Designing rewards for momentum

Photo credit: blogTO (Hector Vasquez) at The Rec Room Toronto

Milestones and rewards are common in almost every project or activity, yet most of us are not using this mechanism effectively to achieve our most important goals. For myself, I began structuring my weeks into “sprints” where there is a list of “stories” which I work towards completing. If I closed all my items by the end of week, I make an effort to be more deliberate in how I reward myself. This past weekend I went to one of my favourite restaurants with another couple and visited the latest entertainment complex in the city. These “mini celebrations” fulfill all components of what a reward actually is: a stimulus I enjoy (going out), it creates a wanting feeling (dopamine or “motivation”), and it teaches me how to perform better to get it again next week.

Rewards and pleasant experiences are made up of two components: the stimulus itself and the active processes of the brain that responds to the stimulus. Subsequently, the neuro processes of a reward can be further broken into three parts:

  1. Liking
  2. Wanting
  3. Learning

Liking is what most of us can relate to best — the actual feeling of pleasure and euphoria when the reward is realized. These feelings or experiences can be conscious or unconscious. A handful of ‘feel good’ hormones and neurotransmitters are released in this state (e.g., endorphins).

Wanting is commonly associated with the term “motivation” — a desire to get an outcome (or feeling of pleasure). The more we can anticipate a future reward, the more we want it. Sound familiar? That is dopamine kicking in, which increases as the likelihood of the future reward increases. This also explains why building milestones and interim rewards is critical for sustained success. A massive goal is impressive (and reward per the “Taking the moonshot” post) but the likelihood of it happening is too far to grasp. As such, it is critical to break down big goals into smaller bit-sized opportunities that can be quickly realized, thus, creating more dopamine and reinforces the cycle. (Thinking this should be a future topic on its own — thoughts?)

Learning allows us to associate and predict future rewards based on past experiences. This component is critical in sustaining momentum. Almost immediately after we realize the rewards, we begin to think — how can I get more? This desire for more plays a crucial role in how we design the rewards. For instance, realizing the reward should not deplete our utility for it — in other words, we should not be sick of the reward after indulging in it. (This will be covered in greater detail in a future post).

By designing rewards that fulfill all three components, we can systematically build and sustain momentum while enjoying the process. Note that it is critical that rewards are respected for what they are — meaning, if we did not earn the reward, we do not get the reward. This level of discipline is often what makes momentum (or as others call “motivation”) so difficult to sustain. As the person defining the expected outcomes, the rewards, and work required, it is very easy to compromise, but also extremely rewarding (pardon the pun) if done deliberately and appropriately.

#CanvasTheory:

1) Define the scope of activities and outcomes

2) Define what ’success’ or ‘done’ looks like

3) Define what the ‘reward’ will be — in this case, it was to go out on Saturday night

4) Ensure the reward is something you value highly and is something you will work relentlessly towards

5) Measure the outcomes

6) If successful, be fully present when enjoying the reward

7) Ask: How can I get this reward again in the next cycle?

8) Repeat

Note that a part of this approach requires you to become the toughest critic. There are weeks where I do not hit my target — that’s just the nature of a reward — otherwise, it’s not worth working for. Be honest and critical. It will yield much higher benefits in the long run.

What rewards keep you motivated to perform? Comment below!

Raphael is an adventurer, strategist and life-learner. Aside from building game-changing technologies in the healthcare space, he recently launched a podcast — The Canvas Project (www.thecanvasseries.com) — where he shares stories of how everyday leaders are designing their lives to build momentum and drive results.