Quick Wins to Boost Motivation

Harnessing Quick Wins to Boost Student Motivation

Have you ever noticed how video games and learning apps start out ridiculously easy, with quick accomplishments and rewards? Then, as you play, the rewards are spaced further and further apart? It makes sense that the difficulty increases as you build skills but why do the rewards for achievements get further and further apart? The answer is they are using quick wins to boost your motivation and engagement so you keep playing.

Game designers know A LOT about how to get people interested in a game and motivated to keep playing. They do this in many ways, but the one I’m talking about today is the principle of quick wins. Rewards at the beginning of games are spaced close together. The achievements and leveling come quickly. These quick wins let players feel accomplished, engaged with the task, and generate motivation to continue to the next achievement. As players invest more time in the game, the achievements are spaced out because the player’s motivation is maintained naturally through the time and energy they’ve already invested in the game.

You might be thinking –That’s great for video games but how does it help me? I’ve got a 40-page chapter to read and a big paper to write for the end of the semester.

Let me show you.

Quick Wins to Boost Motivation and Productivity

If you were to chart your motivation, you would likely see two points when it’s the lowest. One is at the beginnings. Whether that’s the beginning of the week, the day, or starting a new task, beginnings are hard. Beginnings are a good place to use quick wins, just like game designers do at the beginning of a game.

The trick here is to use the principle of quick wins intentionally to set yourself up for success. We are going to use an overly simplified example to demonstrate how you would use the principle of quick wins to generate some motivation at the beginning of the week.

The first step in using quick wins this way is to break down your tasks into smaller pieces. Let’s say you have some personal goals to exercise and practice mindfulness daily, you are taking a statistics class, and you work in a research lab. If you are like most students, your to-do list (I’m hoping you have a to-do list that you are not just carrying around these things in your head! If not, start by writing a to-do list), looks something like this:


  • Exercise Daily
  • Mindfulness 2x a day


  • Chapter 1
  • Homework Problems


  • Email Professor Plum
  • Read Mustard et. al. 2019
  • Do Analysis
  • Write a summary to present at lab meeting

This is an average but not a good to-do list. I’d give it a C. Ideally, you want your to-do list to have items that take between 5- and 60-minutes. The smaller the better. That’s the first step in using quick wins to boost motivation.

Planning Quick Wins

Step 1.

Create a to-do list with items broken into small pieces and a time estimate for each. Here’s a better example (this one gets a B, if you’ve taken my Top-Notch Time Management Course, you know why).

Image of Table 1 shows a to-do list broken into 15 to 30 minute segments to assist in harnessing quick wins for motivation. As an example, Read Mustard et al. 2019 has been broken into: Read Abstract/Intro 20 minutes, Read Methods 30 minutes, read results 30 minutes, read discussion 20 minutes.
TOTAL: 10 hrs Yikes. That’s too much! The only reason we should be scheduling 10 hours of tasks is if we are working under an immovable deadline. 10 hours should not be a regular occurrence because this schedule then has no room for error.

Step 2.

Decide when you need to do activities by putting all fixed events in your calendar. A fixed event is one that cannot be moved – like a class, a doctor’s appointment, a meeting, etc. Here’s the overall schedule for the week.

Image shows a calendar for Monday through Saturday with classes, meetings, and personal events marked. For this example the relevant events are a lab meeting on Tuesday from 11 to 12 and a statistics class on Tuesday from 2 to 3:30 pm.
Obviously, this is a simplified example, most graduate students have more fixed events than this.

Looking at the schedule, we have to finish the lab analysis because we have to present at the lab meeting on Tuesday. We also want to prioritize reading and doing the statistics homework so we are prepared for Tuesday’s class. That means that we will de-prioritize reading Mustard et al. 2019. There will probably be time to read it before the lab meeting on Tuesday, but if we don’t manage it, that’s o.k.

Step 3.

Now that we know what to prioritize, we start assigning tasks to certain times. To use the principle of quick wins, we make sure tasks are broken into small components and allocate several quick tasks to build momentum for the day. Here’s an example:

Image shows a task list scheduled for quick wins. Wake-up is scheduled at 7am. Exercise starts at 7:30 and is broken into 5 minute components of stretches and strength training. Shower and breakfast are scheduled between 8 and 8:30. The first mindfulness task is scheduled at 8:30 with a 15 minute break after to prepare for starting work. The first work task is a 10 minute email to Professor Plum. As the day goes on longer tasks are schedule, such as statistical analyses - recode demographics estimated at 30 minutes. The longest task scheduled is 45 minutes to write up the results of the analysis.

Notice how the day starts with a lot of short tasks to be checked off the to-do list. I do mean checked off, take the time to cross out tasks, and appreciate your accomplishments. It’s vital to the process.

Let’s look at the schedule a little closer. While you could list Exercise as a 30-minute block, splitting it into its components gives you the satisfaction of marking off each set as you complete them, thus building momentum. In addition, breaking down tasks into small components helps make large, difficult, or tedious tasks feel more manageable.

As the day goes on, tasks are still kept at a manageable size, but the wins are spaced out a bit further.

Compare this to-do list to the higher-level list:

Image shows a top-level to-do list of exercise (strength training day), statistics (go to class, do homework), lab (do analyses, send email), and mindfulness (2x).

It may appear shorter, but that’s actually the problem. Your first achievement takes an hour to reach [exercise isn’t done until 8am] and you don’t get to check off the next achievement until 3 pm [lab]. Moreover, when you schedule at the top level, you’re always pausing to think about what to do next instead of moving right into the next task. This takes a lot longer than doing all the planning upfront.

With a little creativity, you can harness the principle of quick wins to boost your motivation on a daily and weekly basis, but also for larger projects when your motivation lags.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!