Painful Consequences

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 first two types of rewards are like a carrot held in front of you. When the carrot doesn’t move you forward, there’s the stick. Here what you seek is not to enjoy a pleasure but to avoid a pain. This is done by associating painful sensations, monetary loss, or a shameful experience to not performing your habit.

In a study by the University of Pennsylvania, researchers examined which type of financial reward would better motivate people to reach the goal of 7,000 steps per day. One group of people received money for every day that they reached the goal; another group received the whole price in advance and lost money each day they didn’t reach the goal. After thirteen weeks, the group that had received money upfront had performed much better. 

This is known as loss aversion: we are more motivated by fear of losing something than by the desire of gaining that same thing.

For some people, or in some cases, the stick might be the only thing that works. Still, the problem with this strategy is that once the stick is gone, people almost always go back to their previous behavior. Studies have shown that when people lose weight using this approach, they regain all the weight lost—once the threat of a punishment disappears. Therefore, this strategy might be useful only for short-term gains or tasks.

If you want to go forward with this approach and associate financial loss or shame to the undesired behavior, review the section on Commitment Contracts for tips. If you want to use physical discomfort/pain as the stick, you can use a rubber-band snap on the wrist, or devices available on the market to bring the future pain of the tempted (in)action into your awareness right now, and thus re-train your lizard brain.

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