How to Create a Reward that Makes Habits Satisfying
The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success signals your brain that the habit paid off and was worth the effort. This is why the reward is a key aspect of habit formation. The feeling that comes with a reward – pleasure, satisfaction, enjoyment – closes the feedback loop and teaches your brain which behaviors to remember next time.
In the first several steps, we’ve talked about how to make your habits easy, obvious, and attractive. In this step, we will discuss some strategies for closing the feedback loop on your habits positively and enjoyably. In other words, we will discuss how to create an effective reward that satisfies your habits.
James Clear shares an example from a group of city engineers in Stockholm, Sweden. These engineers laid a series of sensors across a set of stairs in the subway and decorated them to resemble a giant set of piano keys. When pedestrians walked up the stairs, musical tones played from nearby speakers. Suddenly, using the stairs was fun and surprising. A musical note accompanied each step. Motivated by the immediate satisfaction of making music as they walked, 66 percent more people took the stairs as they exited the subway rather than riding the escalator nearby.
This type of immediate feedback is a powerful factor in getting habits to stick. The more immediately satisfying a habit is, the more likely it will be repeated.
James Clear also shares a popular story about a prank college students played on their professor. As the story goes, the professor was known for “talking with his hands” and making lots of gestures while explaining concepts to students. On the first day of the semester, a few students met and agreed that, whenever the professor raised his arms while talking, they would nod and smile approvingly at whatever he said. The students followed through on their plan and by the end of the term, the professor was gesticulating with such vigor that his arms were flailing wildly throughout the entire lecture.
We learn which behaviors to repeat based on how they make us feel. When we take an action that feels good—like a professor looking at a room full of students smiling and nodding—we want to do more of that action in the future. In Atomic Habits, James Clear refers to this as “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change”: What is rewarded gets repeated. What is punished is avoided.
Receiving these immediate rewards is particularly crucial during the early stages of forming a habit. Early on, it’s all sacrifice. You’ve gone to the gym a few times, but you’re not stronger, fitter, or faster—at least, not in any noticeable sense. Only months later, once you shed a few pounds or your arms gain some definition, it becomes easier to exercise for its own sake. In the beginning, you need a short-term reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background.
What we’re really talking about here—when we’re discussing immediate rewards—is the ending of a behavior. The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying – watching your favorite TV show after going for a challenging run, taking a bubble bath after deep cleaning the kitchen, or going to your favorite coffee shop after waking up without hitting snooze. You want a reward for a job well done.
Create an external reinforcer that aligns with your desired identity
Walk in the woods for retirement savings (identity = freedom and control of time)
Bubble bath for exercise habit (identity = taking care of your body)
Every time you skip going out to dinner, transfer $50 to an account labeled “Trip to Europe”
Of course, it would be best not to need these external rewards to maintain motivation. In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit is the habit itself. In the real world, however, good habits tend to feel worthwhile only after they have provided you with something. External rewards are one of the best strategies for maintaining motivation while waiting for those long-term outcomes to arrive.
However, there’s a crucial detail that should not be overlooked. If you’re not careful, the external reward can become what you chase. A student only studies to get their allowance rather than for learning. An employee only makes sales calls to fulfill a quota, not to serve customers and grow the business. The key is not to lose sight of your desired identity and, whenever possible, to choose an external reward that reinforces the type of person you wish to be. You want to avoid rewards that conflict with your desired identity.
Buying a new jacket is fine if you’re trying to lose weight or read more books, but it doesn’t work if you’re trying to budget and save money. You’re casting one vote for being a saver and another for being a spender. Instead, taking a bubble bath or going on a leisurely walk are good examples of rewarding yourself with free time, which aligns with your ultimate goal of more freedom and financial independence.
Similarly, if your reward for exercising is eating a bowl of ice cream, then you’re casting votes for conflicting identities, and it ends up being a wash. Instead, your reward may be a weekly massage, which is both a luxury and a vote toward taking care of your body. Now the short-term reward aligns with your long-term vision of being healthy.
Eventually, as intrinsic rewards like a better mood, more energy, and reduced stress kick in, you’ll become less concerned with chasing the secondary reward. The identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are, and it feels good to be you. The more a habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through.
Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit. That said, it takes time for the evidence to accumulate and a new identity to emerge. Immediate reinforcement helps maintain motivation in the short term while you’re waiting for the long-term rewards to arrive.
At this stage, you have had a specific and actionable small habit to follow for a few weeks. How can you find a way to make a reward or to end with more satisfaction to help you continue or get back on track with your habit? Please share in the comments.