Home » 21 Day Mini-Course: Establish an Exercise Habit » Day 7: Make Your Habit Even MORE Rewarding

Day 7: Make Your Habit Even MORE Rewarding

Fresh new carrots

We human beings may say that we are pursuing happiness, but really what we tend to pursue is reward. Anything that we might desire counts: a cashmere sweater, a pretty little cupcake, attention from a mentor, a sense of accomplishment, a positive feeling. When our brains identify a potential reward, they release dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger. That dopamine rush motivates us toward the reward, creating a real sense of craving, wanting, or desire for the carrot that is being dangled in front of us.

Fortunately, we can make dopamine work for us as we build our habits. To get into a good habit, you’ll need a really rewarding reward. Rewards need to be immediate or, even better, built into the routine when possible.

We can do this by making the activities themselves more rewarding—more fun. This is what I did when I went from running in the evenings to walking or hiking; walking feels good while running felt punishing. Remember that at this stage of your habit building, any physical activity is better than none. It might not be the road to the Olympics, but it’s a hair closer than staying at the office responding to email.

Here are three other ideas for reinforcing your new habit:

Use B.J. Fogg’s “Yay me!” reward. I’m a HUGE fan of this one because it’s easy and it works. Even something as small as a short mental victory dance can trigger a little hit of dopamine, enough to tell your brain to repeat whatever you just did. So when I find myself outside walking around in the fresh air, I congratulate myself. Sounds a little crazy, but it works!

Really relish the positive emotions that your new habit elicits. Be intentional about them, or “take in the good” of them, as Rick Hanson would say. For example, I tend to feel happiest on my hikes when I consciously look up at the trees (rather than down at the trail, as I am inclined). When I look up at the trees, I tend to feel a warm, relaxing sense of awe spread over me. Because I exercise to reduce stress and feel happy and calm, each time I’m out I make an effort to look up at the trees and really feel the calm and awe wash over me.

Add something to your exercise routine that you’ll look forward to when you think about it. I supercharged my desire to get out on the trail by letting myself listen to audiobooks while I walk. For a while, because I’ve read about the incredible benefits of mindfulness, I felt like I “should” make myself just do a walking meditation–that I should force myself to enjoy the stillness, that I should mindfully engage with my neighbors and the nature around me rather than being lost in a book.

But then I noticed that I most wanted to get outside and walk when I had something I couldn’t wait to get back to listening to…and I decided to give myself permission to do something I really enjoy. This means that I’m even more committed to my exercise habit, because, as Michelle Segar compellingly writes, “we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.

HomeworkWhat To Do Today

Task #1: Build juicy rewards into your new habit using the “Make Your Habit Even MORE Rewarding” worksheet in the workbook.

Task #2: Take your “Better Than Nothing” workout out for another spin. Does it feel ridiculously easy? If you really want to do more, go for it, but the very second that you feel any sort of resistance, please stop! Remember that you will eventually come to avoid what feels bad, and pursue what feels good. Keep your habit feeling good.

Extra Credit: Check out B.J. Fogg’s slideshare “How to Celebrate Tiny Successes.” It’s a quick read, and it’s super helpful.