Using rewards to help you achieve your writing goals (James Burford)

Photo by Jennifer Pallian |

As a lecturer in the RED team, I facilitate learning opportunities for La Trobe’s researcher community. Across these workshops we often touch on one of my favourite topics: rewards, and how they can be helpful for researchers who are trying to motivate themselves to achieve writing goals.

Writing is often a lengthy process for researchers. Motivation can sag as the hours turn to days and the days tick over into months. Added to this picture are the brain bending, shoulder crunching and finger cracking realities of many hours spent at a keyboard trying to get words on a page. It can be exhausting work on all levels, which makes pushing on so difficult sometimes. This is where rewards (some people call them power ups), combined with appropriate planning can be so useful for researchers. Some positive reinforcement can be a really valuable way of sustaining motivation throughout the long duration of a research project.

So, how can you use rewards to plan?

Here are some ideas:
  • The first thing you might do is to set yourself a concrete goal to hold yourself accountable. It's a good idea to ensure this goal is relevant (i.e. important to your overall progress) and neither too big, nor too small. Goals might be a combination durations (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly) – basically any configuration that fits with you and your project.
  • Give yourself a target (e.g. number of words, or amount of time writing – whatever it is, just make sure there is a clear ‘finish line’).
  • Then you can select a reward that you’ll give yourself once you’ve achieved the goal. Make sure your reward is proportionate to the goal you’ve set for yourself. As Jenna Avery puts it: don’t be stingy about it!
  • Then you do the thing!
  • After you’ve done the thing you reward yourself. Luxuriate, bask in glory, celebrate, zone out, feast.
  • Then you repeat the process again, and again! You might need to check in with yourself to see if the reward worked. You might even find that the more you practice this habit the easier it will become to sustain progress.
If you are scratching your head trying to imagine what kinds of rewards you could give yourself, here is a list written by Jennifer Blanchard to get you going! Her suggestions range from small pleasures like listening to music and grabbing a coffee to using social media or watching Netflix. Lisa Munro shares ideas for bigger rewards like a massage or a special tattoo. The important thing with rewards is that they have to feel like rewards for you! There is no point in simply borrowing ‘go for a run’ or ‘3 pieces of chocolate’ off someone else’s list if that really isn’t where your yum is.

These points have been covered by Chris Smith, who has another useful ideas – can you turn what used to be your juiciest ‘procrastination activities’ into rewards? For example, Facebook, phone calls with a friend, and sitting down to watch a TV show can all be good rewards after the writing has accomplished, rather than as activities that displace the writing itself!

If you still can’t think of a reward, here is a list of 155 ways to reward yourself for completing a goal or task. And here is a list of 50 rewards separated into small, medium and large. After looking through these lists I am keen to try some new rewards for myself!

After working with researchers for a while now, I have some questions I tend to ask folk who are using rewards for writing. Some of these are:
  1. Are you actually giving yourself rewards? I mean for real, for real? It is important to stop and celebrate sometimes. While, as Lisa Munro observes, too often ‘we fall into the trap of thinking that suffering is noble or that our suffering somehow makes our work even more worthwhile’ - this need not be how you arrange your researcher life.
  2. Are your rewards the right size? Are you giving yourself a four-hour TV binge to reward yourself for a short 20-minute writing burst?
  3. Are you actually giving yourself the reward before the work? This seems to be a regular one among many of the grad researchers I’ve been speaking to. You may be giving yourself lots of good rewardy things, but what happens if you switch the order around? For example, you might treat yourself to a coffee and a muffin at the café after you’ve put some writing time in.
Over my time at La Trobe I have heard of fantastic rewards being set! Some of these range from the small and everyday rewards of having walks across campus, a chocolate chip cookie, a nap, and an extra half an hour on twitter. Others have been large goals for significant milestones. Some of the meatiest goals I’ve heard are people giving themselves new musical instruments, marrying their darling, throwing parties, and going on international holidays.

I’ve already outed myself as someone who sniffs out pleasure in academic life – so it may not come as a surprise to you that I embrace rewards and the delights that they bring me. Now, I’d love to hear from you! What are your go-to rewards to help you keep your motivation levels up? Do you have rewards you’ve set for the end of a big project? Let me know! In the meantime I am going to keep a tally of some of my common rewards. I’ll share them with you in another post.

There are a number of other fab posts out there on this topic, so take a look:
James Burford is a lecturer in the RED team. Along with Emily Henderson, he co-edits the blog Conference Inference. He rewards himself with twitter time using the handle @jiaburford