How to Reward Your Worst Tasks for Future Motivation

How to Reward Your Worst TasksA few months ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article about the different types of rewards you can use to “trick” yourself into crossing unpleasant items off your to-do list. I found myself drawn to the list of reward types and examples.

When we think about health coaching, it’s natural to want to encourage people to reward themselves for good behavior, but it can be tough to think of specific rewards that don’t undo the good behavior to some degree. Even if I might urge opening a bottle of wine when I talk to a friend, I’m not likely to make the same suggestion in my capacity as a health coach. I appreciate the value of a list of ideas by type that could generate more helpful reward suggestions.

The major reward categories from the article are:

  • Regenerative: Relaxing or unwinding after you finish the task
  • Productive: Focusing on more fulfilling aspects of your work.
  • Concurrent: Completing the unpleasant task in a pleasant environment.
  • Cumulative: Tracking accomplishment over time toward a larger reward that costs money.

Of course, my mind instantly goes to this idea that rewarding ourselves in an essential extrinsic manner for unliked work is denying ourselves the opportunity to ever learn to like that work. In a twist on the overjustification effect, rewarding dreading tasks could be the equivalent of building a neural roadblock and preventing enjoyment. To that end, I propose a few intrinsically motivating reward types to augment these:

  • Competence-building: Keep a checklist of progress, physically x the item off a task list, write out the ways in which the unpleasant task has moved a bigger project along, or ask a coworker for feedback on the task. If this is a task you will do repeatedly, “score” yourself on it somehow; for example, time how long it takes you to complete an expense report, then try to beat your record.
  • Autonomy-supporting: Use the task as an opportunity to try a new way of doing things, write out how the task connects to a larger goal you have (perhaps becoming more tolerant of boring activities?), or think of the people who are helped by the task. How is this task potentially helping your career?
  • Relatedness-nurturing: Connect with a friend or coworker to talk about the task (ok, I’m advocating social complaining–it can be cathartic!), or enlist the help of someone else (while offering yours in return). If the task lends itself to completion in a social setting, that’s another option; I remember data entry more fondly than I should because it became a social activity with friends when I was in grad school.

What are your favorite ways to reward yourself for a hard task well done?