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Hidden Costs of Rewards

If a person believes their task is to solve a problem, they will work at the task until the problem is really solved.

If a person believes the end of the task will result in a reward, they will only work at the task until the reward is obtained.

These are the realities of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivations1. The last example was a bit vague, but let’s talk now about deadlines. Writers, whether in a college class or professionally engaged, have deadlines. It is often that deadline that puts a stop to the writing (extrinsic) rather than some actual feeling of completion (intrinsic). For many writers, they will turn in the manuscript to their teacher or their editor or whomever, but they won’t feel finished. They know it could be better; some improvements could have been made. Yet, after receiving the grade or being paid the sum, they often do not return to the writing.

Lepper and Greene2 did a study on this with children to see if rewards for work in classrooms was a good idea. They found that children who knew they would get a reward for their work tended to “produce more, but necessarily less detailed” work. Children that never expected an award remained engaged in the activity longer and created better work.

I wonder how this may come into play with to do lists, as often found in The Bullet Journal system. I’ve always found it interesting that Ryder Carroll (BuJo inventor) suggests merely placing an X over the bullet for tasks completed, rather than striking out the task. Me, I find great pleasure in striking out my completed tasks. Blog Post. This “extrinsic” motivator can definitely get me moving, but I don’t feel it necessarily affects how well I do that task. I wonder if that’s because my “intrinsic” motivators—wanting to do a good job for the sake of doing a good job—is stronger than any external reward. Yes, striking out a To Do list item feels great but only if I know I did a good job. I’ve even witnessed people putting check marks next to tasks they’ve not done yet! Oh the sacrilege!

For you, how does Striking Out or checking off or Xing a To Do list item feel? Is that striking out a lead motivator for completing the task? Have you ever checked off an item, knowing you’d not done your best?


  1. McGraw, K. O., & Fiala, J. (1982). Undermining the Zeigarnik effect: Another hidden cost of reward. Journal Of Personality, 50(1), 58. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.ep7380376
  2. Greene, D., & Lepper, M. R. (1974). Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children’s Subsequent Intrinsic Interest. Child Development, 45(4), 1141-1145. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.ep12117087
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