Building habits and discipline with delayed rewards

Goals Infinite: Building habits and discipline with delayed rewardsHumans are creatures of habits. No matter if they are good or bad we all have them and live by them. As a part of personal development, we have to focus on understanding them, changing the bad ones and building habits that are new and helpful. This article is here to introduce the concept of delayed rewards, that you can use to build and change habits and grow in discipline. This study based method will help anyone, who wants to adjust or get rid of bad habits. If you struggle to change old practices, this article is a must read.

How does a habit work?

As I mentioned in my article Snooze Button: How to never fail in the morning habits are made of 4 elements:

  • Cue that is the signal that triggers the routine,
  • Routine that is the action we take,
  • Reward is what we get out from the routine,
  • and the craving of the reward which is the driving force behind the habit.

To explain the connection between them here’s an example:


The literature on habits states that you can’t really get rid of a bad habit. The next best thing you can do is to change it. But finding another routine that has the same or better rewards can be hard. I have fallen back to the same routine again and again as I wasn’t able to find a reward good enough. This is where the method of Delayed reward comes in.

About delayed rewards

The concept of delayed rewards is simple: change your routine to a new one and keep the old rewards and apply these two simple rules:

  • Delay the reward: set a certain amount of time that has to pass to receive the reward,
  • Limit the reward: for example have only one cookie as a reward or give yourself only a 10-minute break instead of uncertain amount.

We changed the routine to a better one, but kept the rewards, but now they are limited and delayed. You can use the same concept when building habits and use a reward that you are familiar with. Does this really work? Oh, yes it does!

Why it works: the studies behind delayed rewards

Nicole Mead and Vanessa Patrick were working with a group of people in a study, that was about resisting and giving in to temptations. They watched how people react to one of the most simple temptations there is, candy.


The test subjects who were told to resist eating the candy consumed a high amount of it when they were allowed to, thus they had a high desire to do so. Comparing this to the test subjects who were told to promise themselves to have candy later, consumed a lower amount, thus having less desire.

The publishers of this study came to the conclusion, that LATER is much better than NEVER. The promise of a delayed reward satisfies the brain in a similar way as the instant reward. Resisting a temptation requires more mental energy, willpower and discipline, than waiting for a reward.

Applying delayed rewards in your life

Here’s a simple example how an old habit looks like. This may be familiar from the Snooze Button: How to never fail in the morning article.

Here’s a habit with the same cue, new routine and with the applied rules of delayed reward.


The reward of comfort is the same, but delayed and limited. The routine has changed to more productive one, but the driving force behind the habit remains.

You might run into trouble applying delayed rewards when changing certain habits. Keeping rewards like sweets is not a good option when you want to lose weight even if you consume less of it. If this is the case, you can use this method to continuously limit the rewards more and more, for example consuming less and less candy each week.

Delayed is preferable over never. – Danish proverb

In my experience, a lot of people have trouble changing or building habits, due to unable to find a reward, that they crave. The method of delayed rewards takes this burden off them and only focus on changing the routine. Identify the habit you want to change, switch the routine for something new, keep the old reward, but limit and delay it.

If you found this article valuable or useful, I’d like to ask you to share it with someone. It costs nothing and it will help our site to grow. If you have any thoughts or would like to start a conversation you can do that by leaving a comment or writing me an email.


Sign up for our newsletter and get free eBooks!


About the author

Gabor Hosszu is the founder and head article writer of Goals Infinite. Being passionate about personal development and helping others were the main reasons he launched this site. By trade Gabor is a mechanical engineer. His hobbies include being a chilli farmer, a video game nerd and a wannabe beer expert.