Rewards for writers might include:
- beverages: sip of special coffee or latte, tea, hot cocoa, lemonade
- food: a bite of a cookie, a few M&Ms, a piece of chocolate, a cracker
- money: a quarter for every 5 minutes spent writing, a dollar for every writing session completed
- free time: for every minute of working on writing, a minute to do something frivolous and enjoyable
- self-praise and a smile: “Good for me” “Yes!” “Good job” “I’m really improving”
- praise from others: ask a trusted ally to give you positive feedback and ONLY positive feedback (discerning feedback that will help you revise and improve the writing is valuable, but it is not a reward)
- physical pleasure: taking a hot bath, getting a pedicure or a massage, going to a movie, even something as simple as stroking the inside of your arm.
Small and frequent rewards are more effective than large, less frequent rewards. Not only does your brain release the dopamine and acetylcholine every time you give yourself the reward, neurons in the anterior cingulate start to fire in anticipation of a reward. Frequent rewards mean you’ll focus better and both your writing process and the writing itself will improve faster.
Rewards Are like Comedy: Timing Is Everything
The timing of a reward is crucial. For a behavior that takes a few minutes at most, a reward at the end is fine. For behaviors where you want to keep doing something challenging for more than 5 minutes (sustained writing, for example), it’s most effective to give a small reward the moment you start and then at intervals while you do the activity.
Give yourself a small reward at the beginning of each Product Time session. Getting started is often the hardest part of writing, so reward yourself for it. Don’t bother rewarding the parts of writing that come easily to you and are intrinsically rewarding.
Most rewards need to be small so that you can reward yourself often. You can give yourself some rewards after writing — e.g. for every minute of Product Time, I have one minute of guilt-free video games or recreational reading later. Some rewards have to wait — you can’t really work and get a massage at the same time.
But most rewards should come during Product Time. It’s better to give yourself a sip of lemonade for every 5 to 10 minutes of work than to wait until you’re done to enjoy a whole glass.
If you give yourself a reward only when you finish Product Time, your brain releases dopamine when you stop, and you are, in fact, training yourself to stop working. Rewarding yourself as you go, on the other hand, trains you to keep going.
When you have target times beyond your commitment, be sure to reward yourself not only when you start the commitment time and another 5 or 10 minutes into your commitment, but also when you first move into your target time. Give additional small rewards when you’re one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters of the way through. (To clarify: a commitment is what you do no matter what, a target is a stretch goal you strive for without expectation that you will always hit the target.)
If you forget to give yourself additional rewards during an extended writing session, it’s probably because you got so immersed in writing that it became intrinsically rewarding, so there’s no need to worry.
Make a list of small rewards you can give yourself during Product Time, medium rewards you can give yourself after Product Time and large rewards you can give yourself when you reach a milestone like completing a chapter or finishing a draft.
What’s on your reward list?