Monday, January 14, 2008

Reward as Self-Sabotage

I was thinking about this today a bit as my mind wandered through 40 mins of cardio (for, potentially one of the best things about regularly working out is that I'm regularly in a position where my mind pretty much has to wander). I've always been a pretty reward-driven person. If there's a carrot at the end of a task, I'm much more likely to sail through it than if there's the threat of punishment. I'm also not terribly good with getting things done when there seems to be no reward at the end of it, so it's not like I can separate the things that give me pleasure from the work to be done, as if watching Rock of Love II tonight wasn't related at all to working out today, like if I hadn't worked out I could still have experienced that guilty pleasure with as much, well, pleasure. And if I'd not set it up so that RoL was the reward, would I have worked out? Well, I might have talked myself out of it, whatever my resolve. So at any rate, I'm sure that the way I've always linked the achievement of goals to rewards developed out of other people rewarding me for stuff when I was a kid, and so I found a way to do that for myself.

But the thing that I was thinking about is that a lot of times the kinds of rewards I've devised have ultimately kind of violated the spirit of the achievement. So, for example, if I've successfully stuck to exercise and diet stuff, the reward is pizza; if I've gotten a ton of reading done for work, the reward has been lying around and vegetating in front of the television until I'm sick of myself and until I'm up against the wall with another deadline; if I've had a good teaching week, the reward is often to procrastinate about grading. You see what I'm getting at here. I somehow set up the rewards so that I'd end up right back where I started, and while the rewards I've chosen have, in the moment, seemed like a great treat, after that moment passes, I end up feeling guilty about them. So that's been my "process" for as long as I can remember: work (of whatever variety), (self-sabotaging) reward, guilt.

It's weird, because I was talking to a friend tonight on the phone, and the conversation veered in the direction of this very topic, although we were talking about him and not me. And what was bizarre was I found myself advising him as if I were this enlightened soul who'd figured this problem out, when in truth it sort of took spouting all of this nonsense to him to make what I'd been thinking about at the gym click. See, I was thinking about it in this very narrow way, just as it relates to me and food, but in talking to him, after the conversation was over, I realized that this has been a pattern for me in all areas. It's central to how I've handled romantic relationships (and gotten involved in them); it's crucial to how I've achieved in this profession; and, indeed, it relates to the way I take care (or don't take care) of myself (physically, emotionally, whatever).

So the question is, now that I've had this epiphany, what do I think? Because ultimately I think that the ability to reward oneself for what one does is a good thing, and I don't think that the answer is to throw that particular baby out with the bathwater. I think the trick, and the thing that I've got to figure out from this point forward, is how to choose rewards that are in the spirit of the achievement. And probably I need to learn how to find the things I'm achieving pleasurable in the moment whenever possible, too, but Christ, I'm no saint and some things will just never be pleasurable in themselves. Some things just suck. But rewarding yourself with something that nullifies the achievement doesn't make them suck less. And when I do things that veer off the path, that shouldn't be a reward but rather, something that I see in the broader context of the "more positive" things that I'm trying to do in other areas.

So, for example, I have plans to go to dinner and the movies with BFF tomorrow. This means that I'm going to eat things that I've not been eating because of the whole fitness thing. But that's not a reward for having been "good" in the new year with the fitness resolution - it can't be. Instead, I think that I need to see it as fulfilling the "fun" resolution, and the challenge will be to put it into context with the fitness resolution, by doing extra cardio at the gym and by being careful about what I eat throughout the week. Why this all makes such clear sense to me now when it never has before I have no idea.

But so if something like going out to dinner isn't going to be a reward for success with the fitness resolution, or for finishing work stuff (another way I've tended to use eating garbage), what will I use to replace that? Hmmm. Well, you know, I think I already figured this out this weekend without intending to do so. On Friday, pleased with myself for having done as well with things this past week as I did, I decided to buy and read The Jane Austen Book Club and to make myself a fabulous dinner that was entirely healthy and that I'd never made before. (Pork chops with apple and onion, mushroom risotto with brown rice - and olive oil instead of butter and just the teensiest bit of parmigiano-reggiano as opposed to mountains of cheese, steamed carrots, if you were wondering.) It totally didn't violate the spirit of what I've been up to, and yet it was totally and completely a reward. Must think of more things like this, to apply in all areas.


Maude said...

maybe your reward for working out can be a new item of workout related stuff--like if you're dedicated for two weeks, you get a new workout top that you've been wanting that's recently gone on sale. or, since you're losing weight and feeling sexy, a new pair of undies. or something simple like socks. i don't know. or, something new for the kitchen to help you make healthier meals. i have a thing for spatulas from williams-sonoma in different colors. silly, i know, but i'm like "think of all the healthy sauces i can stir with a new bright lime green spatula!" or "i'm feeling good! i'm getting some new lipstick!" because really, what you might spend $20 on pizza and wine to celebrate and you can get some gorgeous high fashion lipstick for less than that. and the lipstick is calorie free (i'm assuming, since you're probably not going to eat it. *smile*)

hmmm, so my humble opinion/advice has hijacked your comments. sorry.

What Now? said...

Your epiphany of creating rewards that undermine the achievement itself is so interesting, and I'm going to have to think seriously about the ways in which this might be true in my own life. Thanks for the insight!

gwinne said...

Interesting post. Your comment about television as reward caught my attention. One thing I've been thinking a lot about lately--I'd love to see you address it--is how much work is "enough" work? Why must televsion--for any of us--serve as a reward for work well done, as opposed to just being a part of an evening spent relaxing? I'm on leave this semester, working on a book project, and I keep wondering if that means I'm "supposed" to work on my writing during every hour I would ordinarily spend working on teaching related activities. This is a tangential issue, I realize, but in regard to work these questions of reward seem to be tied in with our collective expectations of what "good" behavior for an academic is.

heu mihi said...

Really interesting post and comments. Gwinne touches on something interesting--the act that we academics do often see what other people would consider a normal activity, such as watching TV, as something that has to be earned through hard work. Not sure that that's healthy. But then, I'm not sure how healthy TV-watching is, come to think of it.

Anyway, it sounds like you've been making some really good changes this year--and systemic changes, rather than superficial ones. Congratulations! That's something to feel happy about, and not particularly easy to do.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

This is really interesting. I think it's a common approach, rarely analyzed like this.

BTW, my fave fitness rewards tend to be new fitness gear, a new fitness class/treat (personal training session), a massage, or bath/beauty items.

Rewards for projects completed tend to be new gadgets, books, or software (generally work related).

Unknown said...

My reward for getting through tough situations is: jewelry! I go on Etsy and order a cute and homemade piece of jewelry. Silver, not gold, so as not to break the bank. I've got a heck of a collection by now. It's awesome- lasts so much longer than any other reward I could think of!

EcoGeoFemme said...

What an insightful post. I had never thought of this before, but now I am going to contemplate my own rewards. Do write an update post on this subject if you come up with a better reward scheme.