Torah Musings: SMART REWARDS Part II



Sarah Pachter

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and could indeed have changed the world.

  • Unknown Monk, 1100 A.D.

Ideal goal setting reflects a worldview similar to the one illustrated by this quote. We often have lofty ideas of achievement and possibility, but when we begin the process, our motivation and capacity can quickly dwindle. Utilizing microsteps can have a more profound impact on our overall growth.

The three steps include making smaller goals, forgiving our errors, and rewarding success. These simple steps can be applied to any type of goal we desire, whether spiritual, financial, or health-related. After years of failure, this year microsteps enables me to succeed in reaching my last New Year’s resolution, instead of simply wishing for change and not seeing it.

Start Small

You may have already chosen a S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goal, but I suggest cutting that goal in half. Our eyes are usually larger than our bodies can handle when it comes to goal setting, and what we initially assume is small and insignificant quickly becomes too burdensome for us to achieve consistently. Scaling down is impactful because bite-size steps are the way we achieve any larger goal.

My first book, Small Choices, Big Changes, explains the premise behind why small goals actually work. If you try to make a huge change, you are subconsciously messaging that your intention to succeed is minimal.

Our inner selves review large resolutions and respond with, There she goes again, swearing off X forever. Yeah, I’d like to see that happen. Counterintuitively, your lofty goal may actually be assisting failure. Rather, pick something small, break it into several mini-steps, and begin only with the first one.

For example, imagine that a person would like to begin an exercise regimen. Rather than vowing to run five miles daily for the rest of your life, just commit to running for one mile on each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next month.

Of course, this can be applied in the spiritual arena as well. Suppose someone is attempting to begin reciting blessings over food for the first time. Perhaps one could only say brachot over yogurt—and possibly tighten the goal further by only reciting this brachah on Monday afternoons.

Whatever your goal, it needs to be small enough that no matter what, rain or shine, you stick to it. Once it becomes habitual, you are then ready to add layers to your mini-goal, such as doing it more often or for longer periods of time.

You may think that minuscule goals such as these are too small to have a real impact, but that’s simply not true. When we succeed with smaller goals, we build our confidence to add more. That’s the first secret to sustainable growth.

It does not matter how small your goal is as long as you keep moving in a positive direction. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “You have to fly towards your dreams; but if you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

Forgive Errors

Forgiving ourselves when we make a misstep is not just about displaying compassion. Rather, it is essential in our ability to move forward with our goals. When we are too harsh, we can create guilt that is paralyzing to growth. Regret, however, can be motivating. Guilt whispers, I AM bad. Regret says, I did something bad, but that does not make me bad.

Sporadic success (aka “intermittent failure”) is actually something to be proud of. Sarah Yocheved Rigler writes[1] that sometimes failure creates dejection, but in the world of baseball, even if you strike out two out of three times, it’s considered very good. A batting average of .333 percent makes you a rockstar. There is no shame in making mistakes, for it is part of human nature.

She continues, “Forgive mistakes. We must treat ourselves the way we would a small child, after all, we are all children of Hashem.”

Reward Success

The most important step in solidifying change is the reward. Assume you reach your first mini-goal, and it has become a habit. Before adding layers to that goal it is essential to reward the body for collaborating with the soul.

I only recently realized the impact of reward. Regardless of age, our bodies are childlike and understand the language of gratification. Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a world-renowned Torah scholar and author, explains that if we don’t provide reward specific for the body, then our neshamah, only capable of growth through the vehicle of the body, is going to have a harder time making changes. A physical reward that is meant to appease the body gives a fighting chance for cooperating with the desires of the soul.

The promise of reward does not just motivate us to change; the real benefit happens after we administer the reward. Sarah Yocheved Rigler writes[2] about an idea that has transformed my relationship to reward.

Dr. Norman Doidge explains that a second basic principle of neuroplasticity is: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Dr. Doidge tells about experiments done with children with major language processing problems. They worked on a computer program to actually change their brains. When the child achieved a goal, something funny would happen: the character in the animation would eat the answer, get a funny look on his face, etc. Dr. Doidge writes: “This reward is a crucial feature of the program, because each time the child is rewarded, his brain secretes such neurotransmitters as dopamine and acetylcholine, which help consolidate the map changes he has just made. (Dopamine reinforces the reward, and acetylcholine helps the brain ‘tune in’ and sharpen memories.)”

In other words, rewards for positive achievement and behavior actually sharpen our brains to enable us to perform the action more easily. If you then map changes and make those pathways stronger, not only is there a decreased likelihood of mistakes, our chance of automatically trying again after failing increases. Neuropathways that are rewarded fire together in the future. Then, future autopilot behavior becomes more likely.

I started an initiative with my family to complete Sefer Tehillim in honor of our beloved aunt who passed away. Upon finishing, we celebrated with physical rewards for all! It was the first time I had rewarded myself for completing tehillim. I can’t say that I actually felt the dopamine solidifying my synapses, but sure enough, I started again with more zerizut (alacrity)!

We see rewards administered frequently in Torah study. After completing the Torah on Simchat Torah, we dance, sing and share sweets to mark the occasion. We throw candy at bar mitzvahs. The reward of dance, song, and of course candy may seem trivial, but it actually strengthens the neurons that we used to learn Torah.

In order to make changes, we need micro-steps to help follow through. These steps include starting small, forgiving ourselves, and rewarding success. May we all reach our goals, so that by this time next year, we too can celebrate and create a (slightly) greater list for self-improvement.