One Way You’re Kind of Like a Dog (And How to Use That to Your Advantage)

Have you ever tried to train a dog? I haven’t been a part of any serious dog training, but I do know that the simplest way to train a dog is with rewards and punishments. If the dog sits when you say “sit,” he gets a treat. If the dog doesn’t, you sternly say “bad dog” and don’t give him the treat. Pretty simple, really.

The interesting thing is, we humans aren’t all that different. I don’t want to simplify us to this level, because of course we have our own cognitions, beliefs, values, emotions, and a complex mixture of other factors to consider when it comes to decision making. But, overall, rewards and punishments work for behavior change in people, even adults.

In this goal setting series, we’ve talked a lot about how to set goals and plan them out effectively, but what if willpower is your biggest issue? You know exactly what to do, but you just need to do it?

Try giving yourself some rewards and punishments.

Yes, I know you’re not a dog. Or a child. But surprisingly, psychology experiments show that rewards and punishments do work!

reward yourself

What were your goals for the year? What kinds of smaller goals have you set to reach those big ones? How can you reward yourself for meeting those goals?

Maybe you can put a dollar in the vacation jar every time you hit the gym. Or allow yourself an hour of pure alone time to take a bath or give yourself permission to watch an entire season of your favorite TV show. The reward itself doesn’t matter. It just matters that the reward is something you’ll enjoy and that you’ll be able to do for  yourself if you reach a goal.

What about punishments?

If you’re an adult, I’m not talking a sit-in-the-corner-and-think-about-what-you’ve-done kind of punishment. I’m talking about making a conditional agreement with yourself. You’ll go see that movie this weekend if you practice some skill every day. If you don’t follow through with your condition, you don’t receive the reward.

The key is consistency. It’s the same as with children. If you promise a kid that you’ll get ice cream if they get A’s in school and then don’t follow through, rewards in the future will lose their power.

One important note: If you’re doing something for a reward alone, it’s not going to last. You need some sort of internal motivation to keep you on track.

The answer to this? Give yourself that reward, but remind yourself of why you care about that goal in the first place. You went to the gym three times this week? Great! Allow yourself that movie night, but don’t fall into the trap of going to the gym to have movie night. Instead, remember that you’re going to the gym so you can feel strong, healthy, and energetic. That’s a pretty great reward in itself.


What are your thoughts on self-rewards? What kinds of things could be rewards for your goals? I’d love to hear in the comments section!



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