Reward yourself with your vice

(Note: I’m really on the fence about this dubious technique.)

Here’s a controversial method for taming your tech: reward yourself with your vice after a week of tiring work.

[ Why would you say that, Michael? Doesn’t that train me to not only binge on weekends but to crave the thing I’m trying to cut down on more? ]

Cravings are natural. They’re anticipation. And while they rage at first, they subside after awhile. I can’t tell you how long they rage because everyone’s different, but this method works for me, it’s backed by science, and you adjust it as time goes on to dampen those cravings. Here’s a harsh truth:

You can’t get rid of cravings. You can choose to not act on them.

And with this method, you use anticipation to override cravings.

How? By paradoxically amplifying your desire for the vice! Why? Because…

Hunger is the best sauce.

Hunger is the best sauce.

Believe me, I have some habits I’d like to kick. I could indulge them at any time. But if I do it when I don’t want it, it’s not as appetizing, or as fulfilling.

Of course, turn that around and that’s how addiction works: when I really, really want it, it sounds better than when I’m not “hungry.” (What’s with the food metaphors lately?)

Which is why your workweek plan needs four things:

  1. An ultimate reward
  2. A healthy reward
  3. Weekly or daily tasks
  4. Hardly any self-control

1. An ultimate reward

This should be your vice of choice. While I don’t recommend splurging on anything past the point of diminishing returns, since that’s just pain, for right now come up with some naughty-sounding temptation. Whatever gets you going. You’ll see why in step three.

2. A healthy reward

The moderator of my support group once told me a good definition of recovery is “replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones until the healthy ones look more attractive.”

I used to drink a soda every day at lunch, but I switched to water years ago based on disgust alone (too much sugar or aspartame). A couple of times a month, I have a craving, but seeing ads for it or others drinking it doesn’t affect me. Water is the yummiest now.

When you’re thirsty, everything looks tastier. Even water. And at the risk of using the same picture from another article… I think this has to do with anticipation.

Dopamine firing. Unexpected reward = fires on reward. Expected reward = same amount fired on cue.
© Trevor Haynes and Rebecca Clements 2018

When you know what the reward feels like, you crave it before you even get it. That’s why your ultimate reward serves as the motivation, and your healthy reward as the fallback.

This is especially important if your vice is a superstimulus. A healthy alternative will, over time, be more appealing than your ultimate reward. And I know it doesn’t sound like it will right now. Hence, your healthy alternative is not your motivator.

Your alternative should by enjoyable, not a punishment. You can limit it by a number of minutes or hours (for example, I earn one hour of video games per ten x’s in my plan (see below)), or it can be one event, like an expensive chocolate bar or a trip to your favorite restaurant. You can even have multiple alternatives depending on how much score you accrue.

Got your rewards? Let’s make a plan.

3. Weekly or daily tasks

Ever heard the saying “idle hands are the Devil’s tools?” It’s easier to give in to temptation when you have no pressing engagements. Think about it. What usually snaps you out of mindless browsing, gaming, or viewing? Hunger. Your bladder. Butt pain.

The idea behind this is to fill your days with things you enjoy doing. I hope you have some of those…

List these in your “weekly_plan_for_happiness.txt”:

  • hobbies
  • a monthly progress check on your most important hobby
  • healthy habits (meditate, gratitude…)
  • once-a-week things (back up your files, exercise…)
  • chores (shop, cook, water your plants…)

For example, here’s mine:

My schedule of tasks to do for the week. 1 2 3 4 5 to mark them off.

Cross off the numbers with an X each time you do something, and keep score at the bottom. Then at the end of the week, check if your points add up to your ultimate reward.

And here’s the crucial part. Keep your ultimate reward just out of reach, but attainable. Mine is set at 73: every single task has to marked off. If I miss five or less, I get the healthy alternative. If I miss more than that, I get nothing and try again next week.

The ultimate reward must be tough to reach! If you can get it without effort, A) it won’t be as good because you didn’t work for it; and B) you’ll be unlikely to do those things that give value to your life without accountability.

The hardest part of this is making sure you have enough to keep you occupied. There’s no point if you can secure the grand prize three days in. So you have to do some estimating, or keep your activities to a limited amount of time. (For me, fiction writing is an hour a day, but I don’t know how long a blog post here will take.)

4. Hardly any willpower

Yes, you need some to do the work, but what you listed are either things you enjoy doing or things you have to do. Unless you’re having a bad day, it won’t take much to do things you enjoy. (Hence why I have one hour of fighting game for every 10 x’s—I can use it boost my energy for other tasks.)

The anticipation of the ultimate reward, enhanced by waiting, possible but almost impossible to reach, is a powerful motivator, in my experience.

I also feel accomplished and proud when I hit the pillow at night. It truly becomes a “reward” after a hard week.

Or, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “…a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished, does not come through passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

You’ll feel satisfied and like you deserve a prize. And if you keep the grand prize just out of reach but the healthy alternative available if you miss five or less (for example) activities, your reward will be great. You earned it.

But some bold caveats.

  • This will not work unless you really, really want the prize and it would be painful to miss out.
  • This will not work if you give in and take the reward anyway, which is tempting, but remember, hunger is the best sauce. If you amplify your anticipation, it will be better than if you give in now.
  • This will not work if you don’t believe you can reasonably win the grand prize.
  • This will not work if you have so few tasks on the list that you finish before a week is up.
  • This works best with a healthy alternative that you enjoy, a fun activity that accumulates as you check off activities (for example, one hour per ten x’s), and a no-prize punishment if you don’t score high enough.

A final word on this controversial reward method

The goal is easier explained by a picture.

A man rides a donkey which chases a carrot on a stick.
Your thinking mind: the rider. Your emotional mind: the donkey. (Also, I didn’t know this was a real thing.)

While I’ve only used this method for two weeks… the second week’s healthy alternative was better than the first. (I succeeded both times.) So in my experience, the alternative does get better over time, and if it continues at this rate, the ultimate reward will stop being so alluring.

Since the 21-day habit formation theory is a myth, though, there will be hard times. For me, it’s satisfying to cross off an activity and to look back at a wall of x’s at the end of the week. But while it’s tough to do everything, I find extra motivation from doing it. This blog also forces me to be accountable.

The leadership strategist Jason Selk, writing in Forbes, describes some setbacks destined to hit you a few days after you start, as well as super-helpful mental tricks to fight the monsters back. (I’ll link to it so I don’t cite the whole article. It’s powerful!)

So jump over there or leave a comment below. Did this plan help you? It’s a tricky one. Let me know!

(Now that I’ve finished my work, time to eat that Reese’s staring at me across the desk. Mmm, hunger is the best sauce.)


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