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How to use rewards to stay motivated

Back in January, I was listening to a Before Breakfast podcast episode about motivation. In it, Laura Vanderkam was talking about the relationship between progress, rewards, and motivation.

tuxedo cat sleeping

Cats are rarely motivated. 😉


Progress is rewarding.

Rewards are motivating.

Thus, rewards beget more progress. 

And then you are in something that is the opposite of a vicious cycle! But sometimes it can take a while to see rewards, and when you are in that spot, motivation can flag a little. 

cat lying on her back

Because I am a frugal blogger, my mind immediately turned to how this concept applies to money management, and I started pondering where my motivation for frugality comes from.

What rewards do I get for making progress in managing my money well? How do those rewards motivate me to continue?

And then I also started thinking about other things I do (like blogging, rehabbing furniture, working on my college classes) and what motivates me to keep at them.

So, this post is just my ponderings on the topic and at the end, I hope you will share your thoughts too! 

I decided that rewards really fall into two categories: immediate rewards and future rewards.

Immediate rewards 

Immediate rewards are the most fun, but I think they are also the type that can encourage not-so-great choices.

For instance, if you choose to order takeout, the immediate payoff is that you don’t have to cook and you get a hot meal anyway. That’s pretty rewarding!

Panera takeout

If you choose not to get out of bed and go to work, the immediate reward is that you get to stay snuggled up in your comfy bed.

If I choose to not practice my chin-ups, the immediate reward is that I avoid the sweating and the muscle pain, and I can spend the time doing something more fun.

Future rewards

Rewards that will come in the future are obviously not as much instantaneous fun, but I do think they tend to be worth far more than immediate rewards. 

To take the examples above:

If I choose to cook at home, I will keep more money in my bank account, put something healthier into my body, and also probably produce less trash. Those rewards aren’t very immediate; this is more about the long-term health of my bank account, the long-term health of my body, and the long-term health of the planet.

Those are all super important things, but they are not terribly rewarding in the moment.

If you choose to get out of bed and go to work, you will get money at the end of the pay period, you’ll be able to contribute to retirement accounts, you’ll be able to pay your rent/mortgage, and so on.

Very important stuff! But not immediately rewarding.

If I choose to practice my chin-ups, and I keep doing this over time, I will eventually be stronger. I will fight against the age-related muscle mass loss, I will support my joints, I will stay limber, and my grip strength will increase.

Who wouldn’t want that? But those benefits are slowwwww to come, so it’s harder to feel motivated by them.

What’s the solution?

I suppose the most obvious answer to this dilemma is to develop the art of looking into the future.

If I am only living for this current moment, I will make decisions that are immediately rewarding.

But if I can look forward to future rewards and really imagine my future self reaping those rewards, then I will be motivated to make good choices right now. 

Basically, if I keep my eyes on the prize, that can help me keep working toward that prize. I want to be a nurse (the prize), so I will study the immune system (my current assignment in Anatomy and Physiology).

I can make decisions today that will bless Future Kristen!

I wonder, though, if a hybrid approach is most helpful. What if we could think of some immediate or semi-immediate rewards when we find our motivation flagging?

For instance, if you skip takeout and eat food from home, you could focus on the fact that you will probably feel immediately better after a salad at home than you would after fast food fries.

The long-term financial and health benefits are there too, but you also have a little immediate motivation. 

Or what if we could put some “artificial” rewards into place?

Like…if you stick with your menu plan all week long, you could plan to reward yourself with one takeout night on the weekend.

For yet another option: what if you could think of money-saving activities as ways to give yourself multiple rewards?

For instance, if I get a free piece of furniture and then paint it and turn it into a high-end looking piece, I have given myself several rewards:

  • I get to keep my money in my pocket AND
  • I get to have a very nice piece of furniture

Bassett mission dresser painted white

If I eat my leftovers:

  • I get to keep my money AND
  • I get to have a healthy, homemade meal that is basically free

If I make a loaf of bread:

  • I get to spend pennies on the dollar AND
  • I get to eat super delicious bread 

Of course, it is possible to motivate yourself by reminding yourself of negative consequences.

But you know me…I like to keep it positive, so I would rather motivate myself by thinking of all the ways my choices can bless me!

That makes me feel more like I am spoiling myself rather than depriving myself.

What helps motivate you?

And if you have any good tips for coming up with short-term rewards for yourself, I’d love to hear! 

P.S. That whole concept of blessing yourself rather than depriving yourself: it’s how I approach the way I eat as well. 

And it’s how I approach exercise and weight-lifting.

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Monday 6th of June 2022

Every payday I look at my savings account. Seeing that number grow is a reward for me. It's a symbol of my temperance or self control. I give myself a moment to be proud of myself.


Friday 25th of March 2022

For me, you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned Future Kristen. I think a lot about Future Shelagh (and incorporate chats about our future selves with my students). Many things that Present Shelagh doesn't want to do will benefit Future Shelagh (as well as others, our community, our planet, etc) and she'll be super pleased with me if I just get my butt moving!


Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

Thanks for the Before Breakfast shout out! When I plan out long term projects, I generally aim to make each day’s work pretty small and manageable. No individual day inspires resistance because it is so doable (one chapter in War and Peace! It is 4 pages!). But if I stick with the schedule I will finish. And since time passes no matter what we do it is just a matter of plodding along.

Sandy Beach

Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

Add me to the "spreadsheet and list club" too! I am highly motivated by being able to cross things of my list each day. I do this at the start of each workday as a way to stay organized and get things done. I printed out an amortization schedule with extra payments for our mortgage and would mark off the payment each month. We paid off our mortgage last year! Also, I set financial savings goals each year and keep a running total on a spreadsheet. My motivation was early retirement and this is my last year working.

Another motivator for me is Fear. I didn't want to struggle like my Mom did financially (she and my father divorced when I was young and she had full custody). I saw how hard it was without a college education or trade for her. This motivated me to get a college degree and later MBA. I worked all through college. I also know Fear motivates me to exercise and eat well. Spending a few visits with the cardiologist and seeing the people in the waiting room was really jolting, one man in particular was in a wheelchair with a fresh surgery scar running down his leg. Also my brother was diagnosed with Type 2 diabities, but he's doing better (Thank goodness), so that motivates me to try not to end up on insulin. Also, if I keep my weight down and exercise my knees don't hurt as much. I would like to lose 5 more lbs. though. As a CPA I've seen many older clients who spend a small fortune on dental work (implants, etc.), so that has motivated me to floss everyday and really try to take care of my teeth.


Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

It is reassuring to find so many other members of the "Keep lists and spreadsheets" club. Keeping lists may have been something I learned in preschool, as someone disdainfully said, but if so, I am eternally thankful to my teacher for giving me a tool to keep life orderly and delay gratification. That tool continues to help me to accomplish things, for even huge tasks can be broken down into pieces I put on a list, and after finishing those pieces on those lists, I suddenly realize I have finished the huge task. (And sometimes those tasks spanned years worth of lists, like when I needed to keep myself on track, sometimes on a weekly basis, to finish the slog through grad school even during the writing of the dissertation that would never end. Honestly, some days my list included just "write 1000 words today.")

And the spreadsheets of spending, which my husband convinced me had value, is what made it possible for us to retire the day I turned 50, with all debts including our mortgage paid off despite a period of near bankruptcy when we each had a catastrophic illness. And thanks to how they continue to help me curb my tendency toward extravagance, we can continue living a life that includes being able to donate money to worthy causes. In essence, they give me a daily reward of seeing how thrifty I can be (without ever feeling deprived), as well as a long term reward of a lifestyle where we can take short term contracts that interest me or do nothing at all besides a volunteer gig we each have. My biggest regret is that I did not meet my husband when I was 20, so I could have retired at 40!

Other techniques, such as I get to read for 10 minutes or I get to have a piece of a candy bar don't work for me at all. I have friends who find those methods very helpful, but when I tried them, I just kept reading long after the 10 minutes and I would just shrug and eat the entire candy bar. (Plus, as someone who struggles with weight, rewarding myself with a candy bar would be counter productive. And, somehow the reward of a salad instead just would not do it.)

Thanks for this topic, Kristen. A few people have listed techniques I am going to try because while lists and spreadsheets have worked for most areas of my life, I still have places where I could use some help to stay on track. Calories, I am talking about you...

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