The Missing Factor That Demolishes Habit Building

And A System To Use It

We fiction writers understand the power of tiny habits. We get that routine and “just starting” are key tools to get a lot of writing done.

But there’s another factor involved in building small habits that is critical, yet is often overlooked.

BJ Fogg, in Tiny Habits, said that celebrating the execution of a habit — that is, rewarding yourself — sets up positive emotions in reaction to completing the habit. Those positive emotions reinforce the habit, making it easier to execute next time, which in turn sets up a positive reinforcement loop. That helps set the habit in concrete.

Most of us skip over rewarding ourselves.

If you aren’t aware of the impact rewarding yourself has upon establishing the habit, it’s easy to think you can live without the self-conscious rah-rah step and save time by moving onto the next task.

But rewards and celebrating even tiny completed tasks has an outsized influence on your long term success.

It pays to reward yourself, both short term and long term.

Fogg, in his book, suggests that simply fist pumping the air might be enough, as long as it comes immediately after you’ve completed the habit.

If you’re like me, though, a fist pump and verbally patting yourself on the back just feels…well, stoopid.

So I invented a system.

I love my systems. But this one had unexpected pay-offs.

I built a list of rewards that ran from micro to medium sized.

  • They had to be free or cheap.
  • They could not involve food, or encourage other bad habits or addictions.

Rewards don’t have to be “things”. They can also be experiences. If you’re into hour-long bubble baths, that could work as a reward. Ditto walking in a favourite park, catching up with a movie you’re interested in. If you’re into napping, an afternoon snooze might be a luxury for you. And so on.

Don’t forget the tiny rewards, either. These are little things you can do straight away, right in the moment, as Fogg recommends. If fist-pumping is not your style, maybe click through to your favourite soundtrack ever, sit still and just enjoy the next three minutes. Or step outside and circle your garden, and talk to the plants for a moment. Take three minutes to meditate and zen out. Light a candle in your favourite scent.

But I wanted bigger reinforcement than that

I was looking for powerful motivation, real reasons to execute new and budding habits. I have a long list of both things and experiences that I can rarely justify indulging in — new running shoes, new running gear, new tech. A day at a spa. A day window shopping. A weekend writers’ retreat in the mountains. A very long list of books. Courses and workshops in a vast array of subjects both professional and personal.

All of these bigger rewards are overkill, when you’re rewarding yourself for something as simple as doing five push-ups first thing in the morning.

But there’s a way to build up to them.

Enter the points system.

Every retail store in the world has some type of loyalty program. The one I loved, that hooked me and reeled me in, was the reward points system that FictionWise used (remember them?). Damn, I loved that store! I bought books just to get free books!

It was my first introduction to a reward points system and I fell for it. Hard. Kobo uses a similar system, these days, and I also offer reward points to my customers on my own bookstore — I deliberately aped FictionWise, because it worked so well for me.

That’s where I got the idea for a reward points system for habit-setting.

What’s a habit worth to you?

I set up a chart of habits I was trying to establish. (You don’t want to introduce too many at once.) Then I assigned a number of points for each successfully completed habit.

Then I flipped over to my list of medium and big rewards and figured out how many points they were worth.

I set up a simple chart on my phone, with a list of habits I wanted to complete each day, with the days running off to the right.

Instead of the fist-pump….

Now, instead of giving myself the stoopid pat on the back, my immediate reward and reinforcement was to check off the habit on my little chart.

I found myself smiling as I did it, because I also got to see a growing column of check marks for the day. The act of rewarding myself was being reinforced, too.

Even more reinforcement

Once a week, I tote up the completed habits and calculate how many reward points I’ve earned. Then I get to go shopping for a bigger reward that matches the points I have.

Or I can choose to hold off on spending the points and save up for one of the giant rewards.

This weekly tote-up and shopping process adds even more reinforcement to complete my daily habits.

Once a habit is fully established, I take it off the chart and add a new one (and there’s always new ones lined up to be instilled!)

When I first built the system, I actually made the reward points too generous, and the rewards themselves too easy to earn. That ended up being a good thing, because achieving mid- and large-sized rewards quickly helped set the system itself as a positive reinforcement reward.

These days, I make the reward points a bit more challenging to earn (but not TOO difficult!) and the rewards themselves slightly harder to achieve.

Maybe you *like* fist-pumping

The whole idea of a system of rewards might seem like overkill to you. If you get a little rush from cheering yourself on, then that might be all that you need to build good habits.

But maybe you need a bit more motivation than positive self-talk can provide. A simple reward system might be the tool you need.

Write More, Faster Than Ever Before

Are You Prolific?

The Productive Indie Fiction Writer Workbook now available for pre-order!

Write More, Faster Than Ever Before

Are You Prolific?

The Productive Indie Fiction Writer Workbook now available for pre-order!

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