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The need for rewards

Alana Baltes
September 26, 2021 CBT
The need for rewards

I want it all and I want it now. Why is it difficult to do things that are obviously better and more healthy for us in the long term?

An unhealthy lifestyle usually does not affect me in the moment. The way I got used to living was good until now, it helped me cope with the pressures I face every day. So when I sit in front of the computer 8 hours for work or I have a schedule that is mentally and physically demanding for the most part of the day, I do what I can to manage the pressures of the daily routine. I’m not left with much time to do things that do not have immediate benefits.

Imagine that all you need to do to lose weight can be done in just one day? I don’t eat anything today and tomorrow I will wake up healthier and with a considerably reduced weight. Probably, a lot more people will manage to lose weight like this. If we see consequences immediately after a behavior (rewards in this example), the association between that behavior and reward is registered faster and more powerful in our mind. This is one of the most powerful forms of learning: I learn some behaviors and not others depending on the consequences. I do what brings me rewards and avoid the penalizing behaviors. Instead, ** when my behaviors do not have immediate consequences, a more complex mental process is needed to learn the association between them and their consequences.**

To create a behavior that obviously brings me benefits, but not in the moment, I need to replace the momentary reward that I do not receive with a mental representation of that reward. I can succeed in doing this, but I need more cognitive functions, which are resource-consuming. For example, I need the capacity to switch my attention from what I’m doing to the long term objective. I need to access from my memory that information that tells me through which behaviors I can reach the desired effects, I need cognitive inhibition to calm down the thoughts incompatible with my objective. I also need imagination to be able to do these representations.

Afterwards, I need to make a plan to reach my objective and stick to it. Each step, I need inhibition control to fight off my momentary tendencies, I also need to divert my attention from my tendencies and I need my memory to remember why I do what I do. I use a great deal of my energy to manage these things. When I do not have enough nutrients in my body, when I’m not rested, when I have to solve difficult tasks or drink alcohol, it becomes harder to succeed in benefiting from these cognitive functions. That is why, for example, it is easier to keep a diet in the morning rather than the evening.

All this resource burning makes it easier to keep behaviors with immediate benefits, rather than those with long term benefits. They do not require cognitive effort and the reward comes soon And I need momentary rewards to be productive. This way, we know why we get up in the morning and why we do the same tasks for a long time. Why would it be worth it to wake up and 7 AM in the morning and go to work to fulfill somebody else’s dreams and solve problems for other people that have no connection with me?

In this way, I’m building an addiction on momentary rewards, an addiction that society also seems to uphold: often times the reward is one click away. I can order everything online, access information, watch movies, etc. So how can I give up this one-click away comfort and do things that not only are not immediately rewarded, but entail extra effort on my side?

The good news is that I have the opportunity create these mechanisms. When I create a habit from doing a positive behavior, the resources that I use are much less. Do I want to exercise? I do it every day. At first, it will be hard, because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. You should continue to do it regardless. Each day, for 30-40 minutes go to the gym or exercise in your living room. Regardless of mood, just do it. After about a month, it will become increasingly easier.

It is important to continue to work on the good habits, even if you’re not in the mood or even if it is hard. Repeating the behaviors a lot makes them become habits. In parallel, there are some things you can do to make this transition period easier:

1. Arrange you environment in a way that will help represent your long term rewards – for example, you can use motivation pictures on your office or listen to music that will remind you what you are getting once you reach your goal

2. Delay the momentary rewards – do not tell yourself not to eat the cake in front of you,just that you’ll do it later. In this way, you leave time for your analytical thinking to step in and train your mind that a wish doesn’t always have to be immediately fulfilled. You’ve just broken the link between wish and immediate gratification

3. Practice every day, at least one hour/day the absence of stimulation of any kind – go at least one hour without the smartphone, laptop, tv, food, etc. You can try by just doing nothing or you can meditate. This way, the brain learns that it doesn’t need to work non-stop

4. Add to your daily routine activities that are important to you – this way, you training your brain to appreciate a new type of reward, something that is not associated with any wish, but it is tied with your purpose and values

5. Cut does on the number of activities you’re doing in parallel – for example, eating is a stand-alone activity.You don’t necessarily have to it with anyone or watch a TV show at the same time

6. Practice every day – this way, discipline becomes a lifestyle

Stop for a moment what you are doing and think about yourself, about what you’re doing right. Be happy for the point that you’re in, be thankful for what you accomplished at least for a moment.. The get back to the daily ritual. It seems like we’re always on the run and we forget why we do what we do. That’s the use in achieving anything if we do not celebrate our work? The future is uncertain. You do not have guarantees that you get to be glad later. The present is all that you have now. The present is the only thing certain.

You can connect with Alana on the I’m Fine online therapist platform.

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