‘Treats' Aren't Frivolous -- They're Key To Reaching Goals

03/18/2015 10:36 am ET | Updated Mar 18, 2015

The author of Better Than Before shows us how kind indulgences can keep us on track with our goals.

By Gretchen Rubin

Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a "treat" is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. We don't have to be "good" to get it, we don't earn it or justify it.

"Treats" may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but they're 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.

By contrast, when we don't get any treats, we feel depleted, resentful and angry and justified in self-indulgence. We start to crave comfort -- and we'll grab that comfort wherever we can, even if it means breaking good habits.

To strengthen my good habits, I decided to create a menu of healthy treats -- but that can be more challenging than it sounds. So many popular treats come at a cost: the museum visit requires a long trip across town, the new shoes are expensive, the martini tonight will make the morning tougher. My favorite treat is reading, and reading requires time and concentration, which aren't always easy to muster. A reader of my blog noted, "I love to play the piano, but it takes focus, and some days I've already spent out my focus quota."

I began by collecting examples of other people's inventive treats: browsing through art books, cookbooks and travel guides; taking photographs on a walk; napping; having a session of "fur therapy" (petting a dog or cat); wandering through a camping store; looking at family photo albums; keeping art postcards in the car visor for a quick diversion in stalled traffic; going to comedy clubs; going to baseball games; listening to podcasts; coloring in coloring books; visiting amusement parks; learning new magic tricks.

It's important to have some treat options that aren't very demanding. A friend told me, "Every day after I get my kids off to school, I go back to bed for 20 minutes. I may go to sleep, or just lie there. I'm still at work by 9:00 a.m., and that little indulgence makes me so happy." A friend living in London told me his treat: "My calendar is packed, but twice a day, for 15 minutes, I sit and drink an espresso and read the International Herald Tribune. I don't check email, I don't do work. I don't want any additional breaks, but I'm furious if I don't get those two in." Another friend said, "I wonder if there's something a person could do with this sexually. Depending on their situation," he laughed. "I don't even want to say out loud what I'm thinking."

"No, don't spell it out!" I protested. "But it's true that treats that come through the body seem to have special powers." Sometimes treats might not look like treats. Writer Jan Struther observed, "Constructive destruction is one of the most delightful employments in the world." I find that true, and tasks like shredding mail, emptying out files or even peeling hard-boiled eggs can feel like a treat. Funnily enough, clearing clutter is also a treat for me, when I'm in a certain mood. On my blog, people wrote about their own untreatlike treats: ironing, writing code, doing Latin translation.

As a treat for herself, for her birthday, one of Jamie's colleagues walked to work -- six miles. "Did she do it to prove to herself she could do it?" I asked. "Or as a treat?"

"Oh, she wanted to do it," Jamie assured me. "For fun."

Although I love hearing what other people consider treats, I remind myself to "Be Gretchen." Just because an activity is a treat for someone else doesn't mean it's a treat for me -- and vice versa. A friend said, "I love CrossFit, that's a treat for me." Maybe I could reframe my yoga class, or exercise generally, as my "treat," I thought. Then I realized -- nope. I do enjoy it, in a way, but it's not a treat. A friend told me that her favorite treat was to shop for gifts -- a task that for me is arduous. I wish my bank of fun included activities like sketching, playing tennis, cooking, doing puzzles or playing a musical instrument, but they're not treats for me.

I made a list of my own treats. One of my favorites is a visit to the library. I love keeping a log of books I want to read, looking up the call numbers and wandering through the stacks to pick them out. Returning library books is an odd little treat, too (perhaps that's my Finisher nature). I love copying out my favorite passages from books and adding them to my various collections of quotations. I view sleep as a big treat, which is why I don't resent the idea of going to bed earlier, the way some people do. For me, it feels like a luxurious indulgence.

Beautiful smells are also a reliable treat for me and can be enjoyed in an instant, with no cost, no effort and no planning. In a flash, I get pleasure from the fresh smell of a grapefruit, or the comforting fragrance of clean towels or the promising smell of a hardware store. I remind myself to notice such treats, to register the fact that I'm experiencing a scent that I love.

After all, we make something a treat by calling it a "treat." It's all too easy to overlook how much we enjoy something. 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. "Look," I tell myself as I light a scented candle, "I'm giving myself a treat." Sometimes we can even reframe a challenging habit as a treat, which makes it much easier to keep. A reader observed, "When I thought of exercise as something I 'should' do, it was hard to get into a routine. Eventually, I decided to count my daily walk or cross-country ski as a treat -- my time for myself in a day otherwise filled with responsibilities. Somehow, that made it much easier to make it a priority."

The treats of childhood retain a special power. As a child, I was rarely allowed to drink soda or to buy a book instead of checking it out from the library. What do I do now, with abandon? Drink diet soda and buy books (the book-buying treat is wholly separate from the library-visiting treat). So, perhaps we parents need to think hard about what we identify as treats for our children.

A friend thought she should renounce her treat. "I really love coffee, but I know I should stop drinking it," she told me.

"Why?" I pressed. "Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?"

"No, it doesn't affect me."

I couldn't resist launching into a defense of coffee. "You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it's not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don't add anything crazy, it doesn't have any sugar, carbs, fat or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you're drinking it in the human range. Plus, there's a pleasant ritual connected with it -- you can go out for coffee with a friend."

"But I drink so much. I should at least cut back."

"But why?" I pressed. "Enjoy it! Samuel Johnson said, 'All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.' A habit isn’t bad unless it causes some kind of problem."

I don't think I convinced her.

Not everyone is attracted by the idea of having each day ordered, but I love the monkish horarium, or "table of hours," the highly specific routine that runs on an annual cycle, with variations for the days of the week and the seasons. Every part of the day has its own character and purpose, with time set aside for prayer, manual work, rest, eating, sleeping. Few decisions, no hurry, time for everything.

I am particularly intrigued by the hours that monks set aside for lectio divina, or spiritual reading. This is another kind of treat. To be happy, even we nonmonks need to make time for transcendent matters -- such as beauty, creativity, service, faith -- but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. Scheduling lectio divina is a way to make sure that the spiritual gets attention -- whether a person decides to read holy books and attend religious services, as a monk would do, or adapts this habit to make regular time to leaf through art books, read biographies of great figures, spend time in nature, go to concerts, volunteer or meditate. For some people, politics is a spiritual concern, tied to transcendent values, such as justice, opportunity and freedom. And from what I've observed, sports seems to have a spiritual value for some people -- with its aspects of devotion, loyalty, hope and perseverance.

Once we've truly adopted a habit, it comes easily, without decision-making. But until that point -- and even established habits, alas, can never be completely taken for granted -- giving ourselves a little boost with treats helps us maintain our self-command. Goethe pointed out, "Whatever liberates our spirit without giving us mastery over ourselves is destructive." And whatever liberates our spirit while giving us mastery over ourselves is constructive.

The excerpt was reprinted from Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives Copyright © 2015 by Gretchen Rubin. To be published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on March 17.

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