The Relationship Between Habits and Rewards

With the commencement of 2020, I thought I would start a ritual, where at the end of each month, I would reflect on the bright spots and write the highlight of the month on a slip of paper and toss it into a mason jar, making it my Memory Jar.  That will help with the writing of the annual Christmas letter, I mused. 

But by the end of January, I could find nothing that immediately stood out.  Oh, there were plenty of simple pleasures and beauties, like watching the turkeys, blue jays, and pheasants at the bird feeder during my morning coffee ritual or admiring the sky’s tricks: the sun’s rising in ribbons of peach, purple, and rose or setting in flaming bursts of yellow-orange, auburn, and violet, but nothing big, nothing outstanding.  And as I reflected, I realized how easily we slip into a life where we anticipate the extraordinary and forget to find the extra in the ordinary.  So, January went by just fine, and my jar has its first memory: Signing a publishing contract with Rowman and Littlefield for my book Honoring Identities, a trade book for the educational community on creating culturally responsive learning communities.  

That ritual to keep a Memory Jar, however, fizzled out before it had a chance to flare because I didn’t change my habits. It’s funny how a new year often finds us in a mode of making resolutions and starting anew—but the science behind resolutions tells us that changing existing habits takes consistent and intentional effort. Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. Because I didn’t make the habit an easy one to establish by setting out a jar to stimulate my memory, I forgot.  

When we are trying to change an existing behavior or create a new one, we need to practice the habit so as to establish a conditioned response. In order for the behavior to actually become a habit, we need to practice it so that it will "stick" on its own and become part of our routine. To help us through this phase, we need to make the new behavior as EASY as possible by attaching it to a previous action and then to execute the new behavior in a routine manner. In my case, the reward was also too far removed from the action, so I wasn’t motivated.

I’ve come to realize that habit making and habit-breaking are skills. Desire for change isn’t enough; habit formation requires motivation and reward.

In the field of psychology, four names often come up as habit masters, those who have studied the science of habit forming and written books about their theories. Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit), BJ Fogg (Tiny Habits), Gretchen Rubin (The Four Tendencies), and Nir Eyal (Hooked) each write about habit forming as some kind of mental loop or mind hack.  Some external prompt triggers or cues a behavior.  When we respond to that trigger, our behavior is rewarded in some way, essentially reinforcing us to repeat the behavior in the future. In this way, we become invested in the routine or feel motivated to continue in the behavior.  Hence, a habit forms.

I’ve simplified the research, but if you want to learn more about the science of habit forming, read from that smorgasbord to satisfy your craving. Understanding something about the science will help in achieving results.

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