The Motivation Jar – Using Positive Reinforcement to Change Your Life


Positive reinforcement goes a long way if you let it...
Positive reinforcement goes a long way if you let it…

Think back to when you were just a little kid.  Do you remember getting rewarded for good behavior?  Maybe it was for a good report card or dressing up in the ridiculous outfit your mother picked out for you for Thanksgiving dinner one year.  Whatever it was, your good behavior was reinforced by someone or something.  Perhaps it was a dinner out, a new video game, extra TV – what the reward was isn’t important.  The point is, when you did or behaved in a way that the power’s that be liked, they rewarded you to increase the likelihood that your good behavior would be repeated.  This is called positive reinforcement and is a psychological principle that is effective in shaping behavior in both children and adults.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is still used in a wide variety of our “adult” lives.  While your boss placing a “You’re the Best!” sticker on your accounts payable report  might not do much for you nowadays, there are certainly incentives which will in fact positively shape your behavior.  What happens when you exceed your sales quotas?  You’re given a bonus – this is positive reinforcement.  What happens when you spend money on your credit card?  You’re given reward points – this is positive reinforcement.  And when your department has been working hard and someone brings in a box of donuts that everyone runs to devour like they’ve never eaten in their lives – this too is positive reinforcement. 

Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the effects of positive reinforcement.  Nor should you assume there needs to be some sort of authority figure to hand out the “rewards”.  You’re an adult now – you’re finally ready to start giving yourself those “You’re the Best!” stickers.  Those stickers are of course metaphorical.  What you really need is something that’s going to motivate you.  What’s the one thing almost everyone is motivated by – or at the very least, likes being rewarded with?

You guessed it; money.

The concept of positive reinforcement leads us to our topic of the day, which is the motivation jar.

The Motivation Jar

The motivation jar isn’t some ground breaking new concept.  The idea of throwing loose change into jars, containers, or other receptacles designed to be a “rainy day” fund is nothing new.  This type of action alone isn’t going to bring about real, lasting change in you.  To make actual change, which will lead to actual progress, and ultimately, to better body and health, there needs to be some sort of guidelines to follow. 

The following guidelines are designed to help reinforce the healthy habits we want you to not only create, but stick to. 

  • Trip to the gym or working out elsewhere – Put $1 in the jar.
  • Conscious decision to skip that fast food or semi-fast food (think Cheesecake Factory) meal – Put $2 in the jar.

These are your standard actions that we want to reward and reinforce.  It’s pretty simple – each day you workout, put a dollar in the jar.  Each time you skip eating crap, put $2 in the jar.  Why the discrepancy here?  As I’ve always said, your diet is more important than the work you’re doing in the gym.  As such, you’re rewarded for making better dietary choices. 

What you decide to reward yourself for, and how much you decide to reward, is a personal decision.  Some other actions you may want to consider reinforcing and that will absolutely help transform your body and health would include:

  • Personal best time on a given workout or run.
  • Drank eight, 8 oz. glasses of water in a day.
  • All daily meals were made in home and/or prepared by yourself.
  • Foam rolled for 20 minutes.
  • Planking for a combined 10 minutes.
  • 5 servings of vegetables in a day.

You get the idea…

One thing to keep in mind – you absolutely do NOT want to reward bad behavior.  Giving that screaming, crying, brat a toy to shut him up may work in the short-term, but in the long-term, it’s only going to reinforce the screaming and crying.  Similarly, you don’t want to reward yourself for half-ass workouts, bad eating, or other negative habits you want to avoid.  Make a clear distinction between good behavior, bad behavior, and what exactly is being rewarded. 

Reward Yourself Smartly

After a while, all of these rewards are going to add up.  I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money, but stay with me for a minute, as I tell you how to spend your money.  For the love of God, make good use of this small fortune you’ve stashed away.  Sure, going out and buying that $1,200 pair of  Christian Louboutin heels is going to feel awesome for all of a couple of months, but pretty soon, those good vibes are going to fade, and those heels will just turn into another material object lying around your house.  Are you really going to think back 3 years from now (when those heels are way out of style anyways) and reminisce about the good memories associated with this purchase?  Probably not.

Does this really compare....
Does this really compare….

You see, most people associate material goods with happiness.  Whether it’s a pair of heels or a big screen TV, our happiness level will not be sustained by a material object.  Experiences on the other hand, have been shown to make us happier, especially over the long-term.   Think about it like this…

I’m willing to bet you can fondly recall a specific Christmas morning or birthday party from your childhood.  Personally, I distinctly remember the slumber party for my 12th birthday.  This was back when Nickelodeon’s What Would You Do was the coolest thing on TV (anyone remember the Pie Pod?).  Long story short, my mother ended up falling victim to 10 out-of-control sixth graders, doing their best Pie Pod recreation.  Do I remember a single gift I was given that day?  Not a chance. 

It is quite often the experience rather than the materialistic gift that we remember.  You’re asking yourself, “what’s the point of all of this?” – the point is, make your big reward, the one all of those mini-rewards have contributed towards, something that will bring sustained levels of happiness and fond memories.  By rewarding yourself smartly, you will associate all of those mini rewards with the long-term feeling of happiness and satisfaction.  In turn, you’ll be more likely to keep up those healthy habits which bring about the mini-rewards. this?  (me in Peru, 2012) this? (me in Peru, 2012)

So instead of heading directly to Nordstrom’s when it’s time to cash in on all of your healthy choices, take a second and think about what’s really going to make you happy.  Take a trip to Hawaii.  Go visit Machu Picchu.  Go dine at the best restaurant in your city.  Experience something you’re going to look back on 30 years from now and be glad you did.  You’ll never forget those surfing lessons on that trip to some far-flung island paradise…but that pair of heels you bought?  They’ll be old news before next season’s collection has even hit the shelves.

A motivation jar is perfect for the person who is having trouble getting themselves started on their fitness journey OR is having trouble sustaining their efforts.  Remember, the hardest step isn’t the first step – the hardest step is repeating the first step day after day after day… 

By rewarding steps in the right direction, you’ll slowly but surely ingrain these positive actions into your brain, and be well on your way to leading the healthy and fit lifestyle that has alluded you thus far. 




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