How to Be Richly Rewarded

So I wrote this book about training your mind to reprogram your body to be thin.  It’s called The Four Day Win, and much to my delight, it seems to have helped some people lose weight and feel better about their lives in general.  But I keep getting questions about this book; questions I never anticipated.  My method of weight management is based on the fact that your body is an animal, and animals are trainable.  You can train your body in much the same way you could train, say, a wild boar.  Not that you in any way resemble a wild boar.  I’m just saying. 

Now, to train an animal, you ignore behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce behaviors you do.  I learned this from Amy Sutherland’s wonderful book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, which applies the techniques of exotic animal training to human behavior. 


This book can help you train any animal, including yourself.

For example, if your dog howls annoyingly, don’t react at all.  This response, or lack of response, is known as the LRS, or “least reinforcing scenario.”  Offer praise or treats only when the dog is quiet.  (You may have to be persistent.  I did this for 15 years with my beagle, and now he has totally stopped howling, partly because, as noted in a previous blog, he is dead.  So stick to it!)  When an animal does something you like, such as administering acupuncture correctly, give him a reward: a pat on the head, a romp in the yard, a Lexus. 

The same principle applies when training yourself to eat right, stay active, finish your email, or complete any other desirable behavior.  Break the challenge into tiny steps, then take one step each day, following the step immediately with a reward of some kind.  If you repeat the same behavior-plus-reward for four consecutive days, the behavior becomes a pattern, and you’ll be able to sustain it with very little effort.

A lot of my readers tell me that they’re great at setting objectives, and pretty good at following through.  When it comes to the reward, however, they get stumped.  Here’s the question most frequently asked by Four Day Win readers.

“How do I think of the right rewards and punishments to motivate myself?”

Response to FAQ, Part One:

First of all,

PUNISHMENTS?  WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT PUNISHMENT?  There’s nothing in any of my books that suggests anybody should punish anybody.  Yet people seem to pick this up between the lines, particularly if they learned to read in Catholic school. 

What do they teach you in there?

I mean no offense by this.  I’m not saying you Catholics are rigid or prudish—in fact, I grew up in a religion that considered y’all to be wild-and-crazy libertines, with your alcoholic Communions and your fancy pope hats.  I didn’t go to Catholic school, and I don’t know what you’re learning in there, but apparently it enables you to find the word “punishment” in any written document, including the instructions on microwave popcorn.

Admit it: if you went to Catholic school, right now you’re thinking about dozens of ways you could punish yourself with microwave popcorn.  You see?  This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Tragic popcorn self-punishment.

But back to my point.  If you’re trying to adopt healthier habits in any way, ix-nay on the unishments-pay.  Positive reinforcement is about 50 times as effective as punishment in sustaining patterns of behavior. 

Response to FAQ, Part Two:

Once you’ve gotten over the need to punish yourself, how do you come up with motivating rewards? 

It amazes me that most people can’t think of anything they really want or like.  Occasionally when I’m running a seminar, I’ll ask a group of people what they’d like me to do for them.  If it’s within my power to do it, I tell them, I will.  But most people, even those who’ve sacrificed money and time to come hang out with me, can’t think of a single request.  In fact, I think they’re actually paying me to tell them what they like.  This is expensive and insane, and I’m so glad people keep doing it.

But there are easier ways.  Check out books like these:



I think people have trouble rewarding themselves because they associate rewards with ease, with absolute lack of difficulty.  They think the reward has to fall out of the sky, that actually, aggressively pursuing satisfaction is “too hard” to be rewarding.  But brain research indicates that we reach a state of “flow,” or maximum positive brain stimulation (read Mihaly Csikszentmihaly or Gregory Berns) when we’re doing something difficult.  Mountain climbers get a happy rush of dopamine while ascending a steep face.  Crossworders get it from the Sunday Times-the hardest puzzle of the week.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly experienced it while trying to spell his own name.  Counterintuitively, the  most enjoyable things are difficult.


Strange but true: hard games are more rewarding than easy ones.


The Nothing-to-Something Barrier

There seems to be an initial resistance to the effort of doing things that, once we’ve begun, are highly rewarding.  Getting over that initial resistance is the key to self-reward.  I call this the “nothing-to-something barrier.”

I’ve found that no matter what I’m doing, going from absolute zero to some forward momentum requires daunting effort.  I enjoy working out, but takes about 5 minutes in the gym, riding a stationary bicycle or dodging body-builders with ‘roid rage, before the enjoyment kicks in.  Writing a first draft of anything, from an email to a book, is hellish; from there, editing and rewriting are almost easy.  I could paint all day, but I don’t like setting up the easel and prepping the canvas.  In all these areas and many more, I get past the nothing-to-something barrier by using a few mental tricks that temporarily boost my enthusiasm.  Here are my favorite methods:

Getting from Nothing to Something

Method 1: Expose Yourself to Role Models

No, I don’t mean that way.  Let us pause while those of you who went to Catholic school punish yourselves, immediately and protractedly, for even thinking such thoughts. 

At your service!

Thank you.

What I mean by “expose yourself to role models” is that you can get through the nothing-to-something barrier by focusing attention on people who are already doing something you enjoy.  For example, reading fitness magazines makes me much more likely to work out.  Reading books and articles by authors I love makes me want to write.  Visiting art galleries makes me want to paint.  The energy created by other people can heave me right over the nothing-to-something barrier into the enjoyment zone. 

 Method 2: Make Foolish Promises

Hiking the Grand Canyon is difficult.  Promising your outdoorsy friends that you’ll hike the Grand Canyon with them next summer is easy.  Backing out of a promise is, once again, often difficult.  For this reason, I encourage you to make ridiculous commitments that sound exciting at the time.  Your first reaction should be, “Oh, yeah!” followed almost immediately by, “Oh, %$&*!”

Foolish promise fulfillment

For example, yesterday I promised two friends that I’d go to Uganda with them next year, to see how well life-coaching works on people whose circumstances make most of my clients’ worst problems look like paradise.  Also to see wild gorillas.  Who knows–maybe the gorillas will want life coaching!

To me, this is a wonderful foolish promise.  There’s no pressing demand for me to life coach in Uganda, and it’ll take all kinds of preparation, money, and inconvenience.  Because it’s in keeping with my heart’s desires, every foolish step will be tinged with excitement.  Every time I get past the nothing-to-something barrier (because I promised my damn friends I would) I’ll feel rewarded by the process.

A gorilla and her life coach.

So today, promise someone—preferably several someones—that you’ll join them in doing something you want to do anyway.  Start a book club and read all of Tolstoy.  Learn Zen archery.  Grow an herb garden.  You may feel grumpy about it, but only until your promise pulls you over the nothing-to-something barrier.  Once in action, you’ll find the effort more rewarding than total lethargy.

Method 3: Ask WWOWDWOW?

You know that dream you had, in which Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and Rabbi Hillel all descended from the clouds and promised you that Oprah was destined to transform your life into a nonstop adventure filled with delights you previously experienced only when you took an overdose of Percoset after your gum surgery? 

Well, I hate to break this to you, but everyone in the world has had that dream.  Except for one person, of course: Oprah.  She, poor woman, is the only person who can’t fantasize about what would happen if she showed up.  When she wonders what Oprah could do for her, her only option for wish fulfillment is to rear up on her hind legs and do it.

If you’ve been waiting for the Oprah gravy train, try wearing a bracelet that says WWOWDWOW, for “What Would Oprah Winfrey Do (Without Oprah Winfrey)?  In other words, if Oprah woke up in the life you’re living right now, what would she do to make that life better? 

Fill in the blank.

For you Catholics (who seem to be the particular target of this blog) it might help to recall that Pope John Paul I struggled with a similar issue.  After he’d ascended to the papacy, he’d wake up worrying about some problem facing the church, and think, “I’ll have to ask the pope about it.”  Then he’d wake up a little more and realize, “Oh, my goodness, I am the pope!”  If you’re the Oprah, the pope, the hero of your own life, the buck stops with you.  All the fancy hats in the world can’t save you from the responsibility to work your own miracles.

Seriously, right now imagine what your most revered role model would do in your wildest fantasies.  Write it all down—the places you’d go, the great things you’d accomplish, the experiences you’d have.  Piggyback on this role-model fantasy to gather enough excitement to propel you over the nothing-to-something barrier.

What if you were the one in the fancy hat? 

Something to Something Better

Once you cross the nothing-to-something barrier, you’ll get better and better at thinking up rewards for your meritorious behavior.  You’ll develop a whole armament of TV shows, books, hobbies, friendly outings, and interesting adventures, any one of which can motivate you to take the next turtle step on your quest for self-improvement. 

Like anything else, thinking up rewards is a skill that gets easier with practice.  Getting from nothing to something: difficult.  Getting from something (anything!) to something better: easy.  And every fabulous life is build from nothing, to something, to something a tiny bit bigger, then a tiny bit bigger still.  If this method doesn’t work, you can always try punishing yourself.  But you’ll have to find the instructions for that in somebody else’s blog.


27 replies
  1. Shareen
    Shareen says:

    I swear the Universe gives you exactly what you need when you need it– without fail. All day I have thought about my life – mostly about my lack of accomplishments, success. Those thoughts have been mixed with some compassion and understanding of my life. But mostly, I have been contemplating why it is that I seem unable to do the things that I desire more than anything for myself. And then I go to your blog and what do I get but this gift.

    You nailed it for me in the “nothing-to-something” scenario. I, too, enjoy working out. I don’t have much trouble making myself do it. But it may take me a few minutes before I get into it. And I think when I first started working out, I did the “nothing-to-something” which became the “something-to-something better.” So now, it is very easy for me to workout, in fact, it is part of my daily routine. I can see how this method has worked for me. But I have great difficulty making myself do the very things that I know will not only make me feel great about myself, but will enrich my life and everyone in my life. I will implement the same “nothing-to-something” in these other parts of myself – only I will do it consciously.

    “Exposing myself to role models” may not be a very good option for me. Making promises to do something too far out of my comfort zone could backfire. The promise could make me so full of dread that I wouldn’t be able to even start. The promise would begin to feel like a ton of bricks weighing me down. Perhaps I could start with a promise that isn’t too far out there – not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing wild gorillas.

    I do like “Ask WWOWDWOW.” It is always inspiring to see my role models doing the very things that would make my own heart sing, if only I would just do them. So tonight, my homework assignment will be to write it all down. I will write it as if it is real. I already feel the excitement about what is possible for me, just thinking about what I will write.

    The rewards will be easy for me. And don’t worry, not doing what I know is true for me, is punishment enough.

    Thank you so much for all you share.

  2. Fiona Newsome
    Fiona Newsome says:

    I can’t get over how you always answer my questions, almost before I’ve posed them – this reward connundrum has been a biggy for me for ages! Once more Martha leads the way with her shining light!!
    Do you ever feel like Frodo’s little phial of elvish light to us mere mortals!! I know you do to me – I hold up your advice and go forth!!
    Thank you (again!!!) – lol Fiona

  3. Erika
    Erika says:

    This is also so helpful with kids. I have a son, 7, who is struggling at school and we decided to put him on medication temporarily, very reluctantly. Well, in the next month we are tapering him off of it and I am nervous because he has been doing so much better and has had a lot of success.

    So I am planning all kinds of fun motivational activities, games and relaxation techniques to get us through the summer. I am excited but nervous.

    The connection for me is that he doesn’t do well at all with punishment and yet I keep trying with the consequences etc and it back-fires.

    Wish me luck. I think it will be the best summer. My son is my guru.

    With excitement and trepidation,

  4. Elena
    Elena says:

    As an RFC (Recovered Former Catholic) growing up in Spain and attending an all-girl school ran by Catholic nuns during Franco’s dictatorship in the 1960’s, I once believed my middle name was “Guilty-as-Punished.”

    Fortunately, I have since evolved into more enlightening ways of being in the world by adopting freer philosophies that empower, rather than judge, human beings at large. Hiking the Himalayas, appreciating the beauty and serenity of a golden sunset in Kauai, and seeing the God essence present in each living creature have cured me of my early childhood trauma.

    I also live by the positive reinforcement philosophy you advocate here, Martha. I’ve used it on myself, my cat, and on the foster-system teenager I mentor. Positive reinforcement energizes, empowers and enriches everyone. Guilt and punishment diminishes, devalues, and deplores that part of us that is simply human.

    And, on that note, I’m off to Hanaley Bay for a swim in the warm Pacific Ocean. Those merciless Catholic nuns punished me into being a very good student… and I’ve learned how to reward myself well. Aloha!

    In love and light,

  5. Scott Hyatt
    Scott Hyatt says:

    I would describe myself as being one step away from a caveman – I have since been trained to think logically, be kind, be responsible, make good decisions and yes listen to my wife. So I would be a testament that animals can be trained. And yes, given the right set of circumstances, I would certainly revert back to my cave man ways.

  6. Fiona Newsome
    Fiona Newsome says:

    Further to my previous comment – Frodo’s light was (of course!!!) starlight!

    Steering by Starlight indeed!

    Fiona x

  7. Rose Sell
    Rose Sell says:

    I wrote an entry in my blog this morning and after reading yours had one of those freaky coincidence moments…anyway, thank you for your blogging- your posts seem to be written for me!

  8. Annette
    Annette says:

    Sooo . . . .
    Sometimes I spend so much time deciding what the ‘reward’ would be that I run out of time to get over that barrier!
    Or – coming from an elementary school taught by the Catholic idea of ‘we are bad’, I wonder if that’s what I really deserve – to move forward. What if there’s a giant ruler on the other side, poised and waiting for my unsuspecting head???
    What if my thinking is warped?
    What if Oprah whacked me with that ruler???? What if I end up looking like your gorilla life coach???
    I have found a solution for myself that works (for now – hopefully it will evolve into a more elegant version): Since I am already ‘warped’ or ‘bad’: so there, nyah, I throw taunts in the general direction of punishment and happily take a rebellious step towards a good thing. By the time I realize there is no Giant Ruler, I am in the enjoyment Zone!!

  9. Susan
    Susan says:

    Rewards. I think one of the reasons that we have such a hard time coming up with suitable Four Day Win rewards is that we spent a good portion of our formative years being rewarded and comforted with food. It just doesn’t seem appropriate to reward an “Eat only fruits and vegetables from 2:00 PM- 6:00 PM” (a recent successful Four Day Win of mine that has now become routine) with, say, a grande tortilla platter. We’ve also convinced ourselves over the years that we shouldn’t need to be rewarded for what we are “supposed” to be doing. That’s why Martha’s “wild child and military general” lesson is so brilliant. We are “supposed” to encourage both of these little people within us and then reward the “watcher” for striking the healthy compromise. When I am able to do this, I feel so good that that really does seem to be enough of a reward, but what the heck…..I reward myself anyway. So, I’ve used things like free, on-line episodes of my favorite “girl TV” show (“Ugly Betty”) and I watch portions each night I meet my Four Day Win goals. It may sound very blah to you, but in a house where “Arthur” and “Jeopardy” are the main programming on our one (by choice) television, a few minutes of “girl tv” is very nice. I am a winner on the Four Day Win and am eternally grateful to Martha for writing it. I highly recommend the audiobook. I’ve sold it so well to my husband that he is going to take it to listen to enroute on business travel. We even appreciate the dog training tips. With our dog, the Lexus might just work. Now, if only the dog had thumbs, she might actually drive and help out with some of the chauffering around here!

    Please keep us posted about Martha’s appearances!

  10. Anne
    Anne says:

    Oh, so the reward isn’t chocolate. I get it, doing something you want to do and accomplishing something is rewarding in itself. Now I can go back to work on my website that I just uploaded (after weeks of learning the code to so I could make it from scratch and get everything to line up right) instead of waiting to get my energy back up again to continue. That will be my reward.

    Makes sense.

  11. Emiko
    Emiko says:

    This is very helpful! I am hyper-linking this to a post I just wrote about your 3 B’s – what better way to “better” something than by giving yourself a reward for doing it! Thank you Martha!


  12. Leah Badertscher
    Leah Badertscher says:

    HILARIOUS, Martha! And I’m Catholic! (Which makes me think I found it especially funny but also will be feeling exceptionally guilty about it all later on! Ah, well, someone’s got to keep the confessionals busy…:)

    You are too funny – and in my quest to become a funnier and more fun person – you are one of my most revered role models! It doesn’t hurt that your humor is also infused with big, fat doses of wisdom…aha!…I just realized that you remind me of King Lear’s fool! (hmmm, I do mean that as a compliment although at first blush it appears to be a total slam…so, you see, I have a ways to go with this funny business…)

  13. Janae
    Janae says:

    Rewards … were so threatening in my home of origin. I only now realized that reading your blog entry!

    Growing up, rewards, were threats, grooming and setups. Punishments were safer because they were what their name implied – punishments. I beat my brains out trying to get my poor sick family to approve of me and what did I end up getting? Terrified of success because look at what freaks people turn themselves into to ”succeed” in corporate America. Terrified of rewards because they’re not rewards – they ”always” have nasty strings attached. Terrified of prosperity because … only powerful people prosper. What is a ”powerful” person? Someone who attacks and beats kids … and no one cares…

    Maybe this is why I’ve had such a hard time feeling safe in rewarding myself?

  14. Janelle
    Janelle says:

    I’m in the middle of the 4-Day Win and loving it. Already lost 10 pounds and I’m not dieting (yeah!). Anyway, it’s funny I have trouble with the rewards too. Maybe it’s because we grow up with parenting that is primarily negative rewards (if you don’t quit this instance I’m going to … kind of stuff). So we begin to think that anything we enjoy is bad for us, and we’re being bad for treating ourselves. I’ve given those thoughts up, but still, it’s hard. Thanks for encouraging us to keep trying!

  15. Katlego
    Katlego says:

    I have to say, I laughed until I cried. I am not Catholic but I went to a Catholic girls school and the best part is the WWOWDWOOW! I am still laughing, the kind of laugh of really seeing myself in what you write. So I have a new one for all South Africans: wwnmdwonm – what would nelson mandela do with out nelson mandela?!?

    Loves it! Now I am of to take that jog that I was waiting for Oprah and Mandela to do for me. (LOL)
    Martha you may need to consider a follow up to the 4 day win because the nothing-to-something barrier is such a major issue for me with my weight. But also to the business owners I work with when it comes to making sales calls etc. Thank you for this wonderful insight.

  16. Vania
    Vania says:

    Martha, you are one funny people I know (well, obviously not in person)! I absolutely love reading your blog and your articles in O Magazine. I’m a huge fan and refer to your posts and articles (with credit of course) on my blog as well (

    I got this one just in time – I have really been trying to figure out how to develop a kinder voice within myself. I love the idea of giving myself treats or rewards for every behavior I want to reinforce within myself. I got so much out of reading your post – I can’t imagine what I’ll get once I read the book! Thank you for your continued insight and wisdom!

  17. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Hi Martha. Fellow TEAM player here… I too, have the same foolish dream to jet off to Africa and hang out with gorillas in the jungle (my hearts desire strangely enough). Actually, I was just telling my Reiki therapist that exact thing last week when she asked me what in my wildest dreams would I ask for. True story. Is that crazy or what?? (We must be soul mates!). So, in fulfilling a wild promise I have made to myself, I’m stepping out of the dark cave (created by my own shadow) to let you know that I would love to join you on your Ugandan expedition to Gorillaville. Yikes! Did I just ask a complete stranger that??!! Whoa, I can already feel that excitement of which you speak coursing through my veins, followed by the “Oh, yeah!”, and promptly, the “Oh, %$&*”. My life experience could offer you valuable coaching opportunities that I think those big hairy primates could benefit from. Martha, thank you for the motivation. Moving forward one turtle step at a time…

  18. Michelle Taufmann
    Michelle Taufmann says:

    I haven’t even read the whole article yet, but I want to thank-you, Martha, for the belly laugh I got out of the remark about Mikhael C. getting into “flow” from trying to spell his own name. You are hilarious! (incidentally, I went to graduate school at UC, where I finally learned how to pronounce his name correctly…I think).

  19. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I love this post…thank you! I know that once I know “the thing” I can get going and go far…my sticking point has been knowing “the thing” that I care enough about to get going. Any suggestions? I have felt stuck as to “my passion” for a long time now. Thank you!

  20. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    If you perform a preferred action, you reward yourself. BUT if you don’t perform a preferred action, you don’t get the reward. Isn’t that some type of punishment?!? Sorry, I went to Catholic school and having a hard time wrapping my brain around no punishment. 🙂

  21. Ann
    Ann says:

    The big bad nuns made me learn French from the age of 7 on, then opera in 7th grade, music, latin, art, poetry,
    literature, world culture, beautiful handwriting and manners. They sure do not teach that in public school.

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  2. […] wholeheartedly.  For more detailed information on self-rewards, check out Martha Beck’s post How To Be Richly Rewarded. Spending just a few minutes every day on a task may not seem like it will make a difference, but I […]

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