To Read Or To Eat? Using A Reward System

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I’m sure you’re all familiar with the idea of a reward system. Personally, I have days when writing’s so hard I can barely motivate myself to do it. It’s not like the days when you’re so busy you can’t get to the computer: it’s the days when the computer’s right there, the document’s open, and the words aren’t flowing.

The only way to motivate myself in these situations is a reward system. I mean, there’s a punishment system too, but that just means taking away the rewards, so they’re basically facets of the same thing. The former sounds less scary.

It works like this: if I write a certain number of words, reach a certain point, or hit a particular goal, I get a reward. If I don’t, with any luck I’ll have the time to keep going until I do, so I still get the reward (it just takes longer). If my time is limited, that adds as an additional motivation. I don’t just have to write 1832 words, I have to do it in the next half-hour.

But it’s very easy for this to lead to unhealthiness and contrary to popular belief, I do somewhat care what I’m putting into my body.

See, the most obvious reward is food. Whether it’s as self-abusive as, “I’m not allowed any dinner until I’ve written this chapter,” (or worse, breakfast) or more self-indulgent, like, “If I write 2k I can have chocolate,” the outcome is the same. Your diet gets messed up.

And, if you’re particularly productive, you’ll soon be very overweight. I remember once during NaNoWriMo they were advocating having a chocolate reward after every 2,000 words or something. I wrote 200,000 words that year, so I feel like that would have ended badly. Fortunately, there are alternatives to this. They’re not quite as effective for limited timescales but man, they can be motivating.

As a writer, reading is super important. You’ve got to read. If you don’t like reading, why are you a writer? So you can’t use that excuse. Most of us came to this because we loved books so much. I ordered a book recently, and it arrived today, but my things-to-do list was a little long. So I made a deal.

For every task on that list I complete, I can read a bit of the book. If it’s a long task (which some of them are) I can read 100 pages. A short task will only get me 50. It can be my reward.

Sometimes you’re exhausted or you haven’t got a book ready to read, but TV can be just as great a motivator. Halfway through a series? You’re not allowed an episode until you meet a deadline. Reward yourself by doing something else and taking a break.tadaaaa

I find this works better than punishment because it creates deadlines or motivations to get things done without the stress associated with ‘failing’. If you don’t manage it on time, just keep going until you do. Maybe you’ll have to put the reading off until tomorrow, but you’ll get to do it.

You have to let yourself do it, though. I’ve a bad habit of overworking, so I’ll offer to reward myself and then keep going, saying I don’t have time. That completely defeats the point of the reward system.

Now, I’m not saying that food doesn’t work as a motivator. It totally does. If you’re still at school or college or whatever, it works for essays and assignments too. You can have cake when you finish. A biscuit halfway through. And I’ve definitely been in the situation of refusing to let myself have breakfast until I hit 10,000 words for that day, though that was during a particularly mental stage of NaNoWriMo 2013 and isn’t recommended.

However, break it up. Today’s reward might be cake, because you’ve got some. Tomorrow there may be no cake left, but a book just came into the library that you’ve been wanting to read. The day after that, another episode of your favourite show might be aired. Each day sit down and think, “How am I going to reward myself for what I do today?”

It helps encourage positive thinking (“Look, I achieved something! Now I get a present”), increase productivity (“I might have read 300 pages today, but I also wrote six thousand words, so it was still productive”), and reduce procrastination (because you’ve got time set aside to read and watch TV, so it’s not wasted). Plus, it’s a great way to make sure you keep up with other hobbies, like reading or watching TV, even while in the depths of working on a novel.

I mean, yeah, sometimes a novel’s going so badly you’ll procrastinate by working on homework or other boring tasks, but a properly set-up reward system can work wonders.

How do you reward yourself, and does it help? Let me know in the comments! And you know why you should actually, for once, talk to me?

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  1. I've tried this system.... and it really doesn't work. My lack of productivty is ingrained deeper than the crazy on Loki - I take one look at the thing that has to be written, and I either want to smite it or run away crying. I mean, it works /sometimes/, but what about those days when your brain says "no" so hard it practically hulks out in your brain?

    ... And no, I'm not saying this while very pointedly ignoring an essay for uni. Not at all.

    1. There are days when productivity is impossible, but that's often because you don't want to do the thing. The reward system works by finding the thing you want to do, and putting it out of reach until the unwanted thing is done. Or part of the unwanted thing is done.

      Personally, I can't work at all when I'm too stressed. I used to work better under pressure and used a 'punishment' system, but now that tends to trigger anxiety attacks, so I go for the reward version instead. The trick is to decide what I really value that day, and make an active decision to follow through with this system.

      However, you might work better when threatened, in which case, you need to give yourself a punishment system.

  2. Oh gosh. This post was a little too applicable to me right now. I'm having a "reward moment of Internet". I told myself to write 10K today to start me new book. I haven't written a THING for nearly 3 months.'s being quite hard. I'd love to reward myself with food...but like you said, that could end badly because I don't really want to over eat. ;) I struggle with rewarding myself with reading though, because I get involved in a book and lose touch with what voice I'm writing in. *shrugs* That might be just me. Excellent post, Iron Man!

    1. Moment of internet is a good way of rewarding yourself too, but 'moments' often turn into 'hours', and that's the problem.

      How about you write and then reward yourself with reading The Quiet Ones? I sent you the updated version now. ;)

  3. Sometimes rewards help me focus, but I found promising myself a TV show after writing didn't work, because I'd sit there and think about the TV show and what might happen and I wouldn't be able to focus on anything until I'd watched it. But then I usually get to it, I just get the reward first. And then give myself a second reward!

    1. I can see how that'd be a disadvantage. I suppose for me, I'm often rewatching shows I've watched before, so I don't have that problem, or I just zone it out. But I did find the other day when writing an essay that I was thinking about the book I planned to read afterwards...

  4. Excellent post! I'm actually quite fond of the reward system, though I don't always apply it perfectly. When I'm having particular trouble focusing, I'll often reward myself with a piece of candy for a finished page. At other times, I'm progressing better and hold off on a reward for longer periods. I like using books as a reward, but then I tend to read all afternoon and not get back to writing. And then there are the times when I grab my reward before I'm done. So, there's still work to be done, for sure. :D

    1. My favourite revision technique is to place a gummy bear at intervals down pages I'm supposed to be writing notes on. When I get to that point, I can eat the gummy bear. I guess that's similar to your system. (It relies on actually having gummy bears, though....)

  5. Great post! And super helpful :) I have a tricky time with the chocolate reward system as it's hard to find a good balance. Reading would be an excellent reward for me and probably work much better. Last NaNo I saved my Halloween candy and promised myself one piece for every thousand words. I ended up eating it all in the first two weeks.