Let me begin by asking two simple questions.
I want you to answer them honestly.
1. What if you were confident that you couldn’t fail, what would you change in your life?
For me, it has always been my weight and my anger issues.
2. How long have you been waiting to finally have the confidence to go “all in” to achieve your dream goal(s)?
6 months, a year or more?
It took me a while to get started.
I was scared that I’d fail.
And guess what, I pretty much did.
But I stuck with it and kept tweaking, experimenting and researching.
And I have learned a thing or two that makes the REAL difference.
Having lost 50+ pounds in my weight loss journey and being in full control of my anger, I can safely say that I can probably share the one hack that has helped me realise two of my biggest life goals.
A simple hack that shifted my perspective from “focusing on the problem” to “problem-solving” and I have never looked back.
How I stumbled upon this idea
Last summer, during the school holidays, I was struggling with keeping Pari’s screen time in check.
From Tv to iPad to the mobile, she’d keep changing devices every time I imposed a time limit. When I’d act strict, she’d start complaining and spend the time whining. You get the drift, right?
That’s when I tried the one trick I had learnt in school.
When I was in class 2 our class teacher Miss Pamela always kept a big box in her cupboard. Every time a student celebrated their birthday and offered her candy or a bar of chocolate, she would put it in that box.
And she had a sweet tooth that could put an ant to envy. She’d keep munching on them while sitting in the class. Needless to say, the whole class used to get tempted and craved for sweets every time we would hear her twist and unwrap a candy or chocolate.
One day our class was unusually noisy. No matter how many times the class monitor slammed the duster on the teacher’s desk, the students wouldn’t listen to her. At that time the teachers had been called for a staff meeting in the staff room.
When Miss Pamela returned she was furious. She entered the class, put her handbag in the cupboard and took out her treasure of treats. Immediately the class fell silent. Pin drop silence.
As she twisted open a candy, for the very first time she noticed greed in the eyes of the tiny tots and that sparked an idea in her mind.
She asked us, “Would you all like to eat a toffee?”
“Yes, ma’am” we all answered in unison.
“Okay, from now on, every time the class sits quietly while I am outside the class, I will put toffee in this box and once the box is full, I will distribute these toffees to you.
To our little minds, it sounded like a brilliant idea because Ma’am put it into action right away. She emptied the candy box into her purse and left the box on her table. It was a tin box, shiny and beautiful.
After recess, Ma’am stepped out of the class for some work. She reminded us about the toffees before going. And as expected, the class was quiet. Quieter than it usually was in a teacher’s presence.
When Ma’am returned to the class, she was amazed by the response and she immediately plucked a toffee from her bag and dropped it in the toffee tin.
The toffee plunked and sat in the box. And thus started the routine that taught us, class 2 students to learn the habit of sitting quietly in class when a teacher is not around.
Fast-forward to the time when I became a parent.
With the advent of the Internet and easy access to parenting tips from around the world, I learnt about a similar reward system practised in schools around the world.
The Reward Jar.
The concept is exactly what Miss Pamela used many years ago but instead of putting in toffees (which are obviously NOT a healthy reward) we use a glass jar and colourful marbles.
From the start, I have been very mindful of not bribing my daughter to encourage behaviour change.
However, I am all in for reinforcing positive behaviour with rewards that don’t have a monetary or health detrimental value.
Coming back to last summer.
One day during my trip to the market, I stopped at a toy shop and spotted marbles. immediately I knew I could try the reward jar strategy to get Pari’s screen time in check.
And that’s exactly what happened.
In the days that followed, I put this strategy to use to help Pari develop many new habits, including:
- Making her bed after she wakes up
- Always putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket and the shoes back in the shoe rack.
- Washing her hands with soap before and after eating,
- Not whining if she lost a game.
- Brushing her teeth before going to bed
One morning, while getting Pari ready for school, I was in a sour mood because we were running late. For the nth time in a row. I was trying to get Pari to stand straight while braiding her hair and she was busy fidgeting with the marble jar.
As expected, I poured my frustration on her by yelling.
When we reached the bus stop, I had cooled down and had transferred my foul mood to my little kid.
That’s when my daughter showed me the way of overcoming the obstacles that were keeping me from creating the life I wanted for myself.
She told me, “Mumma if you’ll stop being angry with me during the morning, I’ll give you a marble for every time you do so.”
Yes, my little girl knew about the habit-forming potential of the marble reward jar but somehow I had never seen it useful beyond children.
What started with Pari being in charge of putting in marble in the jar every morning I kept my cool (irrespective of if we were running late or not), taught me to stay calm and in check of my temper even at other times of the day.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
To successfully implement the reward jar for behaviour change strategy I dug deep to learn psychology at play and how it actually works well for adults just as it is always a success in kids.
During my learning process, the one book that was most helpful was Atomic Habits by James Clear.
If the reward jar is the tool, Atomic Habits is the book that outlines the strategies that help bring about the mindset shift.
Mind you, strategy alone can’t lead to success without a change in attitude or a mindset shift if you’re looking for long-term success.
Besides, this book is THE ONE habit-building book that can help you get lasting results in every walk of life. That’s why I highly recommend it and have myself read twice so far.
In his book loaded with simple actionable tips on habit building, the marble jar reward system is explained as a paper clip in a jar strategy.
After seeing success in stopping yelling at my daughter, I was eager to put the reward jar strategy to use in other areas of my life.
I got a chance when I embarked on my weight loss journey.
I have been utilizing the marble reward jar strategy to control my cravings at times when I am not hungry but feel like eating out of greed, boredom, habit or to ease out the discomfort of any other kind.
And the results have been very encouraging.
How does the reward jar system work?
Every time you resist a craving or simply repeat a habit, you put a marble/reward into the jar from another box or jar.
Doing so is a visual reminder of having achieved what you had set out to do.
Though remarkable, long-term results may take time, these small quantifiable wins pave the way of continuing with the habit till you reach your goal.
What happens once your jar is full?
Once your jar is full it is the time to appreciate your persistence by rewarding yourself with a pat on your back with pride and a feeling of accomplishment.
If you’re still far away from your final goal, you can empty the jar to continue the process (which I usually do).
However, if you’re confident that you’ll stay put with the habit even without the reward jar, you can use the reward jar to build another habit or to tackle another obstacle in your life.
Where can the Reward Jar System be put to use?
If you’d examine your life, you would come with a number of areas you’d like to change.
So many of us have dreams and goals that we feel are unattainable. Though that’s mostly because change overwhelms us.
I have been there, I know it.
Most of the time we are unsure what to do, where to begin and how to get things rolling.
That uncertainty can be debilitating and leaves us feeling stuck often inspiring us to quit.
Determination can take us only so far and will power fatigues like a muscle, that’s when habits come into play.
It is only when we develop a habit of taking effective action, slowly but steadily we grow, evolve and achieve our dreams.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose a few pounds or 100 pounds, switch jobs, quit smoking, trying to curtail expenses, learning a new skill, start writing a book, trying to give up drinking or working to travel the world on your terms.
Every goal, every dream, every aspiration is valid and deserves patient, strategic effort to make it happen.
And while you might not reach your goals overnight, with the right plan, tools and strategy you’ll continue to grow, develop new habits and achieve many small wins that’ll take you towards your goal or still better help you achieve something better than what you initially hoped for.
After much trial and error, I have outlined an action plan that has been getting me consistent results.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
The Action Plan:
1. Know what you want
It helps to be sure about what you really want to achieve or change in your life. Be clear about what change you are aiming to make in your life.
Journalling is my personal favourite way of getting a clear idea of what I really want.
But if you’re still unsure, get started and over the course of time you’ll figure out which way you REALLY want to go.
2. Plan in advance
Plan what you are hoping to do differently.
When I was working on interrupting and eventually breaking my habit of eating a bar of chocolate post-lunch simply out of habit, I had decided, ahead of time that once I put down my glass of water after lunch, I won’t eat anything for the next four hours.
This meant I would not even agree to take a bite of a cookie or anything else if my daughter offered me some.
3. What are you making it mean?
It helps to think ahead of time, what thoughts are you going to think while you are willingly feeling the discomfort of not giving in to the urges. This is important because the more positive and empowering your thoughts are in those few minutes, it defines the long term success of your plan.
Like every time I sat through the discomfort of not yielding to my urge of eating chocolate simply out of habit I’d repeatedly tell myself I was doing it to get healthier. I was investing in a better future.
4. Have the reward jar sit at eye level where you can easily see and reach it
A jar that’s constantly in your field of vision, reminds your brain of your ability to make desirable changes. It is clear proof that you can survive the discomfort and invest in realizing your dreams.
Have the jar at your work desk or your book rack if it is constantly in your field of vision.
5. As soon as 10 minutes of you letting the craving or urge pass and you do not respond to it, reward yourself with a marble
A quick win or instant gratification triggers motivation and encourages our mind to believe that we are already winning. Every small win counts because all big goals are aggregate of many small wins over time.
6. Be non-judgemental every time you fail
There will be many occasions, especially in the beginning when you’ll cave in the discomfort. On those occasions, you simply don’t reward yourself. But you do this without self-judgement. Be kind to yourself and keep going.
7. A glass jar is a preferred choice
You may choose glass beads or even pebbles in place of marbles but opt for a clear glass jar as your reward jar. The ‘plunk’ every time you add a marble or bead has an added positive impact on the brain. I can personally vouch for the added push the plunk gives me to keep going strong in my weight loss journey.
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
8. Tackle only one change or habit at a time
With initial success, it is common to be tempted to apply this strategy to more than one problem area of your life. To go ahead and have more than one reward jar. But I strongly recommend avoiding it.
The simple reason being we do not want to dilute the strong positive, visual impact our small wins are having on reinforcing the new habit. We want our brain to stay focused on making one change at a time.
9. The success of this behaviour change reward system rests on your accountability
Every time I win a marble, I write about my experience in the journal to revisit the emotions and to get a clearer understanding of my progress. This added step also helps me plan ahead for the future while compassionately reinforcing the idea that I have my back if things don’t go as planned.
10. Do not punish yourself by taking out marbles if you fail
You want your brain to associate the reward jar as a beacon of positivity. As a means to reinforce positive behaviour. Do not attribute any negative feelings to it. Simply don’t reward yourself if you succumb to cravings or fail at doing a planned task.
This way your mind stays motivated to keep trying and match up to your past success and you don’t stop growing and your progress doesn’t stall.
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
How to make your own reward jar?
You can choose any glass jar from your kitchen pantry or even buy one like this. Make sure the jar has a lid. The lid is an important indicator that the jar isn’t accessible unless you complete the planned task and earn yourself a reward.
You can choose the jar of any size depending on how frequently you’re hoping to reward yourself. A larger jar would take longer to fill but allows room for being generous in rewarding yourself.
A small jar is fine for goals where you’re hoping to reward yourself once a week (for accomplishing weekly goals).
Be mindful of not involving a bribe during the process. Keep it based strictly on merit and do not bribe yourself or the child even when the jar is full or the goal is reached.
Achieving the goal is the ultimate reward.
Remember, every tiny step, every small habit adds up over time and leads us closer to our goals.
Because slow and steady always wins the race.
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