Extrinsic Rewards3 min read

To create a habit, all you need are the cue and the action. To maintain a habit, you need a third element: reward. This trains your brain to want the activity, a key to reinforcing good behaviors. There are three kinds of rewards: intrinsic, extrinsic, and avoiding painful consequences.

The methods of extrinsic rewards are more popular than the intrinsic ones. Why? Because extrinsic rewards promise you a shortcut—and we live in a shortcut-obsessed society. They offer a similar benefit to the intrinsic rewards, but don’t require the awareness and mindset work that the former does. 

I say “similar benefits” because it involves tricking your brain. Instead of learning to love the salad, you are adding some dressing to mask the taste you dislike. Instead of learning to love running, you are adding music to make it bearable. Instead of enjoying the research for your thesis, you give yourself a reward so you look forward to finishing it.

This is still effective, as it taps into the reward center of the brain and motivates you to take action. It works, and in some cases it might be the only option for you. It is just not as ideal as having intrinsic motivation (and it would be irresponsible of me not to mention that). It is much harder to remain on track with a habit or goal when you rely on an external reward, as compared to when you are intrinsically motivated to do that thing.

There are three types of extrinsic rewards:

Temptation bundling is mixing your chosen behavior with an activity you enjoy. This allows you to experience some reward while performing your positive habit, though it doesn’t come from the core activity. It makes things easier for you by offsetting the pain of your effort with some pleasure or fun. It is proven to work. For example, there are studies showing that listening to music while exercising decreases the perception of effort by 10%.

Temptation sequencing is making your habit the condition for enjoying a pleasure that you choose not to experience in any other way. The basic formula is: “I will only _______(external reward) if I ________(chosen habit)”. In other words, first aspiration, then pleasure. 

Desired HabitExternal RewardFormula
Wake up at 5amRead my favorite book“I’ll only read my favorite book on the days I wake up at 5am”
Avoid sugarSocial Media“I can only use social media on the days that I have no sugar”
Finish all household choresWatch a movie“I’ll only watch a movie on the days that my home is fully clean”
Save X amount of dollarsTrip to Bali“I will travel to Bali only after I’ve saved X amount of dollars.” 
Swim three times a weekNight out with friends“I’ll only allow myself a night out with friends in the weeks I swam three times.” 
Sleep at 11pmPlay games“I can’t play games unless I’ve slept by 11pm the night before.”

If the reward can be experienced immediately after the “boring habit”, even better. That makes it easier for the brain to associate the two.

Temptation sequencing has downsides and calls for mindfulness in setting rewards that support your goals—or at least don’t detract from them. Here are the potential pitfalls:

  • You may become dependent, unable to perform your habit without the reward.
  • You may be tempted to justify unhealthy indulgences
  • You will need to enforce your own rules, only enjoying the reward if the condition has been met. You might need formal accountability or strong commitment devices to make it work.

Token economy is probably the least harmful extrinsic reward. You give yourself tokens for progress—gold stars, “points”, poker chips, or whatever you like. Then you create a list of experiences and things you will reward yourself with, once you accumulate a certain number of tokens. Again, choose your rewards wisely. Don’t “reward” a week of sobriety by a night out in a pub!

If you can’t build intrinsic rewards to help you stay on track with your goal-promoting habits, then make use of one of the three extrinsic rewards methods explained here.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.

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