Why you should reward yourself, frequently

Reading time: Less than 4 minutes

Does the concept of rewarding yourself strike you as juvenile or frivolous? It’s not! Here’s why you should reward yourself for writing….

I once took an online writing course in which the leader encouraged us to give ourselves $2 a day for writing. I remember thinking: Two dollars a day? Is he crazy? What kind of incentive is that? I can’t even buy myself a specialty coffee for that sort of loose change.

Today, while I think the guy’s dollar amount was off-base, I fully buy into his rewards-are-essential principle. Participants in my Get It Done writing group are sometimes surprised when I ask them if they’ve rewarded themselves lately.

Isn’t that too juvenile an idea? I hear them wondering, even if they don’t dare put that thought into so many words. So let me emphasize that the idea is neither juvenile nor frivolous. Instead, it reflects a shrewd understanding of how the human mind operates.

In short, what’s rewarded is repeated.

But this key principle is hard for writers to grasp, especially report, book and thesis/dissertation writers. Why? Because their job is so big and their deadline so far away.

Here’s a cross-section of the thinking process many of these writers employ:

  • I need to write 80,000 [or, other big number] of words
  • I can do that by writing 1,000 words a day for 80 days or by writing 500 words for 160 days or by writing 250 words for 320 days
  • I’m excited about getting started
  • Oh, dear, this isn’t as easy as I’d predicted
  • I don’t feel like writing today
  • No problem, I can just make it up tomorrow

Of course, if you miss only one day, it indeed won’t be a problem. But I have never known any writer who can restrict themselves to missing just one day.

Instead, life intervenes. Emergencies and other urgent tasks capture our time and attention and, before we know it, our long-form project is on hold, sometimes for days or months.

If you have a big chunk of writing to accomplish (or, if you simply want to develop the writing habit), then don’t make yourself delay gratification until the project is complete. After all, if you forced yourself to finish the report/book/dissertation before you gave yourself any reward, you’d be collecting on your self-awarded IOU every three years or so (and maybe even a lot less frequently than that.)

Obviously, this is no way to live up to the what’s-rewarded-is-repeated principle. Instead, it’s a way to engender frustration and burnout.

When we give ourselves rewards, on the other hand, we’re more likely to feel recognized, happy and cared for, which will increase our sense of self-command. And that very sense of self-command will help us maintain a healthy writing habit.

Instead of making yourself wait for the big Kahuna goal at the end, give yourself small but regular rewards throughout the writing process. Whenever I speak with clients about this concept, I’m usually able to convince them of the value of rewards fairly quickly. Then comes the tricky question: What should those rewards be?

I’m not of the chocolate-brownie school of thought. I don’t believe it’s wise to use food, particularly unhealthy, sugar-filled food as a reward. I also don’t believe that daily rewards should be expensive. Here is a list of 15 healthy and inexpensive rewards you can give yourself:

  1. Enjoy a speciality tea or coffee (or some other healthy drink like Kombucha)
  2. Buy a magazine
  3. Get yourself a new book (and if that’s too expensive, make it a library book)
  4. Spend time on Facebook or whatever other social media you use (use a timer!)
  5. Give yourself time to read a short story or novel
  6. Call a good friend on the phone
  7. Take a bath or a long shower
  8. Go for a walk in the park or at a beach
  9. Go window shopping at your favourite mall or store
  10. Listen to music
  11. Watch a show on TV or Netflix
  12. Play your favourite online game
  13. Do a crossword puzzle
  14. Take a guilt-free nap
  15. Listen to a podcast

Hey, wait, you may tell me. I’m already doing many of these things.

Yes, that’s my point. The whole idea is to reframe your thinking. Instead of doing fun things without planning, do the important work on your writing project FIRST, and then reward yourself with an activity that gives you some pleasure.

In other words, you need to EARN the reward. And, by the way, you’ll get even more pleasure out of the things you used to give yourself for “free.”

Later, when you finish a bigger milestone, (such as finishing a section or a chapter of your report/book/dissertation) you can reward yourself again with a bigger, more expensive reward. Here are five ideas for that category:

  1. Go out for dinner with your partner or a friend
  2. Go to a play
  3. Take a day off work
  4. Plan a weekend away
  5. Get a massage 

Rewarding yourself should become second nature to your job as a writer. By taking the time to acknowledge the small daily actions you took to achieve your writing goals, you will be strengthening those actions. And, in turn, this positive feeling will help turn the writing into a habit that will become a natural part of your day.

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If you want some help developing a writing routine, consider applying to my Get It Done program.  This three-month accountability group will give you the structure you need to become a more focused and productive writer. I’m hosting a no-cost webinar about how Get It Done works on Friday, March 8 at 1:30 pm Pacific. Email me if you’d like to attend. No charge, but pre-registration is required. To learn more about Get It Done, go here.

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My video podcast last week addressed how long a writing session should be.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you reward yourself? What are your best ideas for treats? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. And congratulations to Sandy Mackay, the winner of this month’s book prize, Asymmetry by Lisa Haliday for a Feb. 27/19 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Artful Edit by Susan Bell . To enter, please go to my blog (and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.) You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.