Health & Wellness

Science Says Rewarding Yourself Can Help You Reach Your Goals

Here's how.
Published October 3, 2018

Remember how it felt to get a gold star sticker when you were in school? That feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment at being recognized? That’s one way rewards can work their magic: By encouraging small achievements as you work toward long-term goals—even when the mental and physical changes you're going after feel unfamiliar, challenging, or at times, impossible, says Michael R. Mantell, PhD, a cognitive behavior coach and author of The Link Is What You Think

2 motivators you should know about

Both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards can help drive behaviors and habits to help you reach your goals:

  • Extrinsic motivation stems from rewards that come from outside sources, such as money or someone else’s approval, like when you get positive comments from your significant other. Imagine that you don’t enjoy exercising but you know it’s good for your health, so you tell yourself: “If I work out, then I can buy that fancy dress I saw in that catalog.” The dress provides extrinsic motivation for you to be active. Extrinsic rewards can help to initiate behaviors in the short term, but don’t tend to have staying power—probably because the benefits of the reward fade after awhile. These behaviors are likely to continue so long as the rewards keep coming. And when it comes to using extrinsic rewards to develop healthy habits for long-term health, your best bet is to reward behaviors we have control over (e.g. being more active) rather than outcomes which are less controllable (e.g. losing weight).
  • Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, stems from desirable feelings—such as genuine delight, happiness, or a sense of purpose. Because intrinsic motivation for a behavior occurs naturally, it tends to have the biggest impact on sustaining the behaviors for the long run. Often your “why”—the reason you started your wellness journey—stems from intrinsic motivation. The gratification or pleasure you find in the activity itself is both the motivation and the reward. This is why you’re more likely to return to take a second exercise class when the first one was a blast, or why you stay up a few minutes later than normal to write in your gratitude journal. You do it for yourself, Mantell says.

Both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards can help drive behaviors and habits to help you reach your goals. “Obtaining a specific external reward, such as praise, recognition, or an award may help you get moving on a weight-loss path, but internal motivation (based on your own internal interests, personal enjoyment, and enhancement) will keep you on that path,” he says. To develop new habits, set your sights on developing behaviors that you’ll find satisfying—and give yourself a kick-start by building in some short-term rewards to begin.

3 tricks to help you achieve your goals

1. Celebrate small accomplishments along the way

Focusing on even relatively minor achievements causes your body to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that's associated with pleasure and memory and plays a major role in motivation, Mantell says. The release can help build intrinsic motivation, according to a 2017 scientific review about self-determination published in Frontiers in Human Neurosciencein part because your body begins to crave the satisfaction that follows your accomplishments.

To raise your dopamine levels, set small goals rather than setting your sights on the finish line. For instance, if you want to build up to running a 5K, plan to extend your regular runs by just 1K a week. By breaking down large goals into smaller, realistic ones, you create a motivation-refueling station for yourself.

2. Ask yourself, “Will I?”

When you’re aiming to accomplish a specific task, ask yourself, “will I?” Then tell yourself, “I will.” Questioning yourself has a stronger influence on motivation than just telling yourself you’ll do it, according to a small study that was published in the journal, Psychological Science

3. Counter negative thoughts

The way you think impacts what you do: Positive self-talk is an effective way to improve achievement and intrinsic motivation, Mantell says. The good news: You have the power to shape your own behaviors by reframing negative thoughts. 

For instance, when you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have time to exercise,” ask yourself, “Is it true that I don’t have any time? Or can I approach this differently?” Then use that information to formulate a new thought such as, “I don’t have time to exercise at a gym, but I could do a workout at home.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed about a long-term goal you’ve set, instead of thinking, “I can’t run that far,” or “I can’t lift that weight,” change your thought to, “I can’t do that yet.”