Using Rewards to Change Habits - Rachel Trotta, CPT/WFS/FNS  

Using Rewards to Change Habits

Using Rewards to Change Habits

Using Rewards to Change Habits

Last month, I took an extremely interesting professional development course offered by Dr. Kateri McRae of the University of Denver – it was all about the psychology of how we pursue and maintain healthy habits.

As my clients know, I’m always fascinated by the psychology of change – not only for my clients but also for myself. As someone who has lost a significant amount of weight and experienced a paradigm-shifting change in lifestyle and habits, I enjoy puzzling down the what’s and the why’s of how long-term transformation can be successful.

Dr. McRae highlighted an aspect of motivation that I use in my Fit Smart Fast online coaching program but don’t discuss enough on my blog – the use of rewards to change habits.

The fancy psychiatric term for this is “contingency management,” and I’ll dive into exactly how it started and how it works in just a moment.

But I want to point this out first: for a long time in my personal training work, I resisted the idea of using rewards to elicit new habits. I thought it seemed demeaning or childish – something you would use to train your dog, rather than inspire behavior change in a grown adult.

But over time, I’ve learned exactly what Dr. McRae’s course pointed out: the brain – yes, even the adult brain – loves rewards when it comes to making or breaking habits. And when you make the reward meaningful and the required behavior change do-able… you have a recipe for transformation.

Contingency Management

So what is “contingency management”?

Contingency management is the formal term for “using rewards to change behavior” in psychiatric settings, especially in community-based addiction treatment programs.

The “contingency” is essentially the rule that you must complete X action to get Y reward, no exceptions.

In the drug rehabilitation setting, an example is drug-free urine tests entitling the patient to financial vouchers. The contingency is that the patient only gets the financial voucher if the test returns negative.

But the use of contingency management, or reward-based habit change, isn’t limited to drug rehabilitation.

Contingency management can be successfully used for making any healthy habit (or breaking unhealthy ones) because the brain is easily fooled by rewards when you have a craving. This is because your brain isn’t craving something specific – it’s just craving dopamine, and it’s learned that specific action (like taking a drug) will get you a big dose of it.

It’s about to get science-y, but just for a quick second. You ready?


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain – a chemical messenger that is heavily involved in learning and motivation. To put it simply, your brain really, really likes dopamine and will rapidly learn what actions produce it. In the process, your brain and body will quickly work together to reinforce the action->dopamine cycle, so that you make a habit to keep you returning to the source of dopamine.

For example, taking habit-forming drugs produces a big surge of dopamine in the brain. Therefore, your brain will make it a huge priority to get more of the drug, because it understands that that’s how you got the dopamine.

Addiction is a strong example (since drugs “hijack” the dopamine reward center of the brain in an exaggerated way), but weaker influences of dopamine can be felt every day. Dopamine is why we feel “motivated” to do basic things like eat, learn new skills, socialize, and exercise.

Dopamine is also why you sometimes feel cravings for specific foods (which are often not healthy), but can also feel “craving” for your regular exercise habit once you get into a solid routine.

Using rewards skillfully to reinforce your behavior changes can be a powerful tool for growth. You can leverage dopamine through health-promoting habits to make your healthy habits stronger, your unhealthy cravings weaker, and your willpower seemingly stronger.

Let’s talk about the 15 do’s and don’t’s of using rewards to change habits.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Using Rewards to Change Habits

So we’ve established that when your brain has a “craving,” it’s not craving the thing itself – it’s craving the dopamine.

With that in mind, here are 15 guidelines for implementing an effective rewards system to harness the power of dopamine, change your behavior in a way that almost feels like a game, and help you live a healthier lifestyle.

Guideline 1: Don’t reward yourself with something that perpetuates the behavior you’re trying to stop.

For example, don’t reward yourself for losing five pounds by going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. You’re trying to train your brain to deliver a dopamine response to cues other than overeating, remember? If you reward healthy habits with unhealthy ones, you’re only continuing to reinforce habits you’d like to stop.

Guideline 2: Do make the reward something healthy and self-caring.

One of the things that I’ve learned to love about rewards is that they introduce and reinforce habits of self-care. For many of my weight loss clients, overindulging on food was one of the only nice things they did for themselves, ever.

By introducing healthy rewards like a new outfit or a massage, my clients learn to put a priority on doing some nice things for themselves, which helps them to be happier and more balanced people with a higher reserve of dopamine anyway, which means they’re less reliant on food for those quick dopamine hits.

Even buying yourself flowers can go a long way to helping your brain establish new connections of self-care and reward.

Guideline 3: Don’t swap candy for carrots.

Literally. Your brain knows that it will get a dopamine hit from the sugary, fatty goodness of candy. So if you try to fake out your reward system by having a snack of raw carrots or another healthy, low-calorie snack instead, your brain isn’t going to be fooled.

Remember, your brain is only fooled by dopamine, and it knows when it doesn’t get it.

Guideline 4: Do swap candy for a pedicure.

But the good thing is that dopamine is “domain general” rather than “domain specific” – this means that your brain just wants dopamine, and doesn’t care where it comes from.

If you’re conditioned to getting dopamine from candy (i.e. you often hit the candy bowl on the office manager’s desk), your brain knows that the candy is a reliable source of dopamine, so you’ll crave the candy specifically.

But your brain can be fooled by a substitute – not of food, but of dopamine source. If you tell yourself that you can get a pedicure at the end of each week that you hit a new goal of reduced candy intake (only five candies in a week, then only three, and so on)… then your brain’s association with candy->dopamine will gradually weaken as it strengthens the association between pedicure->dopamine.

Guideline 5: Don’t make exceptions.

The idea of a “contingency” is that you must fulfill the terms. When you make exceptions, you teach your brain that you didn’t really have to reduce your candy intake to get the pedicure, after all! When this happens, the candy->dopamine cycle remains strong, and you rewarded yourself for it with a pedicure, too.

Guideline 6: Do be specific about your contingencies.

The actions must be quantifiable. You shouldn’t be able to look back on your week and wonder if you hit your goals. It should be black-and-white – you either hit them or you didn’t, and it’s obvious. They should be painfully specific.

A good example is 10,000+ steps per day (wearing a pedometer daily to track). Another would be taking a 30-minute walk three times in a week, or a specific number of minutes of exercise in a week. Something food-related could be cooking dinner from scratch three times a week and bringing the leftovers for lunch. Another specific measure would be weight – hitting a specific weight loss milestone.

These are indisputable, clear actions or results that you can easily track to define success and reward yourself accordingly.

Guideline 7: Don’t make normal self-care a reward.

I see a lot of my clients do this – choosing rewards that should be part of their regular lives anyway. A full night’s sleep or a hot shower aren’t rewards – they should be commonplace on a regular basis. A movie night or a hot bath with salts, on the other hand, is enough “extra” to register as a reward for small milestones (in my opinion, at least!).

Don’t skimp on regular self-care, and don’t make it contingent on goal achievement – your “rewards” should be a little something extra!

Guideline 8: Do choose rewards that are out of the ordinary for you.

If you love clothes but rarely allow yourself to make a purchase, make your reward for your first milestone a small new item from your favorite store.

If you can hardly allow yourself the time and money to get a pedicure, give yourself spa treats as motivation to achieve milestones.

If you love your tech but have hemmed and hawed about buying the latest fitness tracker – splurge on it once you’ve hit your first milestone goal!

Once, one of my clients decided that her reward for herself would be a new tattoo, to celebrate the beauty and strength of her body when she achieved her goals!

Guideline 9: Do Focus on Making Habits Rather Than Breaking Habits

And while you’re at it, be careful about how you implement abstinence-based rewards.

Here’s what I mean, in practical terms:

Reward yourself for things like:

  • Running a mile without stopping
  • Accruing 150 minutes of exercise in a week
  • Bringing your lunch to work three days in a week
  • Eating vegetables at every meal for a week
  • Losing five pounds
  • Blood sugar levels reaching a healthy range

But be careful about rewarding yourself for things like:

  • Complete abstinence from the candy bowl (from the example I used earlier)
  • Complete abstinence from sugar
  • Complete abstinence from junk food

When you focus too much on abstinence, it’s easy to end up in a loop of:

  • Not being able to achieve your goals because they were too strict, thus never rewarding yourself, thus never making progress in changing habits (and getting the added bonus of feeling like a failure)
  • Not being able to answer the question, “Did I really achieve my goals?” because the abstinence goal ends up being too vague (i.e. “Was there sugar in that ketchup? Was I really abstinent?”)

Especially when it comes to food, abstinence is a tricky model. Unlike drugs or alcohol, which you don’t need to survive, you do need to eat and your body will sense danger and fight back if you become overly restrictive.

Instead of creating abstinence goals, keep the focus on positive, achievable milestones that add something to your life. Or if you do create an abstinence goal, make sure that it is something very, very achievable and concrete, like abstaining from the candy bowl rather than from all sugar.

Guideline 10: Don’t make your first milestones too hard.

As you adjust to the reward system, you want to make sure that your first few milestones are easy to accomplish. This is because the brain’s reward system is sensitized by what’s called “priming” – in other words, you’ll be more hooked on a healthy habit if you get a taste of the rewards to come.

For example, if you want to lose 50 pounds, start with a quick reward for losing the first two pounds. Don’t make your first reward contingent upon a 10- or 20-lb. loss, which can be extremely daunting.

Guideline 11: Do make your rewards scale with your accomplishments.

To reference the previous example, don’t use a trip to Cabo as a reward for losing the first two pounds. Instead, make the rewards match the scale of what you’ve accomplished – maybe a trip to Cabo for the last two pounds of your 50-lb. loss, for example. Keep stepping up the value of the reward as the value of what you accomplish increases.

Another example could be accruing exercise minutes as points that can be exchanged for rewards. Let’s say for 150 minutes you get a manicure. For 300 minutes you get a pedicure. For 500 minutes you get a massage. For 1000 minutes you get a spa day. And your points expire every 30 days.

Guideline 12: Don’t cheap out.

I know some people are reading this and saying to themselves, “I don’t have the money to treat myself like this!”

First of all, you don’t have to spend a fortune for this method to be effective. And if you plan your contingencies right, you’re not going to be rewarding yourself nonstop, either.

Let’s say that, after an initial round of small rewards to prime the pump, you establish that you’re going to buy yourself expensive new running headphones once you are able to run a 5K without stopping. This will not be an overnight accomplishment! It will likely take a month or more to achieve the goal.

So don’t cheap out. Choose rewards with meaningful financial implications, as this gives your brain a rush of dopamine that will be a powerful habit-forming tool for good.

Guideline 13: Do exercise regularly.

Exercise improves your neuroplasticity at any age, which means that a regular habit of being active will make it easier to make or break habits.

My clients are constantly astounded to hear that when I first began to lose 50 pounds about 10 years ago, my main mode of exercise was walking. I didn’t do high-intensity classes or high-endurance cardio – I simply walked around our neighborhood for about 30 minutes in the morning every day.

Walking (especially outside) is still one of my main forms of exercise, because of its accessibility and its mood-boasting power.

By choosing a form of exercise that’s easy to incorporate into your daily life, you increase the likelihood that you’ll be consistent, improve your health, and enhance your habit-forming and decision-making abilities.

Guideline 14: Don’t Go It alone

Finally, make sure to engage with others on the topic of your “contingencies.” Tell a friend about what you’re doing, and lay out your plan in writing. Keep your spouse clued in.

This spring, I had a small health hiccup that led to a partial re-gain of some of the weight that I have been keeping off for years. Once my health was in order, I focused on re-losing the weight five pounds at a time. Each time I lost another five pounds, I treated myself to a new clothing item from my favorite athletic store, Athleta.

During this process, I kept Michael apprised of my progress, because I knew I would be less likely to make exceptions if I had a witness! He knew the rules, and it helped to have someone else involved even though he didn’t “enforce” anything specifically. It made me more consistent and more mindful.

It may even help to have professional support. Engage the help of a counselor, dietitian, and/or personal trainer to help you establish your milestones, give you advice for adherence, and keep track of when you hit them (and celebrate with you, too!).

Guideline #15: Only Focus on One Thing at a Time

Finally, when it comes to using a reward system, I highly recommend keeping it simple. When it comes to actually rewarding yourself, choose one concrete goal to use as your metric – not a bunch of different small goals. Avoid diffusing your energy by spreading yourself and your attention too thin.

For example, give yourself rewards for minutes of exercise per month or for average step count per day, and let nutrition goals be secondary goals. In other words, you could reward yourself with a spa day for 1,000 minutes of exercise in a month, and simply do your best to eat more healthfully without strict parameters around it.

Or, to flip the script, focus on rewarding yourself for a food-related goal like packing your lunch for work a certain number of times per week, and let exercise goals be secondary goals.

But let me give you one piece of advice: because of the power of consistent exercise, I highly recommend focusing on exercise first and then, once exercise has become a habit, switching the focus to food.

Letting Habits Become Habits

The good news is that you won’t have to keep up a meticulous rewards system forever. Eventually, the habits that you are mechanically rewarding are going to become intrinsically rewarding and self-perpetuating.

Depending on what you’re working on:

  • You’ll learn to enjoy exercising more – or at least the experience of watching Netflix on the treadmill!
  • Eating vegetables will become an automatic habit, and meals will seem odd, bland, or too small without them.
  • You’ll become more proficient at cooking, which means you’ll be faster and enjoy your own meals more and less dependent on convenience food.

In other words, the habits will catch up with you and become rewarding in their own right, rather than needing to be constantly reinforced.

But a rewards system acknowledges that – at first, at least – habits are hard to make or break. By giving yourself extra support through a rewards system, you make it easier to break through the first level of change and get on the path to long-term, solid habits.

Have you used rewards?

Using rewards to change habits can be a powerful tool for transformation – do you have examples of when you’ve done this in your own life? Leave a comment below!

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