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The importance of rewards

By Brigid Conroy, 2nd-year Life Sciences student.

You emerge victorious from a power study session or writing a paper, feeling relieved to be done, only to find the yet-unfinished tasks on your to-do list staring you in the face. And to make matters worse, their deadlines have only been creeping closer while you’ve been hard at work. You’ve been here. It’s easy to feel like there isn’t time for anything but a sigh before starting in on the next job. Unfortunately, this negative cycle leaves you feeling like you’re winning every battle and still losing the war. The good news: there’s an easy route to help break this cycle, and it’s paved with brownies, cute animals, and good feelings.

I should clarify – brownies and cute animals are simply examples pulled from my own list of favourite rewards for hard work. A good reward is all about what works for you. For some, going to the gym is a reward while, for others, the gym warrants a reward. Anything from a short walk to wandering into a common room to talk with friends can be a great reward and, once in a while, a dessert or some time on Facebook doesn’t hurt either! The most important part of a reward, however, is taking the time during the activity to congratulate yourself. Positive self-talk and reflecting on the good work you have done is the difference between these activities being breaks and rewards.

Rewards not only keep you positive and motivated when you’re dealing with multiple deadlines, but can make it easier to break the cycle of procrastination. A highly effective strategy for dealing with procrastination is the STING method:

Set a goal
Time yourself
Ignore interruptions
No distractions
Give yourself a reward

(For more information on STING, visit our online tips about procrastination and motivation).

The final step in this strategy is Give yourself a reward and it’s one that shouldn’t be skipped. This is not because STING won’t work those first few times if you do; it’s the negative habit that forms when you continually skip your well-deserved reward. Overcoming procrastination is so difficult because it involves accepting delayed gratification. This difficulty is only compounded if that gratification is only a few seconds of feeling proud and relieved to have finished before beginning to stress about or work on the next task. By rewarding yourself and taking some time to appreciate the result of the work you put in, you will begin to connect positive feelings to the experience of overcoming procrastination.

One of my favourite strategies is creating a list of accomplishments after an intense week of tests or weekend of assignment writing. Taking the time to jot down or think through everything I accomplished puts me in a positive frame of mind and frees me from the feeling that I can’t win against the never-ending work. In reality, we win every time we hand in a lab or assignment, write a test or exam. So focus on those black lines through your to-do list instead or do a little happy-dance after a big exam. You deserve it!