Improve your self-discipline with delayed rewards


As I’m writing this line, I just put a handful of strawberries and raspberries out of my freezer to defrost. Why am I telling you about this? You’ll soon discover it.

If you have self-discipline problems, you probably noticed that one of the most challenging things is to start the work. Once you are comfortably sited on your desk, five minutes into your work, the deal is almost done.

You are now absorbed in the details of your project, you have gained momentum, and it’s enough to make you stick to your work. All you really needed was that initial impulsion. If you can create that first initial impulsion on demand, then your self-discipline problems disappear.

But how to make that happen?

Visualizing the reward

First, you can try to get motivated by focusing on the benefits of the task. Many experts speak about “visualizing your success”.

Imagine how it would be like to have this task done, the finished product, how people would recognize your work, the money you would earn, the new opportunities you would gain, etc.

The problem with this approach: for most valuable tasks, the benefits materialize in the long run. And the more distant is the reward, the more it looks inaccessible and abstract, which makes it less effective.

That’s because we naturally devalue long-term rewards. Academics call this: “hyperbolic discounting”. For example, most people prefer to get 50 dollars now than 100 dollars in 6 months, even if guaranteed.

Of course, you can always attempt to manipulate your subconscious mind by trying to dream bigger and stronger so that it looks real. But at one point or another, it will find out the difference and have a strong appetite for more tangible rewards.

Immediate rewards

Instead of imagining an eventual reward in the future, why not offer yourself intermediate rewards? Maybe you could give yourself a little reward each time you progress significantly on your project. Let’s say: chocolate candies, healthy fruits like blackberries, or any other delicacy.

The concept seemed interesting, so I tried. But sadly, it looked very much like Walter Mischel’s famous experiment “The Marshmallow Test”. Do you know about it?

Several decades ago, researchers wanted to know if a child’s self-discipline would predict success later on their life. So they invited young children for a test. Each child was to sit alone in front of a marshmallow on a plate. They could choose to eat the marshmallow right away or wait for 15 long minutes for the instructor to comes back and give them a second marshmallow as a reward.

The result of this study? The most self-disciplined children at this age got a more successful career later on compared to the ones who gobbled the marshmallow right away.

Well, you know what? I think I wouldn’t have been that good at this test. Because if I buy a chocolate tablet, promising me to reward myself with one unique chocolate candy each time I progress a bit on my project, it does not work at all! I am far too much of a gourmet to leave the tablet alone. The packet doesn’t last the evening!

Conclusion: when I have direct and immediate access to something I do not deserve, I cannot resist the temptation. And this is not mentioning that when you work on a complicated project, you often crave sugar much more as your brain consumes a lot of energy.

That’s a bummer, right? How could you get access to a reward only when you have deserved it?┬áThe solution lies in what I call “delayed rewards”.

Delayed rewards

As its name implies, a delayed reward is a reward that is not accessible right away. A specific time-lapse needs to pass before it is ready to get consumed.

So let’s say I initiate a delayed reward at time T, then I know that at time T+30minutes, for example, I can consume it (at last!).

That’s where we come back to my frozen strawberries and raspberries:

First of all, you have to know I am a big fan of these fruits. So I always have some in my freezer. Secondly, I can’t eat them right away. I have to defrost them first. The way I do it is to make some hot water:

And put my strawberries/raspberries plate on top of it:

Then I cover them:

And I wait until they are ready. Usually, it takes about 30 minutes. In the meantime, I have to do something. And as I want to look good to myself, I usually do something productive to be worthy of the reward.

For example, today the goal was to start to write this article. And it worked! I wrote the introduction, the two first parts, and part of the third one before I finally allowed myself to eat these delicious fruits!

I like to eat them with cream, without added sugar:

Here is what the final product looks like:


So there you have it! One nifty way to discipline yourself into doing a task.

Today we’ve explored how to get motivated by using rewards. We’ve seen that visualizing a reward is not that appealing as your subconscious mind might not believe in it. We’ve also seen that a standard reward can be tricky to implement, as the risk is to give in to the reward without having done anything to have earned it as you can consume it right away.

Finally, we saw that a delayed reward usually works better, and I presented you with an example. Of course, you can create other forms of delayed rewards. If you know about one, just share it in the comment. It will be fun to discover what solution you came up with!

About the author 

Alex Philippe

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