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How I Write and Learn

Keeping Motivated with Rewards

By Caleb, a Learning Center Peer Tutor

I love the feeling of sitting back after a long day and having a sense of accomplishment and progress. In this new normal of working and learning from home, this feeling can be very difficult to achieve. I often find myself feeling burned out, distracted, and generally unproductive. The first hour or two of studying often goes pretty smoothly. However, soon after that first hour I begin to really lose steam. I find myself getting distracted by social media, mindlessly reading instead of actually engaging with the material, or, in the worst case scenario, just quitting altogether. When these begin to happen I lose track of time. Before I know it, it’s the end of the day, and I’m left without that feeling of accomplishment.

How do I get that feeling back? Small rewards. This fairly simple solution allows me to feel exponentially more productive and relieves many of my feelings of burnout and fatigue. While this solution may not sound significant, it has had a surprisingly large impact. Just one or two rewards after studying has drastically improved how I feel throughout the day.

Let me describe a typical day. At the beginning of my study session, I set a specific goal that I can achieve within an hour or two. The goal could be anything from completing ten practice problems to reading a chapter from my textbook. Along with my goal, I come up with a small reward that I can indulge in after I have completed the task. I use a variety of rewards, but some of the most common ones that I find myself coming back to are listening to music or to a podcast, enjoying one of my favorite snacks or coffees, or going on a short walk. The specific reward is more about my mood than it is about the task I am working on. For example, some days I really crave coffee, so that becomes my reward for that day. On other days, I feel the urge to get outside, so I choose walking as my reward.

Coffee drips from a Keurig into a blue mug.The author listens to an episode of Planet Money titled "Making It Work" to reward himself after completing a task.

While I am working on my goal, I can always look forward to the reward that I set to
prevent me from getting distracted or veering off task. The reward also gives me a short time to relax after a period of hard work. Recently, I have found that going on a ten to fifteen minutes walk while listening to a podcast or audiobook is a very effective reward for me. Lately, I’ve been listening to Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by historian Ron Chernow. Whenever I feel bogged down during my studying, I take comfort in knowing that a short escape is waiting for me soon.

On an overcast day, a paved path beside a wooded area leads to small pond in the distance.The author listens to the audiobook Titan: The life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow as another example of a reward.

While I’m walking, drinking coffee, or listening to music, I try to completely forget about anything related to work. I don’t worry about what my next goal will be or how many tasks I still have to do. I use this time purely as a way to relax and recuperate–to reward myself–after completing my last goal.

Once I have indulged myself, I come back to my studies with a clear mind and recharged energy. I set a new goal with a new reward, and I start the process over again. While something as simple as drinking a coffee or going for a walk is not a magic productivity booster, it has helped me break up my days into more manageable chunks. Overall, this new way of organizing my day has had a profound impact on my attitude and emotional state throughout the day. Not only does it make me feel It makes me feel more refreshed and productive, it also makes the day more enjoyable!

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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