Are You Rewarding Your Work, or Avoiding Your Work?

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Yesterday I wrote that a truly successful person wouldn’t take the afternoon off to go see a movie. A colleague of mine countered that that person might, if they were celebrating a personal or business success. She makes a good point. (And she’s a Ph.D., which, although no guarantee, lends a certain magnitude to her thoughts.) I’ve been thinking about the distinction today, and it comes down to this: there’s a difference between rewarding your work and avoiding your work. One is good, the other is bad. Ten points to Gryffindor if you can guess which is which. (Incidentally, I find it a fascinating acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of Harry Potter that “Gryffindor” was not flagged by my spell checker. But I digress.) Seems pretty straightforward, and yet it can be all too easy to blur the distinction. I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself.

The problem is one of justification. Once you’ve entertained the idea of avoiding your work, it doesn’t take much of a leap to categorize the avoidance as a reward. Sometimes the leap is so small that we’re not even aware that we’re making it. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the inner dialog goes something like this:

Devil on your shoulder: “That new Johnny Depp movie is supposed to be pretty good. You should totally go see it this afternoon!”

Angel on your other shoulder: “Hey, wait a minute! You’re supposed to be making client calls this afternoon.”

Devil: “Oh. lighten up. The calls can wait. Besides, you made those two extra calls yesterday. You deserve a little reward.”

Angel: “I can’t argue with that logic. C’mon, we can still make the 2:00 showing.”

Now, besides the fact that you have a particularly feckless angel, this is a case of avoidance masquerading as reward. So how can you tell the difference? Run it by the Unfailing Test of Chronology, which is a well-known principle that I just made up. It goes like this: If you decide to reward yourself first, and then come up with the outcome being rewarded, you’re justifying the reward. (“I really want some chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream, but I know I shouldn’t. Oh, wait a minute—I only had a salad for dinner last night. I deserve a reward! Hello ice cream!”) If, on the other hand, you define the outcome to be rewarded first, then achieve that outcome, and then enjoy the reward, you’ve passed the Unfailing Test of Chronology. (“If I have salad for dinner three nights in a row, I’ll reward myself with a small dish of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream.”) (For the record, chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream is really, really good.)

I think it’s important to celebrate your successes—the small ones as well as the big ones. It’s completely appropriate to set rewards for achieving your goals. (Just make sure the reward is proportional to the goal. “If I clean my desk, I’ll reward myself with a new Jaguar” is, shall we say, pushing it.)

Really, it’s a pretty simple formula: First, decide on the goal; then, decide on the reward. First, achieve the goal; then, enjoy the reward.

Incidentally, my reward for finishing this article? I’m going to go listen to a Beatles album.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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