Why being motivated isn’t enough – the role of rewards in motivation

At the beginning of the year many people are excited about making New Year Resolutions and setting goals for the year ahead. According to a report cited by the BBC, only about 30% of people keep all the resolutions they make, and a report from 2018 suggests that its even lower at 8%. This makes me question why are we so bad at achieving our resolutions, and more specifically, I’ve been considering why, despite having a good understanding of motivational theory and how to set effective goals, I’m still falling when I set goals. I invite you to join me in exploring some of the answers as I reflect on my own lack of goal achievement.

Goal setting and SMART goals

Locke’s Goal Theory tells us that in order to be successful our goals should be clear and we should write SMART goals – that’s goals which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. We should also write them down as we’re also more likely to be successful. We want to create goals for ourselves that are challenging but that we are capable of achieving. One last thing is you may want to take bigger targets and break them down into smaller, bite sized tasks as you will see ongoing progress which will help you progress, and achieve your ultimate goal.

When teaching SMART goals to students, I would usually say their main goal might be to complete the 2 year course, but at the outset that seems a long way off and it may be difficult to relate to – but if they break that down into their classes/subjects – they could focus on an objective for each class – or even go beyond that and write an objective for each assessment they might have. The students studying my HR class have 6 assessments across the year, so if they break that down to the individual assessments, they can focus on one piece of work at a time and they are also able to monitor their progress and can celebrate success every time they complete a goal, rather than waiting until the end of the two years.

Celebrate and reward the achievements

When working on goals, to keep us motivated, we need to ensure that we are rewarding ourselves (verywellmind.com) and rewarding the small incremental steps, not just the end goals. We should probably also go beyond that – and taking the student example from above, not just reward the student at graduation for the completion of their Diploma, or for each unit or assessment, but the student should find ways to reward themselves as they progress – if they’ve done some research or completed a task in class that they feel was well done; they’ve spent a couple of hours focused working on their assessment; produce a draft etc. According to Cornell University, they should be rewarding themselves on an ongoing basis so they get the dopamine hit from the reward triggers in the brain, which means the student is likely to repeat the behaviours to receive further hits and therefore more likely to be successful.

My experience, from my reflections, is that I’m good at creating detailed SMART objectives but I struggle to achieve the goals. I’ve realised that I can work on achieving the goals, but I’m failing to recognise what I’m doing and not acknowleding the progress I’m making towards achieving those goals. Reward is a key part of the motivation process when working on goals as seen above, but I wasn’t rewarding myself. So that’s what I’m focusing on now, and I will outline below the steps I’m putting into place. I guess, as this is a work in progress, I will need to return and update this post in the future.

Bullet Journal

I started using a bullet journal about 2 weeks ago (so before the New Year). With this journal I can see on a daily basis what my achievements are and what progress I’m making towards my goals rather than just focusing on what remains outstanding on my To Do List. Using the Bullet Journal does feel like a more positive experience. I need to take the time to reward myself for my achievements. I want to tap into that brain chemistry and the release of dopamine associated with reward – the feel-good emotions that come from completing a task – for me the satisfaction of a job well done, seeing something completed – a tick in my Bullet Journal.

I’ve been taking the time to ensure the items in my journal are updated to show what I’ve done daily and we should give ourselves rewards to encourage and motivate. But those rewards don’t need to be tangible – it would be pretty expensive to go out and buy rewards constantly – but for me, seeing those ticks seems to be working. The other thing to bear in mind is that for these rewards to be most effective they need to be given at the time the activity/behaviour is taking place, so the association is made between the goal/behaviour and the reward. I need to ensure I’m ticking off the items as they’re completed, or as soon as possible afterwards.

We can also set milestone rewards that you can work towards – giving yourself an incentive to keep going, but you shouldn’t under-estimate the power of the small rewards on an ongoing basis. One of my goals is to actually see if the bullet journal will work for me, and to make daily use of it. I’ve been using it now for 11 days consistently. A big test will be when I return to work next week and life becomes busier, but if I do persevere, continue to reward myself I should be fine and I can treat myself to a special reward (maybe some new stationery) later in the month.


The other issue I identified was that I wasn’t necessarily losing motivation, it was simply that as with most people, we have competing priorities in life and sometimes we need to prioritise one thing over another. Its easy when we get busy with work, to prioritise that over our own needs – health, wellbeing etc – or as I alluded to above, my journal keeping slips as I focus on work. However, sometimes we need to take a step back to re-evaluate what’s most important to us and ensuring we can continue to keep that as a priority. For myself, I try to remind myself that if I don’t look after my health, everything suffers, including work, so it makes sense to maintain a focus on health-related goals. Its a work in progress, but I hope with some SMART goals and the continued use of my Bullet Journal, I will get the balance right this year.


Many goals set as New Year Resolutions fail but we’ve looked at a couple of things to consider when setting goals which may help with success. These are primarily based on my own experience. The key pieces of advice you should take away from this post are:

  • Make sure the goals you set are SMART and that you have short term goals to support the long term goal
  • Reward yourself regularly – as you work towards the achievement of the goal(s). Don’t wait until you complete your goal before making use of rewards. Its possible the earlier you use rewards, the more effective they will be at increasing motivation and keep you committed to completing your tasks.
  • Sometimes its not so much that motivation has declined or disappeared, but rather that competing priorities have taken precedence. It may be that you need to review your priorities.

For me personally, I am hopeful that by rewarding myself more, recognising my achievements and the use of a bullet journal, I will be more successful with my own goals this year. I wish everyone else success too.

What do you do to keep yourself motivated? How do you reward yourself? Please share your answers in the comments.

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  1. To stay motivated, I find it helpful to set clear, specific goals and track my progress as I work towards them. I also set deadlines for myself to help me stay focused and avoid procrastination. In addition, I try to find ways to make the tasks more enjoyable or meaningful, whether that’s by finding a way to make them more interesting or by connecting them to my values and goals. I also seek support and encouragement from others, whether that’s through collaboration, seeking feedback, or simply having someone to talk to about my goals and challenges. To stay energized and engaged, I take breaks, find ways to relax and recharge, and set aside time for activities that I enjoy. When I achieve my goals, I like to reward myself in ways that feel meaningful to me, such as treating myself to something I enjoy or simply taking a moment to acknowledge my progress and celebrate my achievements.

    • Thank you Sapiens. These are all good strategies. I read, while doing the background reading for this post, about how important it is to take breaks. You appear to be extremely organised and focused. Thanks for sharing your experiences

  2. Agree with you that we should set SMART goals, so that we are able to achieve our goals and feel motivated. And again achievement means nothing if it is not duly acknowledged and rewarded. So, you have made very valid points for setting smart goals and rewarding ourselves along the way.

  3. Such a relevant post for me, Brenda! And you hit the nail on the head when you talked about competing priorities. I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching in terms of priorities lately, and was actually thinking of a post focused on 4DX. Very similar concepts, so we’re definitely on the same page. Thank you for this!

  4. The motivations to succeeding at each step in long term training are wonderful small successes to the big picture. Each realised, and each overcome are oases in the desert. Give you confidence. However, too many activities, if you choose certain career pathways as choices, can overwhelm. Therefore, motivation and support comes from others in the same field as yourself. Recognition you are all in a difficult situation makes sharing vital. When there is isolation in self seeking for an interest or improvement in your life? Your on your own! I suppose in that situation self motivation is a difficult one. Your SMART programme analysis ideal for both scenarios. It does give fantastic advice and how to plan to give yourself the foresight to be inspired, self informed, realistic in capability and by taking the most important part of valuable ‘me time’ to keep in a relaxed state. This allows well being and self worth to remain inherent. All this is vital in your aim to achieving goals. Cheers for this post. All the best.

    • Thanks Gray. I think even with work-related goals, we can still motivate ourselves but I do agree, any goal can be tackled more successfully if you have some additional support cheering you in your corner. I think the ey starting point is that they be meaningful. Thanks for reading and, as always, for your insightful input

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