In my book Better Than Before, I describe the many strategies that we can use to change our habits. We all have our favorites — but I think most of us would agree that the Strategy of Treats is the most fun strategy.
“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.
Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.
When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful. The other day, I was talking to a friend about treats, and he told me, “I don’t give myself any treats.” This comment prompted me to pursue two different lines of thought.
First, whether or not he did give himself treats, he thought of himself as a “person who doesn’t give myself treats.” In terms of habits, that seems risky to me.
It might seem stoic, or selfless, or driven not to give yourself treats, but I’d argue against that assumption. When we don’t get any treats, we start to feel deprived — and feeling deprived is a very bad frame of mind for good habits. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to put ourselves back in balance. We say, “I’ve earned this,” “I need this,” “I deserve this” and feel entitled to break our good habits.”
Second, I suspected that he did in fact give himself treats, he just didn’t think of them as treats. And indeed, after one minute of questioning, he came up with a great example: every week, he buys new music. For something to be a treat, we have to think of it as a treat; we make something a treat by calling it a “treat.” When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat.
For instance, once I realized how much I love beautiful smells, a whole new world of treats opened up to me. We should all strive to have a big menu of healthy treats, so that we can recharge our battery in a healthy way. Sometimes, treats don’t look like treats. For example, to my surprise, many people consider ironing a “treat.” (To read other examples of people’s quirky treats, look here.)
A version of this post originally appeared on Gretchen Rubin’s website, where she writes about her experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits.