Treat Yo’ Self: How To Use Rewards to Effectively Promote New Habits

Treat Yo' SelfMost of us are familiar with the idea of a self-reward. If you want to lose weight, you might decide to give yourself a new pair of shoes when you hit a milestone. Maybe you only watch your favorite tv show after you finish doing your least favorite work task. Or, to borrow a provocative example from Kathleen Milkman, maybe you only eat your most favorite hamburger when spending time with your least favorite person (for those of you with cranky relatives). If you do use self-rewards, psychology can help make them more effective for you.

The types of rewards that people use to motivate themselves may vary, but researchers have determined that for the most part, they fit into four basic categories:

  • Regenerative: Relaxing or energizing rewards like a massage, a snack, or a break
  • Productive: Engaging in tasks you like as a reward for finishing ones you don’t (but beware: This type of reward could also serve as procrastination)
  • Concurrent: Combining something you like with something you don’t, such as doing your work while sitting on the comfy couch
  • Cumulative:  Adding points or money toward a larger goal over time, like adding a dollar to an account every time you work out and eventually spending it on a large reward

Do the different types of rewards work equally well to motivate people to engage in disliked or difficult tasks? Research suggests no.

One perspective is that rewards as a motivational tactic are bad, period. Opponents of using rewards point out that rewards imply a stopping point to a behavior rather than a lifelong habit change. They also invoke the neurological undermining effect, arguing that pairing a reward with a behavior diminishes any chance of finding the behavior itself pleasurable.

I think the arguments of the “no reward” camp can be answered. Structuring rewards for milestones rather than ultimate outcomes helps to create a habit mindset, for example. And while the undermining effect is real, rewards don’t have to take the form of an explicit compensation for completing an activity (as the productive and concurrent forms of reward demonstrate).

In fact, even Gretchen Rubin in her piece opposing rewards for habit formation points out that sometimes extrinisic rewards can help cement a behavior, when they reinforce it. She gives the example of a fancy yoga mat as a reward for attending classes. (May I also suggest splashing out on fancy kitchen gear if you’re working on cooking homemade fresh foods?)

Beyond that, it seems like the timing of rewards might also enhance their effectiveness. The concurrent reward type might be the most effective, according to a recent study conducted by Katherine Milkman and colleagues that showed increased gym attendance among people only permitted to listen to a favorite podcast while working out. Milkman calls this “temptation bundling,” and argues it can be used across a variety of behavior types.

So, the best reward type might be something that you enjoy while doing the new behavior, which ideally also reinforces that behavior. In addition to fun cooking tools for healthy eaters, stylish workout gear, new running music, and sessions with the good-looking personal trainer, what habit-consistent reward bundles have you tried?


Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2013). Holding the hunger games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283-299.