Don’t Use Rewards for Motivation

Child studies. The pairing of those two words sounds sinister at best, but most children studies are harmless to the kiddos and enlightening for us adultos.

I’ve said it before: kids are the purest humans on the planet. They haven’t yet been fully conditioned into robo-dults. For science, this is very valuable as it decreases a number of influence-related variables and thus, increases the odds that we’ll see something about human nature instead of societal conditioning. 

Traditional Habit Formation Is Terrible

Traditional habit formation tells us that to create a new habit, we must sandwich our desired behavior between a cue (to trigger the behavior) and a reward (to reinforce the behavior). With my Mini Habits strategy, cues are optional and I have mostly advised that people do not set up planned rewards for two reasons:

  1. You don’t need a reward to reinforce an easy behavior (i.e., mini habit) that you can already do on your worst day.
  2. Requiring that you reward yourself on cue makes the process more complicated and cumbersome. Simplicity is key to success. I believe in the least effective dose when it comes to behavior change because it results in less resistance.

I have, however, encouraged people to reward themselves randomly and connect that idea to their habits. For example, “I’m going to watch a TV show now since I’ve been doing such a great job with my push-up mini habit.”

Science agrees, and gives one more reason not to plan rewards for behaviors. “Surprise rewards” are actually much more effective than expected rewards.

Recently, I came across a study from an article by Psychologist Jeremy Dean. Dean cites a fascinating study:

“The children were then randomly assigned to one of the following conditions:

  1. Expected reward. In this condition children were told they would get a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon if they took part.
  2. Surprise reward. In this condition children would receive the same reward as above but, crucially, weren’t told about it until after the drawing activity was finished.
  3. No reward. Children in this condition expected no reward, and didn’t receive one.

Each child was invited into a separate room to draw for 6 minutes then afterwards either given their reward or not depending on the condition. Then, over the next few days, the children were watched through one-way mirrors to see how much they would continue drawing of their own accord. The graph below shows the percentage of time they spent drawing by experimental condition:


~ Jeremy Dean (source)

As you can see, those who expected a reward did the least amount of drawing. As for why, Dean states, “rewards reduce intrinsic motivation.” 

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The traditional thinking behind rewards is that they can help you establish a routine. If you will repeatedly do X (behavior) in order to get Y (reward), you’ll eventually start doing X automatically. This makes the reward into a tool, and the behavior into a means to an end. It cheapens them both.

In the short term, this makes the behavior itself seem less appealing (as the study showed). Because the behavior is framed as nothing more than a conduit to the reward, we don’t look for the rewarding aspects of doing the behavior itself. Adding a reward incentivizes the behavior, but in doing so, it also suggests the behavior is only worth doing to get the (unrelated) reward, and it lacks the “punch” of an organic reward. That’s not good.

And yet, if you don’t add a reward, you might not stick to the behavior long enough to make it habitual. This seems like a conundrum, but it’s easily solved. The solution is to remove the reward and make the behavior itself more appealing.

Mini habits require no rewards, they’re small enough that they don’t need the incentive or reinforcement of a reward. Since mini habits lack an extrinsic reward, it makes us look for the intrinsic value in the behaviors themselves. The small size of the behavior facilitates enough repetitions for us to find the intrinsic value of exercise, writing, reading, gardening, and so on. This happens as we form a habit in that area, which leads to this…

How Does One Get Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the ultimate goal for every good behavior and for life as a whole. Why?

If you need anything extrinsic (outside of yourself) to take action, you are not in control.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. But how can we get it? Unsurprisingly, the best way to get it is through forming a habit. If you successfully form a habit, you will become self-driven to do the behavior. It’s not motivation in the way we tend to think of it. It’s deeper. It’s subconscious.

Habit: something your subconscious is motivated to pursue.

If there’s a behavior you struggle to do, but want to do, it means your subconscious isn’t on board yet. It’s a nonsensical, albeit popular strategy to try to pursue intrinsic motivation without involving the subconscious. That’s like trying to drive a car without wheels. This struggle is why people pursue extrinsic motivation in the first place.

To be clear, it is possible to “get motivated” and find the intrinsic value in a behavior in any instance (it only works sometimes). If you do this, you’ll be working from intrinsic motivation. But it’s only when you repeat it enough that your intrinsic motivation toward that behavior becomes subconscious and permanent.

Zooming out, we have these three ways to approach rewards and motivation:

  1. Bribe our subconscious with extrinsic rewards (the main form of extrinsic motivation).
  2. Empower our conscious mind to override our subconscious desires by “getting motivated” (the weak, unreliable form of intrinsic motivation).
  3. Unite our conscious and subconscious desires with a strategy like mini habits, which helps us learn the intrinsic rewards in taking action (the everlasting form of intrinsic motivation).

Three Takeaways

We’ve covered a lot of ground in relatively few words, so here are the three big takeaways.

  1. Tacking on a reward to the end of a behavior could possibly form a habit over time by encouraging the behavior, but relying on such an extrinsic reward is a bit like lifting weights with bad form (it might work, but it might make things worse). Adding rewards reduces our intrinsic motivation in the short term, which is the opposite of what we want to do!
  2. Mini habits can build your intrinsic motivation while moving you towards forming a habit. This is one reason why the book is in 17 languages. People realize, “Wow! I can make real progress, feel in control, and gain momentum instead of lose steam over time!” Then they tell everyone they know about it, because it actually works!
  3. Habit formation is the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation because it is completely self-sustaining (through the strength of your subconscious). Acting from habit is more satisfying and more reliable than trying to generate intrinsic motivation every time you want to take action (or worse, trying to bribe yourself into action with extrinsic motivation).

So there you have it. You don’t need to plan rewards for yourself to reinforce behaviors. Reward yourself randomly, and in the meantime, set up some mini habits to develop intrinsic motivation that lasts.

(photo by bryanrmason)

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.