Hacking Your Executive Function: Rewards and Reinforcements


So now we’ve discussed a ton of different ways to add organization and planning into your life. All of that is well and good, but the challenge is often to actually implement these strategies. You try, and then forget a day or two and quickly it’s all over. So we’re going to jump back a ways and use some behaviorism to encourage ourselves to keep up the habits we’d like to build.

Here’s the basic idea: if you don’t include rewards and reinforcements in your organizational system it’s unlikely that you’re going to keep it up. Sometimes the rewards are natural: you get more done, you feel less anxiety, you don’t lose as many things. That’s obviously going to incentivize you to keep going! But those rewards don’t always happen as you’re planning and it can take some time using a system before they’ll start to show up. So you want to create some rewards and reinforcements that make your organizational systems feel good and worthwhile right away and that you associate immediately with the planning process.

The most important way that I like to build rewards into my organization and planning is to intentionally plan relaxation and fun into my schedule. When I am stressed out and don’t know what I’m doing I never feel that it’s appropriate to relax. So when I make a schedule I make sure that every day has adequate relaxation and every week has enough fun and entertainment. I can trust based on the schedule that I’ve written that I have enough time to complete my tasks AND spend the hour or two hours doing the fun thing I’ve scheduled. That allows me to enjoy those things without feeling stressed, which builds in some nice reinforcement for myself.

Secondarily I like to use my planning to remind myself of all the cool stuff that I’ve done and to buoy my spirits when I feel like I’m a worthless pile of poophead. I write down everything I do, even if sometimes it’s writing it down after I’ve finished just so I can check it off. It feels really good to look back at a productive day and see the things I’ve done. But this doesn’t just happen naturally. It’s easy for me to always be looking forward at what needs to happen instead of thinking about what I’ve successfully accomplished. When you get something done pause. Notice it. Feel good. It’s way too easy to ignore your own successes so be bold and tell yourself you’re awesome. Star things that felt like a big deal. Call them out.

There are a couple of other elements to creating your schedule that can be important reinforcers. The first one is pretty difficult because there are no hard and fast rules to it: sometimes you have to give yourself permission to change or ignore your schedule/plan. This might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to learn to be better at following a plan, and if you tend not to look at or follow your plan, then this advice isn’t for you. But it can seem overwhelming to schedule if you don’t allow yourself the ability to adjust based on what’s happening around you. I plan for the best case scenario, but I know that if I start getting bad anxiety or traffic is particularly bad and I lose time, I will have to change my schedule. Remind yourself that things happen and you have to be willing to have a bit of flexibility. When you require yourself to ALWAYS follow the schedule, it can create a great deal of pressure and guilt that leave you unhappy when you’re thinking about or looking at your planner, and that diminishes its usefulness.

The last built in version of rewards that I like to focus on is the planning itself. For some of us, writing out our schedule feels really good. Other people hate it. If you are one of the latter, you’ll want to work to find ways to make it more enjoyable. Are you into stickers? There’s a whole exciting world of stickers for planning. Do you like drawing, doodling, or art? You can easily find inspiration for creating an artistic planner ALL over the internet. Do you like games? Habitica could be a good system for you. Do you hate planning with every fiber of your being but love lilgrabbies? Print a bunch of those sweet pictures and paste them in your planner. You can be really creative here but do your best to ensure that when you open your planner, you smile a little bit.

In addition to these ways of adjusting planning itself to feel better, you can also add external rewards. I like the Habitica system relatively well: different tasks are worth different amounts of points. Each time you complete a task you earn points. Then different rewards cost certain points, so you buy the rewards with your points. Your reward could be some chocolate, a pedicure, a nap, a couple hours of a Netflix binge, whatever feels good to you. Maybe you prefer things to be more simple: every time you finish x number of tasks you get a reward. Or perhaps it’s once you hit a goal: finish drafting your paper and you get a reward. Keep it simple enough that you’ll actually use it (Habitica does all the point tallying for you which is nice), and write it down so you don’t forget.

Another option is gratitude journaling. This is not my personal favorite, but many people enjoy it. Take some time each day in your planner, journal, notebook, online, wherever you do your planning and organization, to write down a thing or two that you’re grateful for that day: something that felt good, something that sparked your curiosity, something that reminded you of your values, etc. I specifically encourage doing it in the place you’re planning so that you associate the positive feelings of gratitude with the space you use for organization.

That’s how I keep up with my planning! What tricks do you have?


2 thoughts on “Hacking Your Executive Function: Rewards and Reinforcements

  1. I love these suggestions! I also like to include rewards *during* an activity, to make it more pleasant. For example, when I have a pile of student papers to read, I like to make a cup of really good coffee or tea and put on my favorite quartet. When I clean house, I like to think of it as yoga, physical mindful activity. In this way, the tasks become more enjoyable in themselves and doing them includes some reward.


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