Abstract The two catecholamines, noradrenaline and dopamine, have been shown to play comparable roles in behaviour. Both noradrenergic and dopaminergic neurons respond to salient cues predicting reward availability and to stimulus novelty, and shape action selection strategies. However, their roles in motivation have seldom been directly compared. We therefore examined the activity of noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus and putative midbrain dopaminergic neurons in monkeys cued to perform effortful actions for rewards. The activity in both regions correlated with the likelihood of engaging with a presented option. By contrast, only noradrenaline neurons were also (i) predictive of engagement in a subsequent trial following a failure to engage and (ii) sensitive to the task state change, the discovery of the new task condition in unrepeated trials. This indicates that while dopamine is primarily important for the promotion of actions directed towards currently available rewards, noradrenergic neurons play a crucial complementary role in mobilizing resources to promote future engagement.