Somewhere in my mind, I know that the fact of losing weight and becoming healthier should be a reward in and of itself. And in certain ways it is. But these are lofty, long term goals and on a bad day, when they seem particularly far away, it can be really helpful to have smaller goals linked to rewards of some sort for external motivation. Depending on the situation, it can also be beneficial to link an (unnatural) consequence to straying from “plan,” but I find that to be of limited use, and will explain further in a moment.
I’ve found that small rewards for hitting milestones are really crucial in keeping me motivated, particularly on the bad days where I don’t want to go to the gym and I just want to eat food that I shouldn’t (or large quantities of “ok” food which makes that food not so “ok” anymore, <tangent alert> unless you’re talking spinach or something like that, but do people really get the urge to binge on spinach because that seems weird /tangent). Anyway, I link my rewards to multiple health metrics because, as I’ve mentioned earlier, while the number on the scale can be powerful, there are a lot of other indicators of health that may have nothing to do with the scale. As an example, these are some of my rewards.
Lose 10 pounds: 20 minute chinese foot massage or chair massage
Lose 15 pounds: pedicure
Lose 20 pounds: full body massage
Run 1 mile without stopping: new workout shirt
Run/walk a 5K in under 45 minutes: new workout pants
Run an entire 5K: new running shoes
You’ll notice that NONE of my rewards are food related. This is really important, especially for someone like me, who tends towards emotional eating. Setting and working towards these goals makes me think about appropriate rewards that don’t involve food, which makes me less likely, in the future, to turn to food as a reward. They’re also all relatively inexpensive, especially since I’ll use groupons or other deals for many of them. Well, all inexpensive until I get to the new running shoes part, but by that time, I will actually need new running shoes in order to avoid injury and the importance of that means that I will be willing and able to spend a little more money. I’ll also be able to plan and budget for it, since I’m not going to be able to run a 5K overnight. Anyway, this is an example of a reward system that works for me. It’s not complete – I’ll continue adding additional incentives as I reach these goals and cross them off my list, but in order to keep the incentives meaningful, I’m waiting until I’m a bit closer to them to choose rewards.
Now, onto consequences. This is a far more complicated topic and could probably warrant a post all of its own, but I’ve written it, so it’s going here. In general, I believe that you will get farther by rewarding good behavior and limiting the consequences of bad behavior to the natural consequences of that behavior (for example, the stomachache that you know you’ll get after eating a particular food). However, since I do not want this to be a “diet” but am looking for a real lifestyle change, I need (at least for now) to associate certain bad decisions with tangible, immediate consequences, which will force me to make the decision more thoughtfully. It’s too easy for me to say “oh, I won’t mind that my stomach hurts later” because that’s the future and we (I) naturally minimize the negative effects of things that we may cause ourselves to suffer in the future. By putting a consequence at the time of the choice, I find that it helps me to put more thought into the decision. Right now, I’m only really using one major consequence and it applies to the following situations: a) consciously eating more than a minute amount of gluten, b) eating cheese, cream/milk, frozen yogurt or ice cream (other dairy is sometimes consumed inadvertently and while I try to avoid it, it’s not always possible), c) eating candy/refined sugar that isn’t either sugar free (which has its own unpleasant natural consequences) or limited quantities of high quality dark chocolate. You may notice some overlap in those because they often involve the same or similar foods. Anyway, the consequence is the same in any case. If I choose to consume one of the foods listed above, I have to get rid of a pair of shoes. If, for example, I was going to eat pumpkin pie with whipped cream, I’d have to get rid of at least 2 pairs of shoes because it breaks multiple rules (the distinction between 2 and 3 would depend upon how much sugar was in the pie filling and whipped cream. If those numbers were reasonable given the food, I’d probably only get rid of 2 pairs).
This might sound ridiculous – getting rid of shoes when I want to eat “off plan.” But it works for me – I’m a girl with small feet who has trouble finding quality shoes that fit. As a result, I kind of hoard my shoes and will admit that I have more than I need. Yet I hate parting with them because you just never know when you’re going to need those super sexy black strappy platform sandals that you haven’t worn in a year… It’s what works for me – YMMV. A consequence (just like a reward) will only work if you make it personal to you. For example, it would not be a very meaningful consequence if P had to give up shoes for making bad food decisions because he only owns 4 pairs of shoes and needs every one of them. Thus, he knows that he’s not going to actually get rid of any shoes even if he makes the decision. I, on the other hand, love shoes and am not in a financial position to be able to simply replace the shoes that I get rid of, which makes it more meaningful. Like rewards, consequences not only have to be meaningful, but they also have to be enforceable (or actionable). With my shoes, I tell P about the decision I’m making (or made), then give him the shoes, which are quickly donated to charity. This makes the consequence (for me) immediate, immediately out of my control and permanent.
At the end of the day, you need to find a rewards/consequences system that works for you. It helps to have a friend or loved one on board, ideally someone who is participating with you or has their own rewards/consequences system so that you support each other, but in any event someone who you can trust to help make sure that you actually reward yourself when it’s appropriate (because you DO deserve it, even if it sometimes feels like you don’t) and who can also remind you (in a non-nagging way) of your self-chosen consequences and, potentially, help with enforcement.
Do you use rewards and/or consequences with respect to your weight and/or health goals? I’d love to hear additional thoughts!