Punished By Milestones?

This post is an extension on my recent one about ignoring my habit tracker.

In a prior post I talked about how I finally got into using habit trackers to develop a habit I had wanted to have for a while; writing a thousand words a day. There are so many articles out there telling us how valuable that can be to you, and I felt like I was missing out. I kept trying and trying and couldn’t make anything stick, until first I used a mood tracker and then a habit tracker to finally get on target and write a thousand words a day for 62 days straight!

Fast forward to today and I am certainly not writing a thousand words a day, I’m not even writing every day, so what the hell happened?

I’m going to refer back to a book I’ve really enjoyed recently that challenges our basic assumptions about motivation, Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. As you may guess from the title, his theory, backed up by many studies, is that rewards that are contingent on a particular outcome can be just as punishing as punishment for failure. Tying a reward to achieving a particular outcome from a task, devalues the task, even more so if the task is one that should be enjoyable in itself.

Researchers have found over and over that when given an interesting task to do, such as completing a puzzle, people who were offered rewards for doing so are less likely to continue to show interest in those tasks once they are left alone and the opportunity for a reward is gone. There have also been some widely known schemes to encourage children to read, where they try to incentivise the activity (Pizza Hut at some point were giving away vouchers for every book read on a reading list). The outcome of these schemes has always been a decline in interest in reading, the exact opposite of what they hoped to achieve, because they are taking away focus from reading itself and putting focus onto the reward. Not only that, but people come to view the task as less appealing because why would it need to be rewarded if it was appealing in itself?


So this brings me to my writing conundrum, why did using a habit tracker seem to work?

Well, in a way, it didn’t. A 62 day streak certainly seems like a lot, and I’m proud of that streak even now, but that’s the most I managed and I noticed a drop in interest after reaching arbitrary milestones (10, 20, 30, 50 etc).  In Alfie Kohn’s book, he suggests that rewards appear to work in the short term to generate temporary compliance, but they do not lead to long term interest, and my experience seems to support that too.

So why are there studies showing that it takes around 66 days to develop a habit? Well, perhaps those studies do not attach rewards to forming the habit, only tracking the days passed as an informational point rather than to celebrate how much they’ve achieved (which habit tracking apps seem to do). Maybe we should stop celebrating milestones when tracking progress so as not to shift focus away from the habit being developed?

I’ve already tried the habit tracking method, which was a big struggle for me in the beginning anyway, so perhaps it’s time to just do what I feel and see how it goes? No milestones, no scoring, no nothing. I just keep going until I lose interest and then see how far I’ve gotten, take the distance I’ve gone completely out of the picture and just focus on going forwards until I need to pause for a break?

Worth a shot!

Tell me what you think

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