Building habits is something we do from the time we are born. Sometimes our habits are built with intention and sometimes they’re not, but regardless, the habits we build either help or harm us. To build the kind of habits that improve our wellbeing, we have to make habits rewarding.

Celebrate the small wins

Behavior scientist BJ Fogg emphasizes the need to lock in the small victories through his Tiny Habits method. He’s so passionate about the need for celebration that it’s part of his formula to success. His secret recipe for success looks like this:  “After I… I will…” followed immediately by a celebration. Celebration helps make habits rewarding because we begin to crave the smile, fist-pump, or little dance that follows the successful completion of a habit we’re trying to build. Based on his extensive research, he’s discovered that habits form much more quickly as you begin to crave the feel good celebration that follows. 

Obey the cardinal rule

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear refers to “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change,” which says that what is rewarded gets repeated and what is punished is avoided. He suggests that the reward experience is critically important in the early stage of habit development, so to make habits rewarding he recommends creating an external reinforcer that aligns with your desired identity. Some of his examples are to walk in the woods for retirement savings (identity = freedom and control of time) or take a bubble bath for exercise habit (identity = taking care of your body). External rewards lock in your new habit. You will repeat what’s rewarded. 

Shift toward intrinsic satisfaction

While extrinsic motivators make habits rewarding work in the early stages of habit development it’s important to shift the focus from external rewards to internal ones for lasting change. External rewards are things that are tangible, like eating a piece of chocolate after running or buying a pair of shoes after saving money. Those rewards are satisfying for a while, but author Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habits,” reveals that the most lasting and fulfilling habits are those that provide an intrinsic reward. How something makes us feel becomes more important than what we get. The feeling of pride, success, satisfaction, or gratitude creates longer lasting habits. We repeat our behaviors because it aligns with the person we believe we are or the person we are becoming. 

Add surprise

To assure ongoing interest, many gaming and social media apps make habits rewarding by tapping into what they know about habits. They are designed to add an important element of habit formation to their design, which is the element of surprise. Users return time and again because of what Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked,” calls the variable schedule of rewards. Variable rewards focus our attention, provide pleasure, and infatuate our mind, which leads us to crave the experience again. App designers create social media feeds that update each time you open the app and entice you reach new levels so you can unlock new characters in your favorite games. Interestingly, these experiences are also intrinsically motivating, so they are more bound to stick long term. To harness this power for good and make habits rewarding, choose a habit tracking app that gamifies your progress and incentivizes you to stick with it. 

Regardless of author or behavior scientist, each one agrees that it’s important to make habits rewarding to make them stick. Experiment with some of our recommendations above and let us know what works for you!