Upping your star chart game

I wrote a post on here about star charts. If you haven’t read it yet, go and read it now, I’ll wait.

Finished? OK, great.

You’ve probably gathered that I am a massive fan of star charts. They work for adults with autism, adults with ADHD, children and normal people.

But sometimes, you might need to up your star chart game. Especially if you’ve got ADHD. People with ADHD need new stuff ALL THE TIME and that means changing up their tools every so often so they don’t get bored.

The star chart works so well because it gives an instant reward, so ditching it in favour of another motivational or productivity tool doesn’t necessarily work. Instead, you can change how you use a star chart to make it work better – or just if you fancy a change.

But – hey you there with the bouncy ADHD brain. Hold your horses a sec – please, please, just do one of these at a time. Yes, I know you want to do all of them at once but you’ll end up crashing and burning if you do that. Pick your favourite, use that for a bit and when it starts to fail, come back here and pick another one. This post ain’t going anywhere.

Idea 1: random rewards

I read about this idea from a couple who used random rewards to get their chores done. They had a jar of rewards and when they’d each done their chores, they’d pick one out. Some of them were big and some were small.

I do this sometimes. I write random amounts of money down on a bit of paper and if I get my stars for the week, I pull one out and put it into my won wallet. It might only be one pound, which normally means I will save it for something I really want. So although I’ve got a reward for that week, it’s not much and I need to wait another week to buy an expensive cheese.

But it might be £15 or even £20 which is enough to get a t-shirt with an amusing slogan on it. So my reward is instant. Sometimes I’ll save up these bigger amounts for a bigger treat, like a weekend away.

Why it works

Random rewards work well in two ways.

First of all, they tap into that gambling bit of your brain that makes people sit at fruit machines for hours on end, or buy a ton of scratchcards, or look for rewards in video games.

Your brain bloody loves a random reward, which is why gambling and gaming are so prevalent. Think about it – if you knew every five scratchcards you bought would net you £5, would you buy them? No, it would be a pointless exercise. But knowing that you might win small, win big or win nothing is what keeps you coming back for more scratch cards.

It’s called the “variable ratio” and applies even when you get no reward at all. It’s bad when it leads to addictive behaviour but you can hack this (especially if you have an addictive personality) with random rewards to make it work for you.

The second reason random rewards work so well is that it helps train you to wait for a bigger reward. People with ADHD are crap at waiting for their rewards – we can’t see into the future very well and suck at planning. It’s one reason lots of us are fat (well, that and Twixes). But random rewards can give you a quick reward for doing your work, but if it’s not enough for what you want, it forces you to save that reward, and maybe the next few as well, to get your big treat.

Idea 2: Reward in time instead of things

Maybe you’re not very materialistic. Maybe there’s not much you want. Or maybe you’re just not very motivated by money. It might even be that you don’t have a lot of spare money for treats and rewards.

So why not reward yourself in time instead of money (or things that cost money)? I do this sometimes. I am always busy, so occasionally I will have a star chart reward of a guilt free hour to do something I love but never seem to find the time for. That might be a bath (without toddlers clambering in, and bringing a load of plastic stuff with them), or some time to practise my handwriting, or doing craft, or even just chilling and reading a book.

Normally when I try to do something for myself, a little voice keeps telling me I should do the washing up first, or spend my time doing more constructive things. But when I earn my hour through my star chart, it feels more special and that I should make the most of the time to do something I really enjoy.

Why it works

An hour of guilt-free time to do something you love is a real treat if you’re a busy person. And it can be more of a reward than money.

If you have issues with money (lots of mentally ill people struggle to accept their own value, which can translate into money issues), using time as a reward sidesteps that nicely. It also means you can reward yourself when money is tight.

Idea 3: Rewards for others

A reward for someone else can really power up your motivation.

Sometimes, we can struggle to find something that we really want, for a star chart reward. Or sometimes, those things just aren’t motivating enough, because we can live without another pair of Hello Kitty pants.

So why not try earning a reward for someone else? Someone you really care about?

I occasionally put my rewards on my star chart as things for my children, instead of me. It isn’t necessarily a thing – they’ve got enough toys – but it might be a day out to somewhere we don’t normally go, or it could even be a treat of food.

Why it works

Apart from the fact you’re motivated by your love for that special someone in your life, earning a reward for someone else brings an extra level of motivation to your task.

Human beings are social animals and “not letting someone down” is a really powerful motivator. We want to give to others. Depressed people especially are quite often motivated by making others happy, and this is a way of using that to get things done. It also puts a limit on it – if an act of kindness is a reward, they don’t have to spend the rest of the week doing people pleasing.

There’s also the very simple reward of seeing a smile on someone’s face when you’ve done something for them, or given them a present.

Idea 4: Daily bonuses

I use these a lot, especially when my motivation is flagging.

My standard star chart, which you can download here, is a weekly one. This works best for me and works best for most of my clients too.

But sometimes I need an extra boost to get through the day – if I’m tired, or in a bad mood, or if I do my typical thing of doing piss all for most of the week and frantically trying to earn my stars on a Thursday night.

So I put in a daily bonus. You can download my star chart with bonuses here. If I do all my tasks in a day, I get a bonus. If I do a particular task every day, I get another bonus.

Why it works

It’s an extra incentive to do “just one more”. If you’ve nearly finished a column or a row, you get 2 stars instead of 1 for doing just one more task.

Also, for those people with OCD, or autism, it encourages the extra visual appeal of having a filled row or column.

You’ll see as well there’s a double bonus if you manage to do both all the rows and all the columns. Instead of doing twice as much work for twice the stars, you only have to do a tiny bit more to get your double bonus, so it’s an easy-to-reach goal and a useful incentive.

Idea 5: Task bonuses or micro-prizes

On days when you are properly flagging, you might need a tiny bonus for each task. You can write it in small on the star chart if you want.

For me, I sometimes reward myself with a cup of tea for getting just one more star. I might wait until I’ve got 2 stars before getting dressed or putting my face on – as long as I’m working at home of course! Or I might say I can’t have lunch until I’ve earned at least one star.

Why it works

Some days we really struggle to function (or “strugs to func” as I say to annoy my husband). It feels like an epic hurdle just to get out of bed and sit at your desk. If this is you, that can be your first star reward.

We need all the help we can get on low energy or depressed days, and a task bonus or a micro-prize can be that tiny boost we need just to get started. You don’t need them all the time but it can make a real difference on a crappy day. Plus you get a little treat and it’s probably something you need if you’re feeling rubbish.

Idea 6: Extra rewards after you’ve hit your target

I nicked this idea off a client who was totally smitten with star charts (she’s neurotypical by the way, ie normal).

She was doing really well on her star chart so she added extra rewards which she could have if she got extra stars (this is her actual star chart, I have her permission to share it).

You can see she’s done it as a stepped rewards thing – so she gets one reward if she gets to 15 stars, another if she gets to 20 and so on.

You can do it like this, or you can choose to give yourself an extra reward for one extra star, or 2, or 5. You might feel like you don’t deserve an extra reward for just getting a single star over your target, but making the goal achievable like that can motivate you.

Why it works

Having extra rewards for extra stars encourages you to do more even after you’ve hit your target. Not only do you get more done, you get extra treats.

But the most important factor is how this method improves your confidence. So often when we’re feeling unproductive or our mood is low, we feel like failures. But if we have a small, achievable goal on top of our standard stuff we want to get through, we can reach that goal and feel better about ourselves.

Idea 7: Capping

I’ve used this technique on myself and a client. Capping your stars for each task means you can’t do any more of each one.

Let me explain.

On my star chart, I tend to have a mix of tasks. For example, one task might be difficult but quick, and another might take 3 times as long but be more pleasant (yes, I need motivation to do tasks I find enjoyable but that’s a post for another day).

To keep my goals achievable, I also have tasks that are quick and easy, to earn some easy stars. I tend to have more of these on weeks where I’m struggling to do anything, partly to help with my motivation (as mentioned above) and partly so at least I’m doing something, even if it’s not the most important thing right now.

But the risk with an easy win is that we sometimes end up doing loads of these and none of the other stuff. For a normal task, I might do it twice on one day (especially if it’s quick), so I put 2 stars into that box. Which is fine. But if I find I’m spending all my time on the quick and easy tasks, and none on the harder stuff, I don’t allow myself to do more than one quick and easy task a day.

Why it works

Quick and easy tasks are great for getting the day started, the ball rolling, and you feeling like you’re not a complete failure.

But you need to cap them if you’re finding you’re not prioritising your tasks properly, or if you are spending too much time on one thing and not enough on another. Capping enables you to get a star a day easily, without risking shoving all the difficult stuff to one side for another day.

Idea 8: No rollovers

Oh man, I use this one a lot.

Like many people with ADHD (and indeed, many without), I am a lover of the last minute. If you give me a month to plan or organise something, I will leave it to the night before. I’m the person wrapping Christmas presents on Christmas eve. I had a year to complete my dissertation and I wrote the entire thing in 4 days, handing it in on the deadline. If something was due at 12 noon, I would hand it in at 11:59.

You are either like this, or you know someone who is. It’s really common and it’s just how some of us work.

When it comes to your star chart, the temptation is to do piss all on Monday, a couple of things on Tuesday, go out to lunch with a friend on Wednesday, more stuff on Thursday and then try to cram in all your stars on Friday. It means you don’t get as much done as if you start earlier – plus you don’t get that sense of satisfaction or feel more confident earlier in the week.

It also prevents you earning extra stars if you’re also using the “extra stars = extra rewards” method.

So the solution is to introduce a “no rollovers” rule. If a task doesn’t get done on that day, that’s it. Even if you do it on another day, you don’t get a star. You might still end up doing tasks towards the end of the day, but at least they’re getting done on that day.

Why it works

Lots of us will naturally leave everything to the last minute if we’re allowed to, and using this technique means you are really, really discouraged from doing that.

The “use it or lose it” mentality is powerful – how many limited time discounts have you seen to get you to sign up for something? It has to be NOW or you don’t get it. But instead of buying something, you’re getting a reward.

Having to get all the stars for a day on the actual day makes it more likely you will knuckle down and do it.

Idea 9: Increasing star goal

This is a simple one and a nice way of increasing your productivity slowly and gently.

You just gradually increase the number of stars a week you need to get in order to win a star.

I normally start with a goal of 10 (for 3 daily tasks over the 4 days that I work, that’s a maximum of 12 stars, so 10 is a reasonable starting point). Then if I’ve hit 10 for a couple of weeks and am feeling OK, I move up to 11, then 12, then… well, I’m sure you can figure it out.

Why it works

Because it’s simple and achievable, which is what you want in a productivity system.

Idea 10: Making tasks harder

This is another one for when you’ve been using a star chart for a bit and want to improve your productivity by making things a bit difficulter.

It’s especially useful when you bunch tasks together for a star. For example, I might have “make 5 calls” to earn a single star. But as I get better, I might make myself do 6 calls for a star, then 7, and so on.

Yours might go from “writing a paragraph” to “writing 2 paragraphs” to “writing a page”. Or, if you use time blocks on your star chart, you might go from “15 minutes tidying” to “20 minutes tidying” to “half an hour tidying”.

Why it works

Like increasing your stars, it’s simple and achievable.

It also means you don’t have to add a new task to your chart, just make an existing one slightly more challenging. That takes away a lot of cognitive load (having to think about stuff) because you’re just doing more of the same, not trying to do something new.

And with the other ideas that increase your productivity slowly and gently, it helps increase your confidence gradually while seeing results quickly.

Idea 11: Monthly or quarterly bonus

This one is for the hard core star chart users.

My star chart, like most, is based on weeks. You get your stars for the week, you get your reward, then the next week you start a new one.

But what if you want to do more? You can save your star charts in a pretty folder, and when you’ve done a month’s worth, or 2 months, or a quarter (3 months), you get an extra prize! This is on top of your usual weekly prizes, so it’s an extra incentive to keep doing star charts week after week and month after month.

Why it works

The whole “streak” thing is a well-known productivity technique. Once you start on a streak, you become more and more committed to keeping it going. One break can really muck things up so you keep going.

People like writers often have a daily streak – they write every day no matter what. You can do that with your star chart if you want, but I think filing the weekly ones and having a monthly, quarterly or even an annual bonus can really work.

To sum up then

Here are the 11 ideas for upping your star chart game:

  • Idea 1: random rewards
  • Idea 2: Reward in time instead of things
  • Idea 3: Rewards for others
  • Idea 4: Daily bonuses
  • Idea 5: Task bonuses or micro-prizes
  • Idea 6: Extra rewards after you’ve hit your target
  • Idea 7: Capping
  • Idea 8: No rollovers
  • Idea 9: Increasing star goal
  • Idea 10: Making tasks harder
  • Idea 11: Monthly or quarterly bonus

Remember what I said! Pick one and give it a go. Once you’ve got used to it, you can add another, or change to another, or go back to the simple star chart, or whatever tickles your fancy. And good luck!

Download the standard star chart here

Download the star chart with bonuses here


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