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Reward Yourself

by Jessica Cording

Whether it's something big or something small, make sure it's something you really want.

In many ways, we’ve been programmed to think that praise and validation come from external sources (the teacher who gives your grade, the boss who praises you for your hard work, the partner who tells you how great you look), but it can be hard to deal with the reality that sometimes our best efforts go uncelebrated. 

And it’s not that you’re not worth celebrating! People are busy and distracted—or as my mother would say, they’ve got their head too far up their own ass to even notice what’s going on with others. And sometimes, we make something run so smoothly and look so easy that others have no idea how much time and effort went into that finished product or result. Naturally, we feel a little resentful in these moments. This is why rewarding yourself for completing projects and important tasks is so valuable. 

In my coaching practice, I often see people turn to food and beverages as their rewards. Sure, those are easy options, but they can also become unhelpful habits. Have you ever thought something like, “I worked really hard today—I deserve this glass of wine!” The first few times you do that, the wine feels celebratory. But after a while, it simply becomes a nightly goblet that doesn’t even feel that special—you just “need” it to make the day feel complete. 

Of course, wine is just an example. It could be any food or drink. What’s tricky is that when we put food on a pedestal and turn it into a reward, as opposed to something more neutral, we’re infusing it with drama and charging it with emotions. It becomes something we have to earn, or something we use to soothe ourselves with when we’re not getting the validation we need from other sources, rather than looking within for validation or acknowledging our efforts and accomplishments in meaningful ways. 

Rewarding ourselves in other (read: non-food, non-drink) ways, though, can help us feel appreciated, confident and motivated as we work toward our goals. 

Our brain actually has “reward” pathways, and a major one is the mesolimbic dopamine system. In this pathway system, the brain learns to detect pleasurable— aka rewarding—stimuli and motivate the individual to repeat the activity that led to the activation of that pathway. What’s more, working with other parts of the brain that control memory and perception of environmental cues, it will send signals telling that person whether a stimulus is rewarding or not. So if you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to say, “No thanks,” to the chips or chocolate you said you wouldn’t have in the office snack drawer, it’s not that you lack willpower—it’s that your brain is wired to seek pleasurable experiences, something you likely could use at 3 p.m. on a stressful day. 

A reward can be something big or something tiny, but it should be something you really want and will feel motivated by. Deciding ahead of time what you want that thing to be will help you keep your eye on the prize, so to speak. It can also make the experiences and purchases you choose as rewards more meaningful and even continue to motivate you in the future. 

One of my favorite personal examples is that after getting paid for one of my first big writing projects, I bought (much-needed) new pillows. Even now, laying my head down on them every night is a little reminder of that sense of accomplishment. 

The only “rule” is to reward yourself with things you actually want and that will mean something to you, and not things you think you should want. 


  • Give yourself a half hour to read, listen to a podcast or take a walk in the middle of your workday. 
  • Take a day off. 
  • Spend time on a restorative hobby that feeds your soul. 
  • Buy yourself flowers. 
  • Sleep in—or go to bed early. 
  • Make yourself a nice meal and sit down and savor it at whatever pace you want, instead of rushing. 
  • Treat yourself to a massage after a busy week or month. 
  • Buy a big-ticket item you’ve been wanting. 
  • Purchase something that will upgrade your fitness routine like new sneakers or an outfit, a yoga mat or a package of your favorite class. 
  • Purchase items to make your living or work space more welcoming. 
  • Plan a trip you’ve been dreaming about.

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