In the age of on-demand everything. It’s getting harder and harder to stop procrastinating. Stop the app with videos that autoplay. Stop buying more things you don’t need simply because they are on sale. We conveniently blame modern tech for our inability to patiently wait for things to unfold – rewards to get bigger. But it’s not our phones that keep us distracted and anchored to intolerable health and financial condition. The problem with overcoming instant gratification is much more subtle.
Everybody wants a big house. A new car. A fancy haircut. A room full of gadgets. A job that is both highly paid and satisfying. On top of it all, everybody wants to know that others know what they have.
You have to do the much harder work of preventing your naturally flawed brain that is constantly seeking positive sensations from ruining your progress.
What’s troubling in today’s world is that we’re surrounded by temptations.
Even if you want – really want – to become a highly praised academic by devoting years of your life to a field you deeply care about – or anything, basically. Besides continuously learning, taking part in sophisticated psychological, and social games. You need to daily say no to all the things that look and feel so much better than what you’re doing right now.
- A new TV series everybody is talking about? You have to say no if you want to see your project come to fruition.
- A tasty burger that is a click away from your app? You have to say no if you want to stay fit.
- A list of tweets that seem exceptionally interesting? You have to say no if you want to finally finish reading the book you started 8 months ago.
For every single activity that can make your life better in the future but feels boring and tedious now. There are at least a dozen of activities that will make you feel good right at this moment. Making it almost impossible to achieve anything.
This is partly why getting rid of a bad habit is so damn difficult.
If after reading my article on what is instant gratification. Or if you’re visiting from elsewhere, and you finally realize how our innate desire to experience fulfillment without any sort of delay is leading us toward a cliff. But if you’re equally unable to stop walking towards that same cliff. This short guide is for you.
Instant Gratification Society
The TV is always ON.
I can’t believe how they manage to focus for even a second.
I’m talking about my parents.
Every time I visit, all the TVs (they have 3) are playing different things.
And while my parents aren’t seemingly watching. They aren’t completely ignoring what’s happening on the screen either.
It wasn’t like that when I was living with them. I remember how they found comfort in reading books or newspapers (remember them?). Now, the whole atmosphere is quite hectic.
Not that I’m much better.
Yes, I no longer use social media and I’m certainly not a TV person. But I have my own poison.
My close relationship with the email application of my phone is troublesome. You are probably familiar with the drill.
I can be comfortably laying on my sofa with a good book, but this is hardly enough to feel enough positive sensations. That’s why I’ll reach for my phone to see what’s new.
After contemplating on why I do this for a while. I figured it out. Not only because I convince myself that the current activity is not giving me enough pleasure. But because I’m aware of how much potential pleasure I might get extra.
I know for a fact that an amusing activity is literally two clicks away.
Even right now, while I’m writing this very piece.
I find writing very relaxing. Joyful. But at least several times during my seemingly motionless activity of pressing keys on my keyboard. There’s a lot going on in my head. My brain gets infiltrated by an army of thoughts that try to delude me into other activities. Like whispers of demonic figures, I’m often confronted with thoughts like:
- …Check your email again…
- … Remember that new song you found earlier? Play it again…
- …What you’re writing won’t appeal to anyone if you don’t watch this one video about how to write better…
And even if I happen to endure these temptations. More tend to rise. Like a never-ending wave of zombies that feed on my wandering mind.
All of this happens because we now live in the so-called instant gratification society.
When shipping items to your doorstep takes around 24 hours. When you can play your favorite song with just a push of a button – a few years ago, you had to pray to the radio station to play it. Your expectations drastically change. Which, in turn, erodes your patience.
Why finish writing my article and then experience something better when I can experience something exciting right now?
There is no permanent solution to immediate gratification, sadly. Even if you happen to be a minimalistic monk. Postponing pleasures is something that you need to wrestle with. A battle you need to fight for the rest of your life.
Mostly because there are so many things that cause our growing impatience.
What Causes Instant Gratification?
I’ve identified three main things that cause us to stop pursuing bigger goals and indulge us in activities that bring quick results. Even when these activities are often damaging us in the long run (think smoking, eating fast food, and shopping like it’s always Black Friday).
Here they are:
It might sound absurd at first. But it’s strangely beneficial to not know certain things exist.
For instance, if you don’t know that TikTok exists – apparently the newest fancy social media network. You won’t start wasting your time there simply because you don’t know it exists.
The saying attributed to Aristotle, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” It’s just as bad as it is good.
Yes, the more I learn about writing. The more I realize how much I don’t know about the topic. This inspires me to learn more and perfect my skills.
But the opposite is also true. The more I learn about writing. The more time I’ll spend researching, which will prevent me from doing what’s important – actually writing and publishing articles.
Yes, I can potentially become a better writer if I read and watch videos about writing. But if I only watch, I will never finish a piece.
What’s the point of watching every video about writing on the planet when this prevents me from actually writing?
And if you’re thinking, “where’s the instant gratification here?”
It’s right there.
It’s much easier to read about writing and watch people talk about writing. It feels like I’m making progress but I’m mostly deluding myself because I’m not writing.
I can talk on and on about this.
- Social media is making you feel that you are making connections. That you are enriching your life. But what actually counts is meeting a handful of folks and building lasting relationships – this takes time and work.
- Browsing through the life of others feels weirdly good, plus is quite convenient. But while you are watching what others are doing, you never do anything on your own. You neglect your life.
- Saving workouts to your library and reading about the keto diet is easier. But what really counts is performing a set of exercises daily.
The more info you consume. The more things you will discover. These new discoveries will convince you that you should study them. The more you study them, the less time you will have for doing what’s important – connecting, writing, exercising, or whatever you need to be doing.
2. Negative Feelings
Managers think that by punishing someone when he’s not performing well, they will make him perform better.
Usually, the opposite happens.
When you receive feedback about your performance. When someone makes a negative comment about what you wear or about what you said. You automatically want to escape these thoughts.
The brain hates negative thoughts. So the brain looks for distractions. Fortunately, there is no shortage of distractions in the age of instant gratification.
Your manager calls you lazy. But instead of proving him wrong – something that will require a lot of work and accepting the concept that you are, in fact, lazy. You continue to watch your favorite streamer online because this helps you feel better right now.
3. Fragile Mind
A weak mind. Or should we say a fragile mind. Will always look for quick wins.
When you don’t have the resilience and the inner strength to survive difficult situations. You will tend to look for activities that are easier and offer immediate rewards.
I was like that years ago. I was doing everything possible to avoid my flaws by drinking and partying. It was always out with people. Staying home felt unbearable. Not because there was something wrong with my place. But because it was quiet. There was no one to distract me from the thought that was constantly returning – that my life was going nowhere if I don’t do something about it. That’s why I looked for more opportunities to be around others in order to escape reality and feel better.
In our age of emotional safeguarding – where we are protecting the people closest to us from feeling uncomfortable. Individuals can’t become adults. Age is not the problem. The issue is the thinking part. We grow up believing that everything should be easy and everyone should respect us but when reality strikes, and when things get hard. When we receive honest comments about our work. We feel crushed. That’s why, to feel better, we tend to indulge in activities that bring us immediate gains.
The Consequences of Instant Gratification
The problem with instant gratification is that there are problems (plural).
It’s not one thing that starts to regress. It’s everything.
Your desire to feel good pushes you to explore various online rabbit holes – i.e., you get addicted to social media. You start to see how others are supposedly living a dreamy life. This makes you feel uneasy, unfashionable, and untredy. To keep up with what’s happening, you start to buy clothes and visit places you just found out about. The more you post and the more you shop to keep your viewers satisfied. The more you get hooked on the never-ending popularity train.
This leads to:
- Neglected relationships.
- Unhealthy body.
- Hectic lifestyle.
There can be other problems, of course.
But personally, I think that the major thing is that you lose control over your life.
Here are a few examples:
- Probably you hate your body. But you are so used to eating bad food that good, healthy food feels bad.
- Probably you realize that social media is not something you need in your life. But you’ve been using it for years and now social media is the only social thing you do.
- Probably you want to escape your boring (bullshit) job. But everything you own was purchased on credit and your skill-set is not allowing you to do anything else but boring.
Now, after we know what is bad about instant gratification. Let’s see how we can make corrections:
How to Overcome Instant Gratification?
How to stop instant gratification when the whole body wants immediate pleasures?
It’s surely hard work.
Occasionally, you’ll fail. When you do, don’t beat yourself up.
You will check your phone in the middle of a writing session. You will eat a chocolate bar when you’re on a diet. These small diversions are not that problematic.
The key is to keep your mind focused on the grand goal, even when there are small distractions. Focused on the thing that you want to achieve and don’t let the small occasional whims derail you.
Here are a couple of action items that will support you when daily battling the immediate gratification monster:
- Note your impulses: When it comes down to preventing instant gratification, your motivation and willpower are never enough. Urges will emerge seemingly out of nowhere. Trying to persuade you to do this or that. These are perfectly normal. We all have thoughts about doing things that feel much better than the activities we are doing right now. What most don’t have, though, is a strategy to fight these thoughts. When suddenly you feel the need to check your phone, for example. Instead of doing it. Pause. Breathe. Note it down on a piece of paper. Ask yourself: “Why do I have this thought?” The point is to create space. Don’t act on every random thought. Stop for a while and let it pass by.
- List the things that will lead to a disastrous life: Here’s a totally out-of-the-box idea: Think about all the actions that can hurt your life – both now and in the long run. We hardly consider what type of actions can lead to a catastrophe. And probably that’s why we keep doing stupid things. Yes, jumping off a cliff is an obvious no-no. But there are activities that are disguised as good – but are quite hurtful. If you take a moment and actually think about simple actions that can corrupt your existence in the future, you’ll point out things you’re probably doing quite frequently: wandering on social media, eating garbage food, purchasing everything you see, smoking, drinking, [insert your poison].
- List all the things that can lead to a better life: Now think about the opposite: What type of actions can lead to a better life? – again, both now and in the future. The main problem with instant gratification is friction. We know that going to the gym is better than eating chocolate pudding with extra chocolate on the top. But eating the pudding comes with less friction than going to the gym. And yet, if you happen to convince yourself to go to the gym at least once, you’ll see that you’ll feel much better after a workout than after eating a whole plate of something tasty. Additionally, creating a list of good habits also helps.
- Create systems: As noted above, we can’t rely solely on our willpower. We need something stronger. A set of systems that will help us postpone spontaneous thoughts and focus us on more positive actions. A lot can be said here – you can find a list of things in my summary of Atomic Habits and in my post on systems vs goals. But the idea is to have something like a script, a protocol for each of the lists from above – both the good and the bad. When you have a thought about buying a new pair of sunglasses, you won’t just act. You will wait at least 24 hours. This will invite rationality and probably convince you that you don’t need yet another pair. Similarly, when it’s time for a workout. The protocol that you’ll activate is the 2-minute rule. Yes, you probably don’t want to train. You are tired. I get you. But you can surely do 15-25 push-ups. Something that will take you around 2 minutes.
- Focus on what you’re already completed: When I’m tempted to check my phone for the 10th time this half-hour, I now know why I’m doing it. I want positive feedback about what I’ve done now. Let me give you an example: I write every morning for around 2 hours. But the words I write during these hours are usually not ready. It will take days, sometimes even months, to receive feedback for something I wrote today. So, I want to feel that what I have done today wasn’t just a waste of time. This leads me to various online sites – checking my analytics, how many new people subscribed to my newsletter from 5 minutes ago, etc. Rationally speaking, I know that I should stop. But my emotions are saying otherwise. The twist to stop this insidious loop is to focus on what I’ve done. Note down what I’ve accomplished so far: “Ivaylo, you wrote 1,500 words that are not entirely awful. Good job! Besides, you have more than 300 articles on your site. That’s surely something to be proud of.”
- Embrace single-purpose apps and boring tech: Our surrounding environment hugely influences our lives. And I’m not only talking about the people you hang out with. What you install on your phone and on your computer is important to note. Every new app. Every new item you add to your house will require maintenance. This costs your attention. Do you really need another note-taking app? Do you really need to start using the newest fancy social media network? Do you really need a smartwatch? Yes, probably the tiny computer you have on your wrist can count steps and allow you to check your messages. But receiving a buzz every time you get a new message will only further deteriorate your level of concentration. Brands are quick to show us how we can achieve more with their products, but the question is: Do we really need more? Do you really need a watch that enables you to do 100 unimportant things + tell the time? Or do you need a just watch that tells the time and doesn’t distract you from doing one thing really good?
Some Closing Thoughts
If after reading all of the above you’re thinking:
“The tips for overcoming immediate gratification are shockingly simple. Alas, I still end up browsing through social media when I should be writing. I still spend money like crazy when I should be investing. I still procrastinate where I should be working on my big project.”
Following these tips can be astoundingly difficult, I know.
Going to the gym will never start to feel easier. Nor not checking social media when you should be focusing on work.
As I wrote in my article about How Many Days Does It Take to Form a Habit, it’s about prioritizing certain things over others.
When you become mindful about checking your phone and how you spend your money. Your values will change. Your thinking will change.
The joy of eating a candy bar will turn into a sinful thought and a call to action to exercise.
Plainly, if you want a tasty snack, you won’t immediately get it. Your protocol will state that you first need to do 20 push-ups followed by 20 squats.
And as with anything meaningful in life. It takes time and work.
If you keep postponing the immediate pleasures – i.e., delaying gratification. If you keep putting them away. You will teach yourself that experiencing pleasant sensations shouldn’t be based on getting new things. It should be based on appreciating what you already got.
“As we get past our superficial material wants and instant gratification we connect to a deeper part of ourselves, as well as to others, and the universe.” Judith Wright
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