If you tend to procrastinate on projects or lack motivation, rewards can be a powerful tool for motivating yourself to get your work done. However, they can also backfire. Let’s look at why this happens and what you can do about it.

Rewards can backfire when they are not based on our intrinsic motivation. When we’re intrinsically motivated, we’re driven by our own interest in the task itself, rather than external factors like money, special treats, accolades, and other goodies.

The Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside. Intrinsic motivation is often stronger and more sustainable because it’s self-driven. Extrinsic motivation can be helpful in the short term, but it’s not as reliable or lasting.

For example, if you love playing the trumpet, you’re intrinsically motivated to practice. You do it for the sheer joy of making music, not because you’ll get a reward. The act itself is rewarding enough. But what if you’re not quite so passionate about it? Maybe you have a concert coming up and you know you must practice but you’re finding it difficult to get started. You tell yourself you’ll reward yourself with a trip to the mall to buy a new outfit for the concert if you practice 30 minutes per day for the next week.

This is extrinsic motivation, and it’s perfectly fine when used sparingly. That said, this same reward can backfire, and that can be demoralizing. For example, what happens if you miss a practice or two? First, you’ve let yourself down (and anyone else who has a stake in your success, like your bandmates or piano teacher). Second, you will miss out on the reward! Third, what if you really need a new concert outfit and go to the mall anyway? You might not enjoy the mall trip because you didn’t meet your goal and now feel like a cheat.

How to Connect Rewards to Your Intrinsic Motivation

The key to avoiding this is to connect your rewards to intrinsic motivation whenever possible. What types of things do you do just for fun? Maybe you like making TikTok videos. Could you film yourself practicing your instrument, add some funny subtitles, and post it online? If you’re a movie buff, how about putting on a classic movie, turning the sound off, and practicing as if you were performing the soundtrack? Maybe you love the great outdoors. Why not go for a nature walk after your 30 minutes of practice or even practice outside?

The possibilities are endless, but the key is to make it something you really enjoy. That way, you’ll be more likely to stick with it in the long run. And when you reach your goal, give yourself a pat on the back—literally! A little self-congratulation goes a long way.

It’s important to note that rewards work best when they’re small. If the reward is too big or you don’t achieve it, you might feel discouraged and give up on intrinsic motivation altogether. And if the reward itself isn’t fun for you, then what’s the point?

Keep the following in mind when using rewards:

  1. Rewards work best for small accomplishments toward a larger goal. For example, completing an outline for a client’s ebook or a rough draft of a chapter for your own book. You’re not going to complete the entire project at once, so you need short-term motivation as well as long-term goals. The first step is very doable and helps build momentum toward completing more steps down the road. In this way, rewards can be helpful.
  2. Be specific about what you’re going to do and when, so it’s easier to measure your progress along the way. Set a deadline that is within reach but still challenging enough to stretch you a little bit.
  3. And then reward yourself accordingly. If you complete your goal on time, give yourself a small treat that appeals to your intrinsic motivation. If you miss your deadline, don’t punish yourself by giving up or stopping altogether. Instead, be flexible and give it another try.

In short, rewards can be helpful tools when used sparingly and in conjunction with intrinsic motivation. But they can also backfire or even become distractions, so it’s important to be mindful of what you’re trying to achieve and how you plan to reward yourself.

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