Using rewards to help you be more productive (and happy)
When you’re driven and ambitious, the natural thing to do is to set really high standards, and be hard on yourself until you reach them. Growing up, I dreaded — then learned to love — unsmiling, disciplinarian Chinese or Russian-style teachers. The standard was perfection. Good work wasn’t to be rewarded, it was to be expected!
But since graduation, getting a 9-5 job, quitting my 9-5 job, starting a business, and growing into myself as a full-time creative, I’ve changed my mind about the way I frame hard work and expectations.
Now, I look at rewards with an attitude of play, and at the same time, with the perspective of a behavioral designer and productivity nerd. Rewarding myself is an act of self-care and self-love, and it's also essential to having a functional ecosystem in which I get a lot of stuff done. Let me explain:
Rewards can be ordinary, small, pleasurable things
When I say reward, I don’t necessarily mean having a cookie, going to see a movie, enjoying a nice dinner out, or going shoe shopping (though those all count). To me, a reward is anything that’s at all mildly pleasurable. This might include having a cup of tea, reading a poem, washing dishes or folding laundry in a slow, meditative way, listening to music with your eyes closed, calling a friend you haven't spoken to in a long time, or taking a 10 minute nap.
The act of redefining a reward in this way opens up a world of potential for habit design. By consciously thinking about what ordinary, small things give you pleasure, you can intentionally make your day more enjoyable, and use it as a tool to help design your workflow.
Why reward yourself at all?
For a long time, I dismissed the idea of rewarding myself for a job well done, because I thought my internal motivation should be enough. But in any creative endeavor, no matter how much we love the thing we're doing, there will be days that feel like trudging through slush, wanting nothing more than to collapse face down on the bed, close all the blinds, and go to sleep.
The purpose of rewards is to help design a sustainable workflow; a system that's most conducive to creative output, so that when those kinds of days come, we can keep moving.
Rewards are about using flow and momentum instead of brute force. There are more effective ways to get stuff done than to keep pushing until you end up with your head on the desk at 3am. Using rewards is understanding that there is an ebb and flow to your motivation. It is understanding your own metabolism; knowing when and how much to push, and how much to ease up. If anything, the use of rewards requires immense self-awareness, and the acknowledgement that to make anything good, we must take care of ourselves first.
Two categories of rewards
I like to frame rewards in terms of bite sized-snacks vs. luxurious meals.
Bite sized snack rewards: self-contained & low impact
These are small, pleasurable activities you can slip in between work sessions, or during 15 minute breaks. They are generally self-contained, low impact, and conducive to multi-tasking; as in, you can think about other things while doing these activities. Often times, your mind is still subconsciously working through problems in your work, and these rewards help feed that period of creative fermentation.
Drinking a cup of coffee or tea
Listening to music
Going for a walk
Taking a shower
Doing the dishes
Listening to a podcast
Reading a book*
Watching a TV show*
*For some people, these activities fall into the category of “luxurious meal” reward. It depends how addictively you read and/or watch TV!
Luxurious meal rewards: addictive & high-impact
Luxurious meals are the kinds of rewards that are often addictive, high-impact, and may lead you into a reward coma. They are difficult to contain, immersive, and distracting— thus they feel like a real treat. They require more much more self-control to step out of, so it's important that you strategically place these rewards to maximize both your appreciation and productivity.
I tend to use luxurious meals to bookend a solid chunk of work time, or to celebrate a milestone, often at the end of the day, the week, or the month.
Watching a movie
Eating a literal luxurious meal
Buying something I've wanted for a long time
Spending an afternoon reading at a cafe
Browsing the bookstore for an entire morning
Napping on a blanket in the park
Enjoying an evening with a friend/significant other/family.
A note about checking social media/internet hole as a reward:
I would advise a note of caution when designating "check Facebook" or "spend 15 minutes on Twitter" as a reward. Why? Because it could easily be a relatively addictive reward— thus not a "bite sized snack" reward —yet at the same time, I doubt it is satisfying enough to be considered a "luxurious full meal" reward. Thus it inhabits this in-between space.
To remedy this, I would make it either more satisfying (allow yourself to spend as long as you want on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter), more self-contained (set a rule that you can only use it X times a day, for X amount of time), or even better, do both.
Rewards that engage the 5 senses
Here’s another way to frame the reward system. I heard the ladies on the Being Boss podcast talk about designing rewards in terms treating each of your 5 senses.
Here some things on my personal list:
Smell: Lighting my favorite scented candle at the end of an evening work session, and writing my agenda for the next day.
Taste: Eating my favorite snack and/or drinks (dried mango, chocolate chip cookies, pickles, fresh-squeezed juice!)
Touch: Getting (and giving) a massage to or from a loved one. Dancing tango.
Sight: Spending an afternoon at an art gallery or museum
Hearing: Listening to my favorite music, or spoken word poetry
How to use rewards
The ultimate goal is not to work harder, but to work smarter and be nourished while you work. If you can slip in mini, bite-sized rewards throughout your day, every few hours, it will give you fuel to continue working, and at the end, you’ll feel like you ran a race without breaking a sweat. It is collecting mileage without realizing how far you’ve run.
To begin to incorporate rewards in your day, I would start here:
Make a list of rewards. You can use bite sized vs. luxurious meal rewards, organize by senses, or by the length of time a reward takes (5 min, 15 min, 30 min, 1 hour).
Pay attention to your energy levels during your work sessions. This means being attentive to when your attention starts to wane, and deciding what reward is the right one. You can also intentionally schedule rewards in advance, and test out different ones.
Continue to refine and learn about your creative metabolism, and what works for you when designing your day. This means being open and receptive to the process, and staying in touch with how you feel. Pay attention to what nourishes you and makes you feel refreshed, versus what makes you feel sluggish.
I enjoy playing with rewards, motivations, and workflow because I like to imagine myself as an experimenter of my own creative production processes. This helps me stay detached and approach productivity as something fun, instead of being too caught up in finding the “right” method.
The "right method" evolves and changes over time, and requires flexibility and an empathic sense of self-awareness. Because in the end, that's all we really need.