be. Whether it is a work task or a chore at home, if a job doesn’t appeal then I will sometimes ignore it until the last minute. While I always meet a deadline, there is a far more effective – and less stressful – way I could motivate myself to take action sooner.

Building a reward system is a powerful way to boost your productivity, reducing the need to rely on intrinsic motivation to complete the work you need (and want) to do. However, the rewards you choose must appeal to you, and for maximum impact, they need to be perfectly timed.

The Brain’s Reward System

In her memoir My Beloved Reward, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latinx and third woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, wrote that “success is its own reward.” While achieving a goal will naturally bring happiness, this can only be the case if you are driven to hit your target. But this is not enough.

It might seem like cheating, but it is becoming more widely accepted that having a separate incentive to reach a goal has many benefits. Far from being frivolous, rewards are considered by researchers to be “the most crucial objects for life.” Rewards are needed to encourage us to eat and drink, and even to mate. In evolutionary terms, the better we are at striving for rewards, the greater our chances of survival.

With a treat in mind for reaching a target you may be more likely to commit to working towards the goal, and less inclined to procrastinate. Motivating yourself with a reward also acts as a form of positive reinforcement, increasing the likelihood that the promise of a treat will incentivize you to achieve future goals as well.

Part of the brain’s reward system sits within the mesocorticolimbic circuit. Dopamine neurons feed into this reward circuit, and it is understood that the offer of a reward increases the firing of these neurons. The stimulation of the circuit leads to positively motivated behaviors and reinforcement learning.

The mesocorticolimbic circuit is also responsible for what researchers call “incentive salience” – the increased firing of dopamine neurons increases our desire for the reward, which in turn creates motivation.

Rewards that are related to the task are likely to be more effective. This is known as “proximity to the reward”, and scientists have noted that a related reward can be a particularly salient factor in enhancing motivation.

For example, if you want to read more research papers for work, you could motivate yourself by pledging to buy a novel on your wish list if you succeed in reading one academic paper per day for one week.

However, it is not only the treat itself that is important for building a successful reward system; timing your rewards correctly is crucial to ensuring your motivation is maintained over the long-term.

Building a Reward System

It can take time and multiple adjustments to build a reward system that will work for you. For operant conditioning to occur – when an association is made between a behavior and a consequence – the scheduling of rewards must be carefully planned to assist us in establishing new habits.

A study conducted in 2018 compared the benefit of receiving frequent rewards for completing small tasks with the promise of a reward for finishing a long project. The researchers, Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, found that when a small, regular reward was available, participants experienced greater interest and enjoyment in their work than those waiting for the delayed reward.

Although Woolley and Fishbach demonstrated that regular rewards incentivized individuals to keep going with a project, to build a successful reward system you should first consider trying continuous reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement is often used to begin teaching a dog a new trick. At first, the dog will need a treat every time he sits or offers his paw, because that way he knows he is doing the right thing. Withholding a treat in the early stages of learning will either make him think he has done the trick incorrectly, or disincentivize him next time you give the command. 

Once the dog has got the hang of it and sits every time you ask, you can move to intermittent reinforcement. He won’t know if he will get a treat every time, but he will sit anyway, in anticipation of maybe being rewarded.

As humans, we also need to start with continuous reinforcement to boost motivation. If you want to learn a programming language for example, you will need to reward yourself every time you sit down to teach yourself. This will reinforce a positive association with the habit, making it easier to maintain regular practice.

Only after continuous reinforcement has helped establish your desired habit, you can move to intermittent rewards. To keep dopamine firing in your mesocorticolimbic system, you could for instance create a “motivation lottery”.

It works like this: first, write down a variety of prizes on pieces of paper, and place them into a cup or jar. The prizes must be things that you will really value, such as a new pen, a fresh journal, or a meal out. Each time you reach a goal, draw out a prize at random and enjoy the rush of rewarding yourself.

Treating yourself regularly with those surprise gifts will help you to maintain new positive behaviors, as you will keep performing the task in the hope of a reward coming around again.

How to select effective rewards

To make an effective reward system that fosters motivation, you will need to choose your carrot wisely. Rewards are personal to the individual and will therefore depend on your needs and preferences.

Although going for a run is proven to improve physical health and has multiple mental health benefits, if you don’t truly enjoy it then it will not feel like a reward. Think carefully about which rewards will truly appeal to you, and therefore motivate you.

The following list of ideas may help you start thinking about which rewards will encourage you to foster self-motivation, based on your own interests:

  1. Watching one episode of a TV show without feeling guilty
  2. Going out for a delicious lunch, or ordering treats to enjoy at home (try to keep it healthy!)
  3. Taking a break to walk in nature
  4. Reading a novel
  5. Organizing an at-home spa day
  6. Splurging on books or new stationery
  7. Hosting a game night with friends
  8. Trying a new form of exercise or a workout class
  9. Going to the movies
  10. Enjoying a long, relaxing soak in the bath

A reward does not need to be expensive. If it appeals to you, then you will be motivated to reach your goal so that you can treat yourself.

Don’t feel discouraged if you set up a reward system and find that it does not seem to work for you. The key is to work out what you need to tweak. Perhaps you need to be rewarding yourself more regularly or for smaller milestones, or you may need to think of a more appealing reward.

Once you’ve got the balance of timing and rewards right, the brain’s reward system will take it from there to increase motivation, boost productivity, and help you meet your targets.

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