And a gold star for you!

A few years ago, I decided that I needed to help myself to simplify my life. I called that year My Year of Saying NO, and I even wrote a book about it. 

I am very good at saying ‘yes’ when people ask me to do things. I find it very uncomfortable to say ‘no’. I’m sure a lot of us do. So to help me make this new habit, I used a reward chart.  The actual chart was a very cute picture of a princess making her way along heart-shaped stepping stones to a castle. I hung the chart above my desk where I could see it every day. I bought some shiny gold star stickers and each time I had one of those difficult ‘no’ conversations, I stuck a gold star on the chart. When I got to the end of the chart I rewarded myself with a few days away.

It was a big reward, but it was a big lesson for me to learn.

My research tells me that reward charts work very well for children aged 3–8 years, and I don’t see why they won’t work for us adults aged 30–80 years as well. (And older, and younger of course.) In fact, if you google ‘reward charts for adults’ you get some really excited articles written by beautiful people who have discovered that they are ‘allowed’ to use stickers just as much as the kids are!

Using a chart like this is fun, and it helps encourage us in the activities we want to perform. So, just in case you are interested, I thought I’d write a post giving a little direction so that you can have fun with stickers too!

How do reward charts work?

1) Decide on the activity you are measuring. It is important that these gold stars are linked to an activity that you are doing, not a result. That is, you get a gold star for eating mindfully, not for losing a kilogram. You need to be able to do the activity and then reward yourself. So pick an activity, and write it down on your chart.

Activity ideas: Drinking six glasses of water in a day, working out, cooking a real meal, spending nine hours in bed at night (without your phone), practising a musical instrument for half an hour, walking for half an hour, meditating or sitting in silence with God for 10 minutes, writing 300 words in your novel, ringing your mother. Basically, anything you’d like to do more of.

 Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t try to achieve too many things at once. Just pick one, write it down and go with it for a while.

Another important part of this step is to write down why you are wanting to achieve this thing. Why do you want to go to the gym? To feel more energetic and to sleep better, maybe. Why do you want to practise the piano? So you can play that special song for your friend and really bless her. Write the reason for the activity – this really helps you keep going when the going is tough.

2) Decide on the reward you will receive at the end and write it down. Promise yourself a reward that is something meaningful, that is worth working for. 

Reward ideas: a bike ride, a movie night, a new book, a new toy, a pedicure, an afternoon off to read a book, an overnight at a B&B, a special meal out at a five-star restaurant.

Your reward could be related to the activity. For example, if you are giving yourself a star for every time you go to the gym, the reward after 20 sessions could be some new gym clothes. If you and a friend or partner are working on your goals together, your reward could be a weekend away for the two of you. 

It is important that you write the reward down. And it is important that you actually give yourself the reward once you reach your goal. The gold stars on the way are really great motivators, but I think that reaching the goal is also worthy of a celebration. We really want to celebrate success here!

3) Make that star chart, buy the shiny stickers (they don’t have to be stars, they can be any stickers you like) and go ahead and start measuring.

The star chart shouldn’t be too long. When people make these behavioural charts for their children, I see (and this is not backed by any kind of scientific study) that the resulting good behaviour lasts for about two or three weeks. 

It’s the same with us adults. We are using some extrinsic motivation here to hopefully build the intrinsic motivation that will turn this activity into a habit. But if we have to wait 100 days before we get any kind of reward, we are going to lose focus and even the sticking of a gold star to a chart will become a chore. So maybe make it three or four week’s worth, but no more. (Again, this is not backed by scientific studies, you do you.)

One last thing. When I was doing research for this post I found a new use of reward charts that I hadn’t seen before. They were charts for things like gratitude, and for noting when you feel positive. 

I love this idea. You can feel like you are miserable all the time, but if you stick a sticker on a chart whenever you are grateful for something, or whenever you notice that you’re feeling positive, then you  will be able to look at your calendar and clearly see a record of good things. And I think that will, in itself, add joy to your life. Beautiful.

Do you use a star chart or some kind of reward or tracking system? What do you do? How well does it work?

If you’d like to hear me chatting about this, my podcast A Quiet Life is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts and all other good podcatchers or you can find it at my website.

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