gold stickers

when we drink, I think our brain gets fucked up about the idea of REWARDS.

“I deserve this. hard week, difficult spouse, i finished the marathon, i’m on vacation, i’ve worked hard.” All those ideas equaled wine for me. Hard work = reward = wine.

And when I first stopped drinking, i was lost … how else could i signal the end of a long day without wine? Where was the off switch — not just to numb me, but to put a clear demarcation between THIS (work), and THAT (relaxation).

Of course, i had to train my brain that there are other ways to ‘celebrate’.  Cuz my fucked up brain had decided that not only were weddings and marathons things to celebrate, but that Tuesday was worth celebrating too. Just getting to 6 pm was in itself a reason to celebrate for me.

what other ways are there to mark celebrations? (OK I know if you’re still drinking, this list will seem absolutely ridiculous): tonic + cranberry right at 6 pm, green tea, a bath, having take out Portuguese food for dinner (of course, in Portugal, they just call it ‘food’). I can celebrate bigger events with new sandals. I celebrated 90 days sober with a big griddle thing to make English Muffins.

Something I learned in my coaching job (job #2), is that the reward system of our brains is sort of like a 4 year old. “You did a good job, here’s a gold sticker.” Do you remember a time when you were motivated by gold stickers? It’s not that long ago. We give ourselves coins, badges, stickers all the time. We get watches and pens and bonuses at work for good performance. But we also get promotions without compensatory pay raises, so in effect we’re rewarded with MORE work and a few kind words.

What i learned from job #2, is that our brains can be retrained when it comes to rewards. (i learned these strategies a long time ago, but until i got sober last July, I never thought to link these ideas to booze; I was originally using these techniques about rewards to reinforce any new behavoir change). And it doesn’t take as long as you think it does to change your brain’s response to rewards.

Here’s an example from job #2, but you’ll see the transparent way it can be about booze (why i didn’t notice this until last July, when i used it to help me stay sober, i have no idea).

Example: you hate to exercise. you think it’s a big gigantic pain in the ass, and even when you feel better after walking on the treadmill, it’s like pulling teeth to get you ON the thing for 15 minutes. So you set up a reward system. You go to the fancy tea store, you buy some mint tea, and you come home, and you say to yourself: Every day when i do 15 minutes on the treadmill, i’ll have a cup of mint tea.

You link a reward to the new action. It has to be immediate, and you have to say “good job” to yourself as you have the tea.  You step off the treadmill, you dance around the garage, and you say “i rock, i’m amazing, i’m going to have some tea to celebrate this treadmill event!”

The first two days, three days, you hate the treadmill, you hate the tea.  You dance, but you’re not enthusiastic.

Then something changes. On day 4 or 5 or 6 you start to think … “i am looking forward to some mint tea today. better get on the treadmill so i can have my tea!” Really. Mint tea. No, really. I’m serious. i have been motivated by mint tea before.

So when i stopped drinking, i celebrated Day 30 and Day 60 and Day 90 (and Day 100, cuz why not). And sometimes when i’m emailing a sober penpal, and she’s coming up to a milestone, i say “do you have a treat planned?” Oh no, i couldn’t, she’ll say. I’ll wait ’til i’m further along before I celebrate…

Really? What about all the smaller bits in between? They can be celebrated too!

Jenni (to celebrate Day 60): “Per your suggestion, I treated myself to: 7 new books from Amazon, essential rosemary oil, and three new t-shirts plus one pair of comfy PJ pants that match one of the t-shirts, emblazoned with tiny cartoon skulls. Just knowing this little treasure trove is on its way is exciting!  These little milestones feel like birthdays used to feel before I got too old to enjoy getting older. If that makes any sense? It truly feels like a special day!! Like a highly anticipated goal that I have worked really hard to reach. And now it’s here and I feel like a giggly kid. Yay for 60 days! I hope you have a delightfully soberlicious day too.” (Jenni is now on day 96!)

Don’t have any ideas for celebration treats? Cake is always good. Don’t have any ideas for how to celebrate your long day? how about a tall glass of tonic water and a bath. I feel now like my life is filled with tea and baths and cake and other small treats.

Just yesterday, i got into the tubbie at 4:30 pm once my catering day was finished, to mark the end of the work day … (and really, there’s nothing better than a daytime bath!). A bath is my go-to reward now. I know, it sounds dumb.  Who is rewarded by a tub of hot water? It may sound ridiculous, but you were once rewarded with gold stickers. And you can again 🙂

perfect photo

Thanks to B for sending me this perfect image 🙂


I want to put this online, to hold myself accountable. I want to document the noise in my head. I'm tired of thinking about drinking. date of last drink: june 30, 2012

  • I’m with all the other star collectors! I have some lovely pastel coloured stars and put one in my diary every day I’m sober. Very calming and pretty 🙂

  • There is nothing wrong with stickers!. I mark a little coloured dot on each sober day of my calendar.. Only I know what it is for… I also recently bought your book as a treat! Hence all my comments the last few days on your links 👍😁

  • I actually put sparkly, star stickers of various colors on my calendar every day that I am sober. It looks rather beautiful to be honest!

  • I love this concept!!! So simple and obviously so powerful…I’m going to jot down some alternate ideas to treat myself and celebrate my achievements.
    Day 6 today and I’m proud of myself.

  • hmmm . . . my 100 day treat is going to be a kitchen aid stand mixer . . . artisan series in red. I can look forward to that and smile. Never had one of these before until my son came home to live with us during covid. I am now quite the fan. This past weekend I made baguettes. I need a new recipe though. I would not have done that – stuck with it – read the recipe correctly if I had been drinking the night before. Nor would I be thinking about other things to bake (hubby wants brioche. . .) Day 5. I can think about my mixer while I look for a job (so I can pay for the mixer!) . . . got laid off yesterday. This covid thing is the pits. American politics are the worst. But I will not drink. I will not smoke. I will bake. Hang in there everyone.

  • Treats are invaluable- reminding yourself that this thing you’re doing matters- that you matter!!

  • This might sound strange. But my treat is a new journal that I cover in pictures of magazines of all of my favourite things. Flowers, candles, beautiful beaches and gorgeous foods. I write my journal every night it helps me off load all of the shit in my head. I always keep a little token from during the day, a train ticket, a receipt for an ice cream, a flower or leaf I’ve picked whilst walking or something that makes me smile. I stick them on each page and write a little paragraph to say why I like them. My little journals turn into very beautiful and visual descriptions of my ups and downs.

    • Love this Julie. I too have started a journal, but what a good idea to put something that you have collected during your day into it, with a positive sentence alongside. I think I will try that too.
      LesleyBlueSkies day 62

    • This is a brilliant idea Julie, thank you. No extra calories and resetting the brain to positivity. I will try this too.

  • I didn’t celebrate 30 or 60. But I will celebrate 90 and 100 days. I’m thinking maybe a new motorcycle. LOL

  • Yes, craving sweets! Just go with it. I used to never eat sweets or chocolate. I now buy bags of my fav choc and reward myself throughout the day (it’s like when I give doggie treats to my pups when training them). We are just big mammals. We respond beautifully tics reward system. Think if choc…bam, off shoots the dopamine! Who gives a fuck about a glass of wine when I can lie on a sheepskin in the fading afternoon light in my slippers with a chocolate dissolving in my mouth. And……I’m losing weight and I’ve never eaten so much choc and sweats since I’ve been a child. If forgotten how important those stickers were. The scratch and sniff stickers too. And those gold and silver stars that went into your school book. Every day I’m trying a new thing. I used to think raspberries or mangoes were expensive…oh, but happy to crack open a $30 bottle of wine nightly. Crazy. I kept the treats stocked up so I felt very loved up and nourished

  • On day 8 and must get out of the habit of rewarding myself with sweets. But I crave them! I drive all the way downtown for chocolate truffles every day. I can only buy two at a time or I will eat them all. Will try your advice instead. ; )

    • the sweets thing comes later. for now it’s sober first. everything else second. craving sugar to begin is completely normal and expected 🙂 if you’re sober, keep doing what you’re doing.

  • One of my rewards is sending off the email before bed saying I’m still not drinking. Just ignore my long-windedness, now you know it’s me having a reward!

  • Right now I’m in a place where I need the reward EVERY night. This blog entry is spot on and Belle you have put into words why I feel I’m “Deprived” because I “Can’t” have my wine. The trick is to figure out a substitute reward to look forward to so that the wine isn’t so attractive. There are some good ideas here.

  • This is such an awesome post for what I am doing today … celebrating a 90-day sobriety birthday! I have no idea what to “reward” myself with but these comments are helping me see the immense power in actually rewarding my accomplishments day by day by day by day by day. Awesome encouragement.

    I think I may invest in some new work shirts, some bath bubbles (oh how I love a hot bath, too), and schedule the cut and color I’ve got a gift card for. Thank you for the push!!

  • I have replaced the wine after work with decaf gourmet coffee! The only day of the week that is truly hard for me is FRIDAY…yep…today…right this minute! I completely used to reward myself with wine after nearly every day. I associate a bath with candles, music and wine…so haven’t done that yet. I have given up bathes, bowling, billiards, dancing at a bar, and drinks with friends after work on fridays. Seems like nearly everything that starts with the letter “b”. ha ha Instead I go to the movies, bookstore to browse, my mom’s house, shopping, and for walks. These places I don’t associate drinking with and are easier for me. Off to make coffee now and as soon as I smell it brewing, the replacement reward is happy!!!

  • I love this. I especially love thinking
    about those little tiny gold stickers that we used to get for so many reasons when we were younger! And you’re absolutely right, it’s a whole new way of thinking about rewarding myself! My reward at the end of each day used to be one, because I needed that after my long hard-working day, right? It was my “forced shutdown’ (to use a computer analogy) that i just did automatically at the end of each day to go “aaahhhhh.” Of course, I did it even when I didnt work that hard! Now, a bath- right on- a walk, a fun project, I even tell myself fifteen minutes wasting time on Facebook or something is OK and it becomes a reward rather than a guilty pleasure…. Its like what we learned in psych 101 and Pavlovs dog… If you do something ling enough, you can retrain your brain!!! Belle, you rock!!! 🙂

    • I totally get the forced shutdown. That is what I do every night at 5:00. But the question for myself is why? Why do I want to shut down? Doesn’t matter if it has been a great day or a bad day or if it’s a Tuesday or if I’m stressed, whatever. Every day like clockwork I grab a beer and go to the couch, turn on the TV and there I am for 4 hours then I go to bed. I just don’t get why I am LIKE that. I could be doing so much more in those 4 hours of the shutdown. I know it doesn’t matter WHY; I just need to change the behavior first. It is so hard to get past the jiggedyness of the witching hour.


  • Baby in lap=pls excuse typos… Rewards are the main mechanism by which we operate and there’s Absolutely No Reason this cannot work in whatever arena we need it to-drinking, work, food, studying, you name it-we can make it reward-based and likely successful..