Morning people are an especially irritating breed; I know because I am one of them, and I am never not annoyed by myself. It seems unnatural to wake up so eager to start the day and yet, that is what I do. I’m a morning person, and I’m deeply sorry.
For those of you who are not morning people, and who are rightly annoyed by their existence, I come bearing wonderful news: Morning people are not without morning problems. Being a naturally early riser doesn't necessarily mean that the morning person has any sort of functional morning routine. Where you may picture the morning person rising, engaging in some light stretching, drinking a full glass of water to wash down daily vitamins, and brewing coffee while breakfast cooks on the stove, the reality, for me at least, is almost nothing like that.
At least that was the case before I created a chore chart — complete with foil star stickers, oh yes — in an effort to bring more order to my mornings. While it may seem colossally stupid that a grown adult might need a gold star to compel her to eat breakfast, if it works then it's not stupid at all, is it? And, my friends, let me tell you: It really works.
As a lifelong breakfast denier, it became important for me to give myself that crucial first meal of the day, because a lack of fuel was negatively affecting my workouts. And somehow, a rewards model often that we often associate with children resonated with me as well. It creates a visual reminder to stay consistent with my routines while encouraging me to celebrate myself for accomplishing them. But the chore chart doesn’t just have to be breakfast-oriented. It can work just as well for helping you establish other good morning or nighttime habits.
Here are just a few routine things that are often associated with good morning or bedtime hygiene, but that often are skipped because they can feel like a drag — or, to put it in the terms we're discussing here, a chore:
- Making the bed
- Drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning
- Doing 15 minutes of light stretching
- Applying skincare products before bed
- Taking vitamins and supplements
- Reading X-number of pages or chapters of a book
- Putting away the phone an hour before bed
The chore chart I designed was simple: At the top of a piece of paper I wrote, "Jolie, did you eat breakfast??" Below that were boxes for each day of the week. Eating breakfast Monday through Saturday earned me a checkmark next to each day, and a week of successfully eating breakfast earned me that foil star sticker on Sunday.
To find out why childlike incentives can help us as adults, I turned to Alan Kazdin, Professor Emeritus of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, who was quick to dismiss my chore chart success. According to him, true habit creation calls for a more robust strategy.
"The scientific research has a three-pronged approach, and without the three prongs it's not likely to work very well,” he says. “One of those prongs is the reward, but without the other two it's kind of futile to do this."
Kazdin explained that the three-pronged scientific basis for changing behavior relies on first identifying the antecedent, or what comes before the behavior, then crafting the behavior so that it changes in a gradual way. That leads to the desired outcome, followed by the reward.
As for my chore chart success, Kazdin said, "The story is wonderful. The trouble is that you're attributing everything to the chart, and in fact it may not have been the chart."
The success of the chart, he said, has more to do with providing a structure to encourage habit-formation, rather than a rewards system.
"It might well be that the chart helped. It might be a straw that went on the camel's back and helped, but you're attributing this all to the chart and it may have very little to do with the chart. You reached a point, and you decided to structure something — and it may have been just the structure of it."
Despite Kazdin's poo-pooing of my foil star stickers, I stand firm in my belief that the chore chart helped me establish a more successful morning routine. I'm willing to concede that those foil stars don't deserve all the credit for my important personal achievement — as Kazdin described it, it wasn't the reward but rather the behavioral monitoring effect it had that made the chart so successful — but behavioral monitoring can take many forms, and if one method happens to involve foil stars, why not use them to tip the scales in favor of forming some good new habits.