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Successive Approximation

Successive Approximation

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Successive approximation is a technique from behavioral psychology where we reward ourselves for each step toward accomplishing a bigger goal. 

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How to Do It

  1. Determine your large overall goal(s)
  2. Break them down into steps. These can be objectives and tasks. 
  3. Determine what your reward will be for completing a task
  4. Reward yourself for completing each task. 

This may mean creating an goal/objective and task list and giving yourself a reward for each task completion. 

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  • May increase the frequency of positive behavior
  • May help you accomplish tasks that have no immediate reward
  • May mitigate procrastination 
  • May improve mood
  • May improve productivity and focus
  • May improve health
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Time Commitment

5-10 minutes

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Why it works

Rewarding a behavior creates a positive association that makes us more likely to engage in the same behavior again. In the brain, rewarded behaviors are associated with higher dopamine secretions [1].

This technique makes large goals tangible and makes you more likely to take specific steps towards accomplishing them.

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Suggested Frequency


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Supporting Studies and Articles

  1. Arias-Carrión, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodríguez, E., Menéndez-González, M., & Pöppel, E. (2010). Dopaminergic reward system: A short integrative review. International Archives of Medicine, 3, 24. https://doi.org/10.1186/1755-7682-3-24
  2. Armellino, D., Hussain, E., Schilling, M. E., Senicola, W., Eichorn, A., Dlugacz, Y., & Farber, B. F. (2012). Using High-Technology to Enforce Low-Technology Safety Measures: The Use of Third-party Remote Video Auditing and Real-time Feedback in Healthcare. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 54(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/cir773
  3. Cheval, B., Radel, R., Neva, J. L., Boyd, L. A., Swinnen, S. P., Sander, D., & Boisgontier, M. P. (2018). Behavioral and Neural Evidence of the Rewarding Value of Exercise Behaviors: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 48(6), 1389–1404. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0898-0
  4. Scott, D. S., & Rosenstiel, A. K. (1979). Chapter 13 - Covert Positive Reinforcement Studies: Review, Critique, and Guidelines**Reprinted with permission from Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 1975, 12, 374–384.††The authors wish to express their appreciation to Mary Grace Baron for her suggestions and careful reading of the manuscript. In D. Upper & J. R. Cautela (Eds.), Covert Conditioning (pp. 117–134). https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-023346-8.50017-5
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Side Effects

May induce addiction

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Required Equipment


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Gurus/Celebrities/Doing it

Brian Tracy 

David Allen

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Suggested Time of Day 

Any time

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  • Try not to reward your positive behaviors with unhealthy food as might have bad long term effects.
  • Sometimes just checking a task on your to-do list will feel like a reward in your brain 
  • Try using task apps such as Nirvanahq.com 
  • For groups trying to use Asana or Smartsheet 
  • Check out the GTD method for effective task management 

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 Happiness  Confidence  Fitness  Productivity  Focus  Motivation
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