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Research rewards and relapse prevention

Coming from a psychology background we are always interested in behaviours across population, organisation, individual and personal levels.

We had been trialling a number of different reward options to focus our personal and professional behaviours, to keep us motivated and to acknowledge our successes. Originally this began with a packet of peanut M&Ms in celebration of a particular event/action but when we realised that we were consuming M&Ms to celebrate (or commiserate) the fact that it was Tuesday (or Monday, or Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, and almost definitely Friday), we decided something had to change. While teaching medical students how to guide a patient through a behaviour change, we decided to conduct a similar intervention on ourselves.

Why: to prioritise work-life balance, increase personal meaning and improve our academic research status.

How: reduce problematic research-related behaviour and/or increase beneficial behaviours by the development and application of our tailored Health Researcher (ECR) Psychobehavioural Framework.

We identified that there are numerous Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) across personal and professional domains that needed to be included for a relevant and practical framework.

Points system: identify rewards which were personally meaningful and professionally relevant and allocate points to each goal.

table 1

Box 1

So how are we doing using the framework?

Six-months into implementation; points have been scored, rewards taken- and ideally behaviours reinforced.

There have been some rewards taken including movies, regular lunches, a trip to IKEA, an afternoon of shopping and lunching in the sun, and we’ve accumulated a total of 607 (+ the 200 points we’ve already used) points to date. Accumulating these points has come from things like submitting 7 papers (2 published, 3 under review, 2 to revisit); an application for a Category 1 grant (our first ever, yay!); creating a successful blog; getting promoted; conducting a workshop; reviewing for new journals; regular(ish) gym attendance and very regular lake walking; completing lots of small and medium sized tasks at work (part of our core position descriptions).farm

Some challenges have arisen. The first is to remind ourselves to keep a record of our actions and the second is finding time to enjoy the rewards – why? Let’s reflect on this…

– we’ve had trouble remembering to engage with the framework (maybe because LB wrote it up and has ridiculously tiny writing, perhaps we need a bigger sign so the rewards are always in our faces!)

– the points need to be the reinforcer, so we need to make sure these are scheduled to occur as soon as the behaviour happens (this usually happens in hindsight, on a calendar, on Friday afternoons when we’re struggling to remember what we were doing at the beginning of the week)

– we’ve dropped our smaller rewardable tasks like daily writing KPIs and instead have focused on KPIs which get big rewards. This is a problem because the small ones are effective but are the first to fall off the radar when there are big projects on.

– mentality that should be doing more, better, faster – expectations, cognitive assumption – all or nothing, etc. We need to get better at saying no and sticking to it (earning those 20 points!)

There have been some great benefits – seeing the number rise each week is very rewarding and the reward times we have spent together have been fantastic fun!

Accountability: Because there are two of us engaged in this we feel responsible for earning points (i.e., accountability and encouragement from peers)

Relapse prevention: Need to rethink smaller behaviours – JOB’s suggestion has been a glass jar (not too big) when we engage in 40 minutes writing before any other task first thing on a work morning (one of the most effective things a writer/academic can do) we could add a stone to the jar. Once the jar is full this is a can be rewarded (not sure of the points allocation for this). It might actually be quite a decorative feature for our (new location) office.

Advice for future implementation: Stick with and support your research buddy. Design KPIs that are specific to your role and goals and are relative to opportunity (e.g., if we only work three days a week we are likely to only write three days a week). Reward often and sufficiently – make sure the intensity of the reward matches the intensity of the work. Have fun with it!

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