The Power of Delayed Gratification

We’ve made it clear that we are irrational, emotional creatures that are easy to act on impulse.

With attention spans getting worse, self-control and discipline are waning as well. The constant feedback loops of social media are causing us to expect instant results, which can be quite detrimental to our well-being long-term.

Delayed gratification is not something that just happens, although some people’s impulse controls are better than others.

It is something you must learn.

Instant vs delayed gratification

Based on Sigmund Freud’s popular concept of the id, ego, and superego, seeking instant gratification is hard-wired into us. Our instinctual, emotionally primitive brains want what we desire immediately.

It’s only as we’ve settled into civilization and adjusted to social adulthood, that we realize that we can’t all get what we want when we want it. Patience is key and any great thing takes time.

Take the famous Stanford Marshmellow Experiment as an example. This experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel took a group of children and showed them two options of snacks to choose from: a marshmallow or a pretzel. They were then asked which they preferred. A little bit later, the experimenter would then leave the room, and on their way out, told the children that if they waited for them to return to eat a snack, they could then have the option to eat their favorite treat. If the child could not wait and wanted to eat the snack immediately, they would only receive a treat that was not their favorite.

Some groups of children were given distractions as they waited. And in some other groups, the snacks were not visible but covered instead. The researchers found the following insights from the results:

Those who had distractions to play with waited much longer and performed better in resistance.

Those who knew there was a reward at the end, were willing to wait longer compared to those who weren’t told of any reward.

Those who had their treats covered were able to wait longer.

Beyond those results, however, the key thing that was discovered through this experiment was that the children who waited longer demonstrated greater academic performance later in their teens. These exact children — who were followed up 30 years later — were found to have better health as well compared to those who needed to eat the snack immediately.

Importance of delayed gratification

Besides just getting better grades and improving health (as seen in the Marshmellow Experiment), delaying gratification does a lot more for you than you think.

  • Improved relationships — The very nature of controlling your direct impulses and responding effectively, trickles into all your relationships. You are less likely to react emotionally to your partner if you are able to control your impulses.
  • Self-development — The problem that so many of us have these days is distraction. There are so many mediums pulling at our attention, from social media, and TV, to instant messaging or shopping. With control over our impulses, and to delay gratification, we can resist the desire to jump onto Netflix or Instagram, and instead, use those precious minutes and hours to work on ourselves. The same goes for going out.
  • Boost health — As evident from the Marshmellow Experiment mentioned earlier, the participants that were able to delay gratification demonstrated greater health 30 years later. This is because, with delayed gratification, you resist being comfortable and settle for the impulse of lying around or eating that snack.
  • Smarter with money — While there is no guarantee that you’ll be better with money, those who delay gratification tend to have traits that allow them to save better, and in turn, have a better financial situation. This is because you can resist buying unnecessary things, are more willing to invest to compound money, and generally are smarter with how you use your money.
  • Long-term thinking — One of the biggest benefits to delayed gratification is that you learn to adopt more long-term thinking. You look at the potential rewards of being patient and waiting out, which trains your mind to think ahead instead of what’s immediately in front of you.

3 ways to start delaying gratification

With all these benefits to delaying gratification, the next question remains: how can we go about training ourselves to do so? The following three suggestions are ways to get started in training yourself to delay gratification:

  1. Start small first — If you are someone who is not good at delaying gratification, it’s best to start small. The point is to get better and improve over time, rather than start off tackling a big goal and failing, only to get demotivated and discouraged. For example, if you are trying to quit using social media as much, instead of dropping your phone entirely, take more frequent breaks throughout the day where you detach yourself from it. Then increase the length of break over time.
  2. Design your environment — We are creatures that are influenced by the environment. If everyone around us is looking to the left, we are more likely to look to the left. In the same way, if your environment (room, home, etc) is not set up in a way that reduces temptation, then it’ll be harder for you to delay gratification. Set yourself up for success by manipulating the environment around you, and designing it in a way that allows you to eliminate temptation. For example, if you are trying. to lose weight, empty your shelves of any snacks. Taking that to a more extreme level, try to live in a home far from the local convenience store, giving you less opportunity to buy what you want.
  3. Learn about habits — We are all made up of habits. Breaking bad ones or adopting good ones is all a matter of discipline and identifying qualities of automaticity. By understanding more about our brains and behaviors, we can hack our habits.

One core foundational thing that makes delaying gratification much easier is knowing what you value first and foremost. The goals in who you want to become, and what you want to do are crucial in understanding the importance of patience. If there is something you are ultimately working towards, it is much easier to resist temptation and think of the bigger picture.