The problem with delayed gratification is that seemingly nothing happens. You write. But the writing if you’re done for today doesn’t immediately manifest into a best-selling book. Or a viral tweet. Or a sales email that suddenly makes you millions. There is always – always! – a gap between what you do now and what happens next. And there is an unwritten law that the bigger the gap. The bigger the reward.
If you still don’t know what is delayed gratification. Besides reading my post on what is delayed gratification. You can clear your brain for a moment and imagine the following situation…
You are at your desk. It’s 7:17 PM. On your contract, it says that you’re supposed to work till 6 PM. The reason you’re still not walking toward the metro station where you can heal your damaged brain from the hectic day with your alpha waves playlists is a project that is due next Friday. In the last few weeks, your day-to-day life looks like a triathlon – meetings, emails, more meetings to discuss what was discussed in the emails. Suddenly, a beeping sound breaks through the silence in the empty office and draws your attention. What do you do? Do you a) confidently ignore the incoming notification so you can finish your task and head home (practice delayed gratification), or b) eagerly interrupt your progress and check what potential delight this flashing signal can bring to your tired psyche?
Assuming you’re not some kind of sophisticated AI masterfully placed in a human body – i.e., you have feelings, and you are guided by them. You will certainly check your phone so that you can indulge in the joy that comes from checking your phone and further delay your return home.
Because let’s face it: Waiting and postponing pleasure sucks.
I hate to wait.
You hate to wait.
Everybody hates to wait.
Anybody who says that they like to wait is either a degenerate liar or an ignorant hypocrite.
What kind of nerd will enjoy the repressed rage of his inner voice when he can be playing Angry Bids or race through the meaningless content created for the virtual kingdom of social media.
But alas, as everyone learns at some point in life. You have to wait. You have to postpone pleasure. You have to occasionally put your phone aside and talk to your spouse if you want to keep having a spouse.
You can’t stuff your fridge with shitty food. Drag the metal wardrobe to your room. Lock yourself inside. And start playing video games. You won’t survive.
Even if you’re not a professional athlete. And even if you don’t intend to become one. You still need to keep a healthy distance from chocolate bars. And you still need to occasionally move your muscles if you want to keep your body from becoming a circular shape.
This always involves a large degree of delaying gratification. Of saying no to stuff and to people.
But how can one practice the art of postponing pleasure in a world full of all kinds of pleasures?
Our modern materialistic world is overcrowded with stuff and services. You no longer have to get off your chair to have an amazing day. Clicking a couple of buttons on your phone can provide you with food, entertainment, and noise that will distract your mind from thinking about potential consequences that will emerge if you habitually binge movies and eat microwave food.
So what’s the solution?
To overcome the curse of immediate gratification so we can practice delayed gratification. We first need to understand how delayed gratification works. Recognize its main characteristics, and then adopt some strategies.
In this post, I’ll explore in more depth the concept of delayed gratification and more particularly how to practice delayed gratification.
Before we get to the actionable steps.
For more context, let’s first explore the following:
Why Do I Have Trouble Delaying Gratification?
One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to practice delayed gratification – say, when your phone beeps. It’s partly because of modern busyness.
Checking your phone every time it produces a sound is viewed as a self-care, my-time, guilty pleasure experience that’s the last-standing counterblast helping us keep our sanity.
I know, strange.
As a cure for busyness, we indulge in more busyness.
But when examined, we can see why this is happening.
When your mind is consistently fractured by the hustle and bustle of life, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. You take every chance available to escape this hectic atmosphere and take a sip of joy.
I know that checking every single notification won’t help me finish my tasks on time. But sometimes, the thing I’m doing right now feels so dreadful, that I simply can’t not check my phone. I want to have a view so I can distract my mind – even for a bit – from the unbearable task.
Besides this, there is one more interesting concept that prevents us from delaying gratification when we need to.
It’s based on a famous Marshmallow Experiment. The experiment where children sit alone in a room and try to resist not eating one marshmallow so they can have another one after 15 minutes.
A follow-up study that’s an extension of the first one reveals intriguing insights about the human tendency to delay gratification.1
Here’s the overview:
In addition to self-control, our ability to practice delayed gratification – wait for bigger rewards. Is determined by something researchers call environmental reliability.
In the follow-up study I just mentioned, the researchers created two groups before leading the children to the room where they should choose between one marshmallow now or two after 15 minutes.
In the first group, the researcher gave the child a toy and promised to bring more, but never did.
In the second group, what was promised was delivered.
After these situations. The children were taken to the room with the marshmallow. What happened then demonstrated the power of promise.
The children exposed to unreliable conditions waited without eating the marshmallow for an average of 3 minutes. In contrast, those who got what was promised waited on an average of 12 minutes.
In plain words, we will wait longer for bigger rewards if we were exposed to more situations where what was promised to us actually happened (reliable experiences). Conversely, wait shorter if people in the past often promised things but didn’t deliver (unreliable experience).
In a way, the authors of the study portray that our tendency to prefer actions that bring immediate gratification is learned.
This means that thinking is not fully stripped when we are confronted with a situation requiring us to wait – postpone pleasure.
The rational decision-making process is still there. But it’s based on how frequently we got what was promised to us in the past.
It looks something like this in our head when the majority of our experiences were unreliable:
- The question we ask ourselves: “Should I eat this cookie or wait for 15 minutes to get another one?”
- The answer we create: “Well, looking at the past. We didn’t always get what was promised to us. It’s probably a better idea to get what’s currently available and don’t wait.”
In contrast, if we were mainly exposed to reliable conditions. The conversation in our head will probably look like this:
- The question we ask ourselves: “Should I eat this cookie or wait for 15 minutes to get another one?”
- The answer we create: “Absolutely! Every time someone promised something it actually happened. Besides, the cookie will taste much better after waiting.”
The prime takeaway from the experiment is that our ability to wait is based on our environment and past experiences. If we don’t think that the future will bring better results – because in the past what was promised to us never (or rarely) happened. We won’t delay pleasures, we will want things now.
Therefore, your capacity to wait is not only determined by your self-control abilities but also by your beliefs about the stability of the world.
All of this brings us to the important section: How can you become better at delayed gratification?
How to Become Better at Delaying Gratification?
First of all, calling your parents and blaming them that their false promises in the past are the reason you can’t patiently wait for a website to load is not a good idea.
Yes, they surely had to. But blaming someone now for things that happened in the distant past is never a good idea.
Here are a couple of things that are a good idea:
How to Practice Delayed Gratification:
Postpone Unhealthy Actions
The core objective of people designing websites – online stores, business sites, social media sites, you name it. Is to make the checkout experience as seamless as possible, or make it super hard for people to leave the site. The last one is the reason videos autoplay on sites like Facebook.
Everything is designed to make you spend money and/or waste time.
Therefore, to balance things out, your objective should be to add friction.
Every time you feel that you should get something. Wait for 24 hours. Make this a rule. Something like: for purchases that are above $199 – wait at least 24 hours.
This can be applied to all kinds of tasks. Instead of eating a chocolate bar now, say: I’ll get one once I’m done with my set of exercises.
Default to Good Actions
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear introduces the 2-minute rule.
In short, you design your environment in such a way that getting started on a healthy habit will take you 2-minutes or less. You strategically place books around your house – e.g., on your nightstand and on your coffee table – so you can read books instead of drowning in online rabbit holes.
Try this: Stop reading for a moment and go to the nearest comfortable furniture. Now, after you settle in. Do nothing for 10 minutes. Focus on your breath if thoughts suddenly invade your headspace…
How was it?
Everyone who ever tried to stand still for a couple of minutes knows how unbearable this activity is. We want to feel productive. To get more done. To see and read more things. But as you’ll note, if you commit to practicing doing nothing regularly. This uneventful activity will help you center your mind and focus you on the important things.
Do Only One Thing
If doing nothing doesn’t seem to work for you.
Try this then: Do only one thing at a time.
- Take a walk without listening to a podcast.
- Write in your journal without playing music.
- Read without the TV being on.
- Have a meal without watching videos.
Our desire to consume more and to achieve more persuades us that we should multitask all the time. But the more tasks we bundle together, the more we grow inadequate.
We teach the brain that we can only be satisfied while we eat something, watch something, and simultaneously listen to something else entirely.
Focus On What You Can Do And Embrace Uncertainty
From the study above, we learned that we’ll rather consume things now instead of waiting for bigger rewards because of the uncertain future.
I see this all the time myself in all kinds of people and fields.
You don’t start pursuing a new profession because it’s not clear when you’ll become good at this new thing. You’re either scared of the career jump or you consider yourself a perfectionist and you don’t want to look foolish while you learn. So, it feels safer to keep doing what you’ve been doing even if it’s no longer financially feasible.
Or, you don’t invest money in investment instruments because it’s not clear what will happen with these investments. So, you feel safer when your money are sitting idle in the bank.
To move past this state, use this phrase: “I am a person learning to… (fill in the blank).” When applied to your thinking, you become work in progress.
Instead of: “I’m very bad at writing. I will never become a good writer.” You say: “I’m a person learning to become a writer.”
Instead of, “I don’t know anything about investing.” You state: “I’m a person learning how he can rationally invest his hard-earned cash.”
Optimistic nihilism, positive psychology, glass-half-full type of person… Call it whatever you want.
If you don’t think that the future will bring a better tomorrow, you’ll never strive for anything.
As with the kids involved in the experiment, you’ll rather accept what’s currently available and never think about what better potentially can happen.
But how can you add a sip of positivity when through your whole life you’ve been seeing pessimism and adversity?
Focus on creating systems, not goals. Systems that come with short feedback loops.2
A simple thing you can implement today is creating a list of good habits, tracking these good habits, and using a habit tracking journal. By adding a big fat “X” on your calendar when you successfully fulfill your promise to exercise, write, learn Python, or anything else that can be categorized as a good habit. You’ll be less willing to quit because each new X added will clearly show how you’re progressing.
Some Closing Thoughts
Ordinary people think that extraordinary people are simply born gifted, rich, or the two together. But this is far from the truth.
The main skill folks with a Wikipedia page have is a lot simpler – they say no to the good things available now so they can say yes to greater things that will appear in the future.
When you consistently skip delicious and cholesterol-heavy meals. When you consciously say no to playing the newest video game. You create time and space for the activities that are difficult but will bring you closer to the desired personality.
Practicing delayed gratification is your ticket to the career you want. To the body you want. To the type of creative outlet you want to be recognized for.
Is it going to be easy?
Is it going to be worth it?
Well, it depends.
Do you want to master a field or you’re satisfied with being an average performer?
The most successful people we know aren’t great once, they’re good over and over again. But to consistently create opportunities for success. Besides showing up daily, forming good habits, maintaining healthy brain habits, and breaking bad habits, you also need to postpone pleasure.
And what better way to postpone pleasure than gaining deep knowledge in your field of interest.
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- Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, Richard N. Aslin, Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Science Direct, Cognition.
- For more on systems, I recommend reading the book or my summary of Thinking in Systems. Or my post on how to use systems thinking in your daily life.