Rewards vs Treats

This may seem like a strange distinction, but according to Gretchen Rubin, it’s an important one.

Reading Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before, a book about developing good habits and changing bad ones, I was especially drawn to her chapters on rewards and treats. In my roles as teacher, parent and through everyday observations, I have long known intrinsic motivation is far more powerful and leads to longer-term success and greater progress than extrinsic motivation. If the task itself is motivating or we gain satisfaction from it, we don’t need any other motivators. Of course, extrinsic motivation is usually related to rewards of some kind, whether provided by ourselves or others.


Rubin points out, in the long term, rewards actually undermine, rather than assist when it comes to building healthy, helpful habits. A reward for completing a gym session or choosing not to eat junk food, for example infers the gym session and eating healthy food are not valuable, are unrewarding and not worth doing for their own sake or the sake of improved health. In addition to this, rewards require decisions and decisions are stressful. Decisions like “Have I done enough to earn a reward?” or “Does that count?” The whole point of helpful habits is to eliminate some decision-making from our everyday lives by making some decisions automatic and thus freeing up our limited brain and self-control power for other decisions. Rewards, she argues, imply a finish line, a point when you will stop doing the habit and continuing it beyond the initial stopping point may prove difficult for some people. Rewards also have the potential to engender feelings of unworthiness or guilt if not achieved.


Treats, on the other hand, are small pleasures or indulgences we allow ourselves ‘just because’, no performance indicators or checklists required. Treats can make us feel energised, cared for and content, and therefore assist in developing helpful habits, whatever they may be. It is important to note, Rubin is referring to adults administering their own rewards and treats here. Although ‘treats’ have become synonymous with sugar-laden foods in western culture, this shouldn’t be the case when developing good habits.

What exactly is a treat? According to Rubin, a treat can be almost anything; we make something a treat simply by calling it one. It’s all about the power of words and your mindset. When we “notice our pleasure and relish it, an experience becomes much more of a treat.” Small treats and everyday luxuries may be experienced daily, such as an afternoon cup of tea or coffee, a favourite liquid hand wash fragrance, a neighbourhood walk or reading before bed. Call it a treat, perceive it as a treat and it is a treat.

“Healthy treats foster good habits” but we must guard against what Rubin calls ‘dangerous treats’ such as food, shopping or screen time. This year, as part of my #OEASIMPLIFY19, I am working at replacing shopping as an escape or a treat with better options, such as listening to a podcast, going for a walk or watching a movie at home.

Frequency has the potential to dim treats and the secret to treating yourself is not to indulge too often. I love l’Occitane brand face and body products and use them on a daily basis. (Sadly no incentives or kickbacks are forthcoming from them to date.) Applying them is a sensory experience which provides me with a brief moment of joy, revelling in the texture and fragrance of each product I apply. However, I no longer consider these products to be ‘treats’, as I use them daily. My mother recently visited and, after a visit to the bathroom, emerged rubbing her hands as she commented, “I love using your toilet because I get to use your beautiful l’Occitane hand wash and hand lotion. The lavender is so lovely.” For her, it’s a treat, as it’s rare.

For me, a weekly or fortnightly soak in the bathtub with a good book and a cup of tea or glass of wine depending on my mood, is a treat. More often and it would cease to be so. Yet, I also consider my (almost) everyday morning walks to be a treat, as I breathe deeply, enjoy my surroundings and get my body moving. This mindset tells me I really want to get up and walk, even though my head may prefer to stay on the pillow for a little extra sleep or rest. I feel far more motivated to walk when I think about the joy in the activity, rather than setting myself a reward chart (whether real or virtual). If I had a reward for x kilometres walked or y days of walking, my morning walks could quickly become a chore I’d prefer to get out of. The combination of intrinsic motivation (I enjoy the walk) and the power of words (walk = treat) get me up and moving in a way a reward structure never could.

Mind Games

It’s interesting to note our minds sometimes outsmart us in this. I’ve got back into the habit of having a monthly remedial massage, something I enjoy, feel the benefit of and consider to be a treat. However, with no paid work lined up for this year and the decision to attend organised gym classes less frequently, I didn’t re-book after my last appointment. I now realise I’ve been treating my massages as a reward for paid work and regular gym sessions, not a treat at all. Of course, in this case, there is the issue of payment, but perhaps I need to prioritise my self-care, making it either non-negotiable or a treat I get no matter what my other circumstances. It certainly got me thinking. Maybe I need to schedule that next massage now?

What everyday or less frequent activities do you enjoy and consider to be treats? Do you schedule treats or prefer to be more spontaneous?

Anna xo


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