Intrinsic Rewards2 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, which is key to reinforcing good behaviors. There are three kinds of rewards: intrinsic, extrinsic, and avoiding painful consequences.

Intrinsic rewards are the best type of reward because they are the most natural. They are found within the activity itself. You go for a run because you enjoy running, or you enjoy how you feel right after running, or at least you enjoy the psychological satisfaction of having taken a step toward your goal today. You eat salad because you enjoy salad, or you enjoy how light your body feels after it, or you enjoy the feeling of having done something meaningful for your health.

These are the three pathways to intrinsic rewards. You just need one, but if you can combine two or all of them, the habit will be even stickier.

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An intrinsic reward often comes naturally with a strong aspiration and carefully aligned goals, but don’t worry if you don’t feel like this about your habits. You can train your brain to find that intrinsic reward. Here’s how.

Learn to enjoy the activity with the Shift Your Perception technique—to make boring kale taste like a yummy snack, and the muscle burn in the gym feel like a burst of energy. You enjoy the good in the bad, until there is no “bad” left. Variety can also help you enjoy the activity (e.g., changing exercise sets in the gym, or eating different salads on different days).

Learn to enjoy the benefits of the activity by becoming mindful of the activity’s effects. Before and after the activity, notice how you feel in your body, mind, and emotions, and pay attention to the positive shifts. Maybe meditation takes you from irritability to calm, and a 30-minute run takes you from lethargy to energy. As you become more in tune with your body, these types of natural rewards become easier to spot.

Learn to enjoy the psychological satisfaction of performing the goal-promoting activity by connecting to your future self, magnifying your aspiration, and developing gratitude toward yourself. You’ve just taken a step toward your designed life! You have made progress, so feel happy! Linger in that feeling. Celebrate it. Exaggerate it if needed. 

Every time you assert your willpower and practice self-discipline, you get a natural boost of self-confidence, feeling happier about yourself and your life. Pay attention to that satisfaction with your progress. Let it register, and dwell in it, so it motivates you to remain on track, longing for more. This is why the concept of minimum action is so important—it allows you to consistently experience small wins, and that is an effective intrinsic reward.

Exercise

Find a way to experience intrinsic rewards in your chosen behavior by using at least two of the modalities explained above.

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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