A popular piece of advice given to people trying to achieve a goal is to celebrate their achievements by giving themselves a reward. Promising yourself a small treat or reward for reaching certain milestones or completing certain tasks is said to boost your motivation, give you something to look forward to, and reinforce how good it feels to succeed. The problem is these small rewards often do more harm than good and can end up undermining or sabotaging your efforts.

Take the popular dieting ‘cheat day’. As a reward for being good and sticking to your diet all week, you are told you can allow yourself one day of whatever delicious food takes your fancy. On the surface this seems like a great idea – the thought of chocolate cake on Saturday motivates you to stick to your diet during the week, and there’s nothing more satisfying than tucking into a slice of pizza knowing that you’ve earned it. Unfortunately, rewarding yourself with the very things you are trying to give up ultimately undermines your entire effort.

Recommended book: GOALS! by Brian Tracy

When you choose to reward yourself with something that conflicts with your goal, your behavior and thoughts contradict the actions you need to take to achieve it. This creates frustration, resistance, and ultimately makes your goal much harder for you to achieve. Sticking with the dieting example, rewarding yourself with cake at the end of the week sends your brain two important messages:

1)     That cake is special

2)     That to achieve your goal, you have to deny yourself special things

By using cake as a reward, you elevate it to ‘special status’. Now cake isn’t just a another type of food, it’s something extra special, desirable, and meaningful.

And you can’t have it.

Well, during the week at least. Focusing on your cake reward is a constant reminder of the ‘special things’ you have had to give up, sending your brain the message that the actions steps you need to achieve your goal are NOT desirable, meaningful, or enjoyable. This takes away your enjoyment of the positive aspects of your healthy lifestyle changes (such as giving yourself nourishing food) and creates a strong negative vibration of lack and deprivation, leaving you feeling frustrated, conflicted, and more likely to give in.

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So, how can you tap into the motivating power of rewards without undermining your efforts? Choose a reward that is in alignment with your goal. If your goal is to develop a healthy diet, reward yourself with a delicious fruit platter, or go to the expensive smoothie bar as a treat. Or reward yourself with something totally unrelated to food altogether. Perhaps your goal is getting up an hour earlier every day – instead of rewarding yourself with a lie in at the weekend, plan something fun for that extra time instead. These kinds of rewards align with your goals and will boost your motivation and sense of achievement in a supportive way.

The key to achieving what you want resides in lifting yourself up with positive, supportive thoughts and behaviors, not bringing yourself down with frustration, negativity, and restriction. By choosing a reward that supports rather than undermines your goal, your thoughts and behaviors will be more closely aligned with the results you want and will make your goal much easier to achieve.

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2 thoughts on “How rewards sabotage your goals

  1. This is a different way to look at it. I feel rewards work for some while they harm some. So the approach has to depend on the people involved. It’s always been about the the people…isn’t it?

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