by Kathie England

Better Than Before – No Finish Line: Reward

Rubin offers a fascinating perspective about the downside of rewards when building habits. She concludes that rewards can actually be dangerous to habit formation.
She refers to ideas introduced by Daniel Pink in Drive about the very complex consequences of rewards. Pink explores extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards. When we are extrinsically motivated, we do an activity because we get an external reward. Pursuing an activity for its own sake is intrinsic motivation and we are far more likely to stick with a behavior (habit/routine) that we find satisfying.
Rubin cites sources of intrinsic motivation identified by organizational development theorists Thomas Malone and Mark Lepper:

  • Challenge – personal meaning in pursuit of a goal that’s difficult but not impossible
  • Curiosity – intrigued and finding pleasure in learning more
  • Control – feeling of mastery
  • Fantasy – using imagination to make an activity more stimulating
  • Cooperation – the satisfaction of working with others
  • Competition – the feeling of gratification when comparing ourselves favorably with others
  • Recognition – pleasure when others recognize our accomplishments or contributions

She offers three reasons why rewards obstruct habit formation:

  • First, a reward teaches us that we wouldn’t do a particular activity for its own sake. We do it ONLY to earn the reward.
  • Second, rewards pose a danger for habits because they require a decision. A habit is something we do without making a decision. When we stop to consider whether or not we deserve a reward for the action we have taken or will take, we use up a lot of mental energy and that energy shifts attention away from the habit and toward the reward.
  • Third, the reward of the finish line actually undermines habits. The finish line is an obvious stopping point and Rubin has repeatedly explained that once we stop, it is much more difficult to re-engage and start again. She offers the perspective that once we’ve achieved success, we tend to stop moving forward. “A finish line divides behavior that we want to follow indefinitely…into ‘start’ and ‘stop’, and too often the ‘stop’ turns out to be permanent.” She shares examples of women who stopped smoking during pregnancy but resumed after the birth of their child. One-third to two-thirds of those who diet eventually regain more weight than they had initially lost. “Maintaining a healthy weight requires us not to follow a temporary diet, but to change our eating habits forever.”

She urges caution: if your reward marks a stopping point, that means you will need to start again and starting is hard.
I invite you to ponder whether your rewards for developing a habit are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.
I’ll conclude this chapter in the next blog by discussing the value of finding the reward within the habit itself.