Hot Take: In many ways, adults are kids that have learned and (sometimes) use more advanced coping and social strategies.
Sometimes, this is obvious by the childlike behavior we observe in others. Other times, this surfaces when we refuse to go to bed or eat the entire tub of ice cream despite knowing it’s not in our best interest — not that I’ve ever done that…
If you can relate to the previous statements, you may see why sticker charts (a small incentive) can be valuable for adults trying to form positive habits.
As a young child, I was rebellious and had more than a little bit of an issue with my temper (primarily due to unresolved childhood trauma.) My “character” had better and worse days but often disrupted my peers.
My kindergarten teacher at the time recommended my parents implement a sticker chart to curb my outbursts.
Her strategy was dead on.
Within a couple of months, I came to cherish the stickers, and my behavior improved. Ironically, I forgot about the sticker chart a few months later but retained the improved behavior.
The sticker chart initially provided an immediate and constructive reward to help reinforce the habit of controlling my temper. Although seemingly insignificant, a small well-timed reward can often help propel positive behavior. If nothing else, past me approves.
In the oft-cited book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg and his cowriters introduce the habit loop. The basic premise is that there are three parts to any successful habit: Cue, Routine, and Reward.
The cue is what sets the habit in motion. The example used in the book is the time while working in the office. Around 3 pm, the author admitted that they felt hungry and thus started their habit of getting a cookie.
Standing up to get a cookie was the routine. Charles would get up from his desk and grab a cookie before returning to work.
When trying to change this habit, he later discovered he wanted to socialize and that the cookie was just a convenient proxy. It turned out that socialization was the reward.
So why did I bring up this example?
In the same way that Charles used socialization as a reward, you can use a sticker on a sticker chart as a reward and tracker for completing your desired action.
Not only does it feel good to accomplish something consistently, but the sticker chart serves as both a reminder and accountability metric. I also believe it is a more fun take on a classic piece of advice.
There’s a classic story that Jerry Seinfield popularized a method called don’t break the chain when an aspiring comic asked him for advice.
In short, the primary idea was that you wanted to track each day that you completed the habit that brought you closer to your goal with an X on your calendar. In the aspiring comic’s case, this was writing jokes every day.
At first, you’ll probably be terrible and miss consecutive days. Eventually, with some determination, you’ll get a chain going.
That’s when the magic starts.
Once you have a chain going, your only goal is not to break that chain of X’s. Eventually, the habit and reward become intertwined, and you start to do the thing that propels you to your goal automatically.
A sticker chart is just a more whimsical version of this advice. Just like tracking a habit with X’s on a calendar, you can track consecutive days with a sticker on the chart.
Add extra stakes by setting a more significant, related reward for having so many stickers in a row. Adding a prize combines the magic of Seinfield’s recommendation with the power of reward that Duhigg et al. describe.
So a sticker chart worked for childhood me, but would it still work for me as an adult?
On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to give this method a shot when trying to establish my habit of drawing every day. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to learn how to draw well.
I would eagerly get a sketchbook and sketch kit, do it for a few days, and then give up when I wasn’t already the next top artist.
The sticker chart changed that.
I decided to set a 30-day challenge to jumpstart my drawing habit.
I now had three pieces of extra motivation — a prize for 30 days of consistently showing up to draw, a burning desire to add a cute new chibi sticker to the tracker, and not wanting to break the chain.
I’m happy to report that I didn’t miss a single day. I’m certainly no Michelangelo, but I’m better than I was 30 days ago. I also want to draw and use my reward — a set of colored pencils — to create more art.
Although I’m a sample of one, I believe this method is worth trying if you struggle to establish a positive habit.
The potential downside is that you’re out at most $5 for the stickers and line paper/calendar for your chart. The potential upside is forming a new habit in a (slightly) more fun way.
I believe there are two key lessons to take from my experience.
The first lesson is that just because guardians/mentors used a method with us as children doesn’t automatically mean it’ll be ineffective for us as adults.
As adults, societal pressures often move us away from anything childish. While, in some cases, this is helpful and necessary, this can also backfire.
A sense of play and wonder are vital parts of childhood and critical to a fulfilling life. I believe introducing a sticker chart for habit tracking reinjects just the right amount of play into our lives.
It takes something serious, like habit building, and turns it into more of a game.
The second takeaway is to modify “standard” advice to fit your dispositions and needs. Tracking habit completion with stickers instead of x’s is a simple change, but one that unlocked a whole new world for me.
I hope you found this helpful and maybe discovered a new technique for your self-improvement journey.