Delayed Gratification–Just Say No!

Delayed gratification and I don’t really get along. Sometimes the finish line is just too far away to motivate me now. I first encountered this in grad school. A two hundred page writing assignment about obscure books and dead people totally blindsided me; I thought studying literature would be about good books of my choice. Hah! Every “get things done” strategy I knew collapsed.

I knew how to organize, and how to break things down into bite sized-chunks. I had short and long-term goals. I had accountability. Teachers and office mates always wanted to know how I was doing. So why couldn’t I get it done already? What was wrong?

My friend Jenn was a grad student in a different department, but she also had epic writing assignments that bored her stupid. She, however, was always bubbly and seemed mystified by the idea of writer’s block. We’d meet for coffee and she’d listen sympathetically before making suggestions:

“Have you broken your long-term goal down week by week?”

Duh. “Yes, Jenn.”

“Do you have a daily word count?”

Grr. “Of course.”

And so on. Over the course of months and enough bad university coffee to fuel a small ulcer, Jenn always had suggestions, including:

Dedicate space just for writing.

Have a ‘writing ritual,’ like lighting a candle.

Go for a walk.

Get up an hour early just to write.

It was sweet of her to keep encouraging me. The problem was, I’d already tried, or was actively trying, all of them. And none of it was working.

And then, one day, I found The List. Jenn and I shared a passion for designer notebooks. She’d just gotten a new one with a cover made of real pressed flowers. As I “oohed” and “aahed,” a folded piece of paper labeled “Weekly Rewards” floated onto my lap. It had things like “two hours of XBox,” “margarita body wash,” “pedicure,” and “the GOOD beer” written on it. Jenn had been using a system called behavioral modification for years.

Put simply, if we associate good things with certain kinds of behavior, we are more likely to repeat that behavior until it becomes a fixed habit. She cautioned me that it was harder than it looked. Yeah, right, I thought. How hard could it be to incorporate little rewards into my life? But Jenn insisted it wasn’t that simple. If I achieved my weekly goals, then I absolutely had to make myself take that weekly reward, no exceptions. If I didn’t make my goals, even partially, then absolutely no reward. Slowly, the brain learns that even the grunt work feels good.

It was surprisingly hard. I don’t think a lot of us are conditioned to reward ourselves on a regular basis. Self-denial and struggle can look like the best way to achievement. I know I still struggle with this. It’s tempting, if I meet my goals, to skip that hour-long candle light bubble bath. It’s Friday night. Isn’t there something on TV instead? I can fold some laundry while I’m at it…

But no! The reward is as much a part of the goal as the word count, or else it doesn’t work. The brain is wily. It will not be half-trained. Also, it gets cranky. I met your stupid word count, human mine. Now where’s my lollipop?

My list of weekly rewards looks something like: read any one book I want, manicure, the GOOD coffee, a new CD, a half hour of aimless driving to really loud music, a nap. The funny thing is, when I finally finished that grad school project, I did celebrate with something big. I just don’t remember what. When I think back it’s the little rewards that stick out: the sugar cookie bodywash; hiking with my family; watching bad movies with Jenn.

What Jenn taught me tricked my brain into thinking I enjoyed the nuts-and-bolts part, too. ROW80 is perfect for this kind of system. It encourages realistic goal setting, accountability, and community. Weekly, or even bi-weekly, rewards slide right in there. So how about it, ROW80? How do you reward yourself? What would you put on your list?


Vicki Keire



  1. That sounds good – may try a version myself – not so much to make me write but to get me to take time off – needs a bit of thinking out – thanks for that

  2. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I need to do this more. I remember reading about this for NaNoWriMo, but I was like, “I don’t need no stinkin’ rewards! I’ll just write!” Yeah, that’s not working as well as I planned.

    Playstaion is going on my list. I’ve been using it only as a Netflix player for far too long.

  3. @Andrew- I wrote this before the big Playstation security leak! But I agree that it’s still much better than XBox.
    I’m glad this came out today too. I haven’t been doing this lately, and I need to remember to practice what I preach.

  4. “If I achieved my weekly goals, then I absolutely had to make myself take that weekly reward, no exceptions.”

    That would be my problem. I’m not adverse to carrots (and sometimes sticks), but I have a tendency to say, “Eh, that’s okay. I got it done and that satisfaction enough.” I need to plan my rewards *and* cash them in. 😉

  5. I’d have a heck of a time with this, since ‘selfishly’ carving out writing time IS my reward for getting through the rest of my day! So that ain’t working, ’cause when the day goes off the rails, there’s no way I’ll have my 30 minutes! I can get it down about 3 days/wk, but the other 2 days are a battle. Routines are the only thing that help – it taking lotsa baby steps. Hafta write my buns off at writers group tonight! I have 90 minutes to make up!! 😉

  6. I know this system works…the key, as you say, is to regularly insert those rewards. Mine might include eating out (with a good book) at a favorite restaurant, or seeing that movie I’m drooling over.

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