Get Back on Track: Give Yourself a Pre-ward

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 7: Creating Your Source Codesubscribe and buy her

Every once in a while there will be a cause that lights a fire in your belly so strongly that you’ll be compelled to get out into the world and throw yourself behind whatever tasks are needed to progress it.

Unfortunately, this degree of self-motivation is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, it is human nature to delay, defer and avoid those things that require some degree of effort, no matter how clear the benefits are to us.  Quit smoking? I’ll start tomorrow. Lose weight? Right after I’ve eaten this donut. Why is that even for those goals where we have defined a clear benefit, it can be difficult to summon the motivation?

Most humans are extrinsically motivated. That is, they perform best when there is a clear system of reward in place. Whether it’s cash for a hard day’s work, endorphins from exercise or the satisfaction of achieving a goal, our body’s brain chemistry are hard-wired to seek reward. It’s well understood that in order to achieve a particular task, a successful approach is to break it up into smaller components and reward the achievement of each of those smaller tasks.

Most humans are extrinsically motivated. That is, they perform best when there is  a clear system of reward in place.

For example, if you want to learn Russian you’ll find that you need to take in a lot of information each week, not least a large amount of new vocabulary.  Chances are that on a daily or weekly basis you’ll need to sit down and learn up to a few hundred words and examples of the context in which to apply them.  Where’s the payback?  Sure, you can ask for a ham and cheese sandwich in Russian, but the instant gratification is small.

One successful strategy is to reward yourself each time you complete a unit of time devoted to this task (say, an hour).  The reward can be small; for children and adults alike, seeing a gold star on a chart can be sufficient reward on a short-term basis. You can go with something more material: dollars in a jar to save for a treat, thirty minutes of TV time – the possibilities are endless. The trick is to ensure that your brain gets a hit of endorphins from the reward at the end of your session.  This will create an association between carrying out the task and the pleasure response you received from the reward; over time you’ll find you are more motivated to carry out that regular activity.

Pre-ward Yourself

I’ve been on – and off – a diet and exercise program for the last three or four years. At the very outset, I managed to achieve a modest but noticeable weight loss, bringing my BMI into “normal” range for the first time in years and achieving a respectable body fat percentage of 16%.  Since then my weight and fitness have fluctuated between the “peak” I achieved four years ago and a weight some 20lbs higher than that.

My motivation for losing weight and getting fit has always been the same: to feel better about myself in terms of my appearance and my energy levels. I know that my personal weight loss goals pale in comparison to those struggling with significant weight issues, but this has always been a clear personal goal for me.

Like many, I have struggled to maintain my goal weight, finding that gradually over time I slipped into bad habits.  2014 has been a particularly challenging year in which I’ve not made any significant inroads into the 10lbs I put on over the Christmas period. Like many, I have struggled to kick-start a renewed regimen of eating sensibly and exercising regularly, despite having a clear understanding of what I’m trying to achieve and how great it will feel when I get there.

This time, to combat the inertia that I’ve been feeling, I’ve taken a different tack than usual in setting up the positive feedback mechanism of rewarding my efforts.  I decided to pre-ward myself. What do I mean by this? I made a conscious decision to give myself a treat in anticipation of the good work I was about to do. In my case, having recently received a generous gift of an Amazon Gift card from the team I had just left at work, I decided to treat myself to something that would get me excited and interested in my fitness habit. I used the voucher to purchase a Fitbit Flex fitness tracker and a new gym bag, specifically as a “pre-ward” for getting back into the habit of going to the gym.  I call it a “pre-ward” because I hadn’t actually resumed my habit of going to the gym at that point.

Why did I decide to pre-ward myself? Firstly, I’d already created a positive association between exercise and feeling good (the reward mechanism) in my previous cycles of dieting and exercising; what I needed to do was remind myself what feeling good felt like. To some extent, because the connection already existed, I was able to use the reward to trigger the behavior instead of the other way around. What I needed was an impetus; A positive jolt to spur me into action. The positive associations of having some new “toys” created this impetus whilst also forcing me to make a commitment to myself to follow through – after all, if I didn’t go to the gym then I wouldn’t be able to use my new gear!

I’d already created a positive association between exercise and feeling good; what I needed to do was remind myself what feeling good felt like.

Choose Your Pre-ward Wisely

I must point out that it was crucial that my choice of pre-ward was strongly aligned with the desired outcome of my goal. That is, it was important that the pre-ward was fitness related. Pre-warding myself with the latest box set of The Walking Dead would not have been conducive to my desire to get back to the gym; nor would treat myself to a big slab of chocolate cake. Although I was basically seeking an endorphin hit to reinvigorate the association between exercising and feeling good, I had to be discerning about how I triggered it.

In the same way, the motivational trick of purchasing a new outfit to wear once I’d achieved my goal would also have been a poor choice, as it would not have yielded the immediate “reward” feeling in the same way. Buying a pair of jeans the next size down is a great technique if you’re struggling to visualize the outcome, but in my case, I already know what it feels like to be at my goal weight. I wasn’t trying to recreate the feeling of reaching my goal – I was trying to recreate the positive feelings associated with moving towards it.

I wasn’t trying to recreate the feeling of reaching my goal – I was trying to recreate the positive feelings associated with moving towards it.

 The Results

In this specific circumstance, the pre-ward technique – and the Fitbit in particular – was a great choice of motivational tool. In order to put the Fitbit through its paces, I immediately had to get myself into the gym, which I did the following week. The novelty of playing with a new “gadget” and exploring the new self-quantification possibilities it brings has rekindled my determination to get back to my previous levels of fitness and health.

The pre-ward is not a “magic bullet” – it jolted me back into the habit but the hard work – and the willpower to see it through – still lays ahead of me. If you’ve fallen off the wagon in pursuit of a goal where you have a strong track record of sticking to the required habits once you’ve got going, then I recommend pre-warding yourself in anticipation of a successful return to form.