Monday, February 1, 2010

The Dark Side of a Rewards System

Rewarding yourself for meeting goals is a great concept for a writer. Your muse will be tickled by goodies you shower upon him or her, your inner editor will be smarmy with "I told you we could do this", and your self-image will shoot up as you relax with whatever pasttime you have chosen to gift yourself. However, if you don't meet your goals, you don't get the reward. *gasp!* You wouldn't want that, so you push yourself to succeed. It's a great concept.

But is it working?

Most of the time the rewards system is broken, flawed. I was crazy guilty of taking advantage of my rewards last year, but I suspect I'm not the only one who has fallen prey to temptation. In 2009, I rewarded myself for a job poorly done, for goals half-accomplished, for alternative goals, for goals met far beyond the deadline I'd set, and prematurely for goals "to be accomplished". And all I did was reinforce negative behavior.

So what's wrong? Aside from "good enough"-itis and "the real world ate my week and my mood is foul so I need something to pull me out of my funk" excuses, we could be setting the wrong rewards:

  • "I'll buy it anyway": If you have the money set aside for something that you intend to purchase anyway, this is not the right kind of reward. For example, if you're an avid reader and there are books you intend to purchase, and you pre-make that purchase, you can say "I won't read this until I meet my goal" all you want. But you ARE going to break down and read it before you've accomplished that goal in its entirety.

  • "I'll play this game/read this book for [set time here]": If you are obsessed with video games, this is not the right kind of reward. For example, if you're addicted to Facebook games and allow yourself 15 minutes to play for every hour of writing time, but you DON'T set a timer or you habitually state "Just 5 more minutes!", this is a bad, bad, bad, bad reward. You will lose hours into games, miss out on valuable writing time, and feel guilty over succumbing to the lure of the game. Likewise if you are an avid reader and a good book will suck you inside its pages and steal the rest of the day.

  • "I'll go to this movie with friends": If you schedule a movie theater timeslot (or any other event) and have no intention of cancelling that appointment, this is not the right kind of reward. For example, if you've already purchased tickets, it's almost impossible to back out of the arrangement, especially if it's a costly event. No one likes to say to their friends, "I'm sorry I can't go see X-Men 15,021 with you this weekend even though we've been planning it for months: I only spent 18 hours on writing this week and I'm 10 pages short of my goal." So we don't, especially if said friends are non-writing friends, and especially if the non-writing friends don't "get it".

  • "I'll clean the bathroom": If you don't get real enjoyment out of cleaning, this is not the right kind of reward. This is an obligation, same as your movie-date. For example, if you look at your office and the idea of ripping through mounds of unkempt paper is enough to give you hives, you'll be more likely to throw the goals in the trash than a single wad of misplaced tissue paper.

    What are good rewards, then?
    *Things you will feel real disappointment in missing out on or real excitement in the act of working toward, but not feel tempted to reward yourself with "because I've worked hard and deserve it". Accomplish your goals as stated, or let the reward shift back to the next time you have a goal to meet.

    *Stepped rewards that require multiple elements in order to really enjoy the "big picture" reward. Right now, I have a stepped reward that allows me to buy new costume pieces for the Steampunk World's Fair in May. I have 4 major goals and money set aside. If I miss one of my goals, I still have a closet of clothes to rummage through, but I might not get the spiffy lace ruffled Victorian jacket I've been ogling since last summer. And I reeeeally want that jacket, because without it, and the skirt, and the boots, and the belt - I'll just be cool. Not SUPER cool.

    *Things people (friends and family) hold hostage and refuse to reliquish, no matter how piteously you beg. ("But I got through 5 pages today, that's more than zero! You can let me have my PS3 controller back...please?" "Is 5, 10? I don't think so. *whip crack* No goals met, no rewards, sucka!")

    *Time spent with friends that isn't premeditated. Meet your goal, THEN schedule your reward meetup time.

    *Timed rewards. If you can train yourself to use the timer truthfully (and not effectively "snoozing" on your allowance of reward time) this can be a fabulous way to make yourself stick to your rewards.

    *Mini-rewards for those incomplete goals. If you must reward yourself for effort instead of endgame, promise yourself a smaller reward. This then becomes the "if I almost make it, and I'm happy with my achievements, I get this instead of the big thing over there" and leaves the big shiny reward for your major accomplishments. Just make sure that you don't make the small rewards more appealing than the big ones!

    This whole spiel doesn't apply to everyone. Some of us are rockstars in the self-discipline department. The rest of us have to work harder, set more meaningful rewards, and keep those goals of ours manageable in order to allay frustration.

    The moral of the story?

    Don't go to the dark side. You won't be taking out Alderaan - you'll only be hurting yourself, your self-esteem, and your willingness to meet your goals in the first place.

    Don't reward yourself for a job poorly done, for goals half-accomplished, for alternative goals, for goals met far beyond the deadlines you set, or prematurely for goals "to be accomplished". Don't reinforce negative behavior. Be tougher on yourself. If you don't meet your goals regularly, make them more realistic. If you meet your goals far in advance, step them up to give yourself more of a challenge. And perhaps most important of all: Be honest with yourself.
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