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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

Reward Yourself With Progress - How the Pot of Gold Can Push You Further

Question: after setting a goal, how do you reward yourself for its completion? If you’re on a strict diet, maybe you eat a big bowl of ice cream after one month of compliance. If you just set a new 5k PR, maybe you take the week off from training. Maybe you don’t do anything at all and nonchalantly say “next!”

Chances are, you exist in one of three camps: you reward yourself with a break, you forget to give yourself a treat at all, or you reward yourself with progress. I’d like to break each of these down and say that not only do you need to reward your growth, but the gift should be carefully designed in a way that makes you happy to work even harder.

But I’ll start with the middle camp. This is the one I fell into for a long, long time. You accomplished a major goal? Great, what’s next. It’s never about the prize or the celebration, you just want to keep working. Our society often falls into the trap of idolizing this behavior, saying if you’re really tough and hardworking, you don’t need a reward. But that’s not how the human brain works most efficiently.

Your brain receives a large amount of motivation from dopamine releases. Lots of people believe dopamine is the happy gas in your head, the pleasure chemical, and believing this myth can lead to a critical misunderstanding of how to influence yourself in the most effective way. Dopamine is the chemical that causes us to seek reward, but it is not the reward in itself. Dopamine fosters motivation, and waves the carrot in your face that makes you run one more mile, do one more rep, or stay off jelly donuts for one more day.

That in mind, dopamine is a powerful chemical. Several studies have confirmed that dopamine deficiency leads to chronically low motivation, limiting the hunger we get for reward in the first place. Conversely, we can leverage our dopamine release and get a sweet boost of motivation by anchoring the task to a nearby reward. If you want your brain to work as hard as it can, set up a reward that’s just around the corner. Celebrate, and you’ll work more efficiently. So we’ve established that you need a prize for your head to work at full capacity. Awesome! That means I can eat a donut at the end of every day I diet! And watch movies all day after I finish my run! Not so fast.

We never want our rewards to be counteractive to our goals. Not only will this make us guilty for taking the reward in the first place, diminishing the psychological effect, but it teaches us that what we really want, the reward, is the opposite of what we’re striving for! This kind of conflict we make you less and less dedicated to your diet, workout plan, dance practice schedule, and any other disciplinary practice you’re committed to.

How then, do we celebrate a job well done in a way that triggers a dopamine response, but stays in line with our commitments? Set up rewards that push you further towards your goals.

Find something in the vein of your work that you can get really excited about as use that as your carrot. If you’re dieting, say you’ll go to a new health food restaurant and get the nicest thing on the menu. Running, say you’ll pick up new headphones or workout clothes. Dancing, say you’ll splurge on a lesson with one of your favorite pros. Pick something that not only amps you up to accomplish your goal, but the moment you reach it, it motivates you to get after it and work even harder. These kinds of rewards are powerful, not only because they don’t offer the same setback as a jelly donut, but because getting them makes you feel good, and immediately associates that good feeling with the task at hand.

Just this last week, I accomplished a goal and rewarded myself with a new set of headphones for athletic training. When they arrived, the first thing I wanted to do was to get back in the gym and the dance studio to try them out. Not only did I work harder to get the headphones I set my sights on, but getting them made me happy and motivated me to get back to training right away.

So get creative with your rewards. Get a sports massage, a new pair of dance shoes, a fancy new blender for your protein shakes. The takeaway here is that your brain will work more on your side if you learn to celebrate, but celebration absolutely doesn’t have to move you backward. Reward yourself with progress, and you’ll feel much better about the prize and get more excited about the next step forward.

(Published in Sheer Dance magazine November 2019)

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