Would you take $1 today or $5 after a month?
If you chose the second alternative, then more kudos to you. But research tells us that most people will go for the first option.
This is a classic example of what is called instant gratification.
Why We Prefer Instant Over Delayed Gratification
Let’s face it—instant rewards are great.
Remember how you felt when you won some money from a scratch-off lotto ticket or when you went on your last shopping spree?
You probably felt so elated. The high is unbeatable. It gives you an immediate feel-good sensation. It sounds like a good thing that we all should try to get more of.
Research tells us that we often lean toward seeking instant pleasure because of the uncertainty about the future. After all, who knows if you will ever get the promised $5 in a month? A lot can happen in this timespan.
We all want to get what we what right away. So why prolong and deliberately make ourselves feel bad?
Given the undeniable feel-good benefits and its contribution to our overall happiness, it seems almost counter-intuitive that instant gratification has such a bad reputation.
Let us see why.
Why Instant Gratification Is Really Not So Great
The concept of gratification is tightly linked to another popular hero in psychology: self-control.
In a previous piece, I wrote about how each of us can get better at practicing self-control, which leads to a more fulfilling life.
As I noted in my other article How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life:
“Study after study confirms that if we just find the way to strengthen our self-control, our lives will become so much better—we’ll eat healthier, exercise, won’t overspend, overdrink or overdo anything that’s bad for us. We will be able to achieve our goals much easier.”
Many of us have heard of the famed Marshmallow test. It is the first of its kind to look behind the curtain and present hard evidence why instant gratification is not as beneficial as its counterpart—delayed gratification.
Done in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the test was simple enough. Researchers told children to either get only one treat now or get two if they were willing to wait for 15-20 minutes. It is not hard to guess that most youngsters went for the I-want-it-now option. This proved that most of us do not like to wait for rewards.
Where it got more interesting, though, is that the researchers tracked the children for a few years afterward. They discovered that the ones who were able to restrain themselves fared much better later in life—academically, career-wise, financially, and in their relationships.
Although on the surface it may appear that instant gratification is the better route to wellbeing, research confirms otherwise. The ability to practice self-control and discipline pays off much more later on in life. It’s directly linked to goal achievement and success.
Just think about it—how many times have you regretted the decisions that you made on a whim? A shopping spree at the mall may give you an instant shot of happiness—true—but you probably do not feel so great when you have to pay your credit card afterward.
Or how often have you changed your mind about what you bought and returned it? We all have been there, of course.
The good news, though, is that we all can become better at controlling our impulses.
Here are some ways to get you started.
7 Ways to Get Better at Delayed Gratification
1. Get Yourself Distracted
In the original Marshmellow experiment, the researchers pointed out some of the strategies the children used to help restrain themselves from eating the treat right away.
“They made up quiet songs . . . hid their head in their arms, pounded the floor with their feet, fiddled playfully and teasingly with the signal bell, verbalized the contingency . . . prayed to the ceiling, and so on. In one dramatically effective self-distraction technique, after obviously experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.”
Following the same steps, the next time you feel temptation rising, try to divert your attention to something else. Call a friend, watch a Youtube video, take a few breaths or sing a song. Wait a bit for the urge to subdue.
What matters is that you do not succumb to the first impulse that comes to your mind.
Research has found that letting your mind wander helps you focus on the bigger picture and your long-term goals. And being less “present-biased” can help curb the impulse to make decisions you may later want to reverse.
Therefore, we should all take mental breaks more often.
Let your thoughts drift away, look out of the window, sit idle for a while. At work, Fast Company advises against jumping from one mental task to another because this consumes lots of cognitive energy.
“Even if it’s just sitting right there at your desk, looking away from your computer screen and just staring off for a few moments to see where your thoughts take you.”
3. Remind Yourself of Your Goals
Delayed gratification, in its essence, is the ability to reach our long terms goals and dreams, Tony Robbins tells us.
It is giving up the instant high by putting off a purchase today to buy, for example, your dream house in a few years. It is a sacrifice you need to make on the things you need to forego for the bigger ambition.
Keep a picture of your dream on your phone and look at it daily, especially when you feel the temptation, he advises. Remind yourself how far you’ve come, how proud you are of yourself and your discipline.
Alternatively, keep a vision board with all the great things you want to achieve in the future. Aren’t your dreams worth of the little discomfort you may feel today?
Tell yourself this every day, and this may help to subdue the urge to break your discipline. It will make delayed gratification easier.
4. Get an Accountability Partner
Accountability partners are a great way to keep yourself on track, especially if you are afraid that your self-control may slip. It can be anyone—your spouse, colleague, friend—acting as the voice of reason.
For instance, if you want to save money, know which expenses are essential and which ones are not. Plan what you have to do if you break the rules and know what the consequences will be. The more details you have the better prepared you will be to fight off the urge to overspend.
The same goes for every aspect of your life—losing weight, quitting smoking or other vices, saving for retirement, or any other goal you are after. You do not have to go through this alone. Share your plans and aspirations with someone you trust and ask them to keep you on track.
It will still be challenging, but you may find it a tad easier to follow through with your plans when you have an accountability buddy.
5. Keep in Mind the Wording and the Consequences
In a study from 2014, participants were asked the following questions:
Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $8.50 in 46 days? (called a hidden-zero format)
Would you prefer to receive $6 today and $0 in 45 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days? (called an explicit-zero format).
Results showed that when people were presented with choices in the explicit-zero format, the lure of instant gratification was significantly lower.
This means that immediate rewards were less appealing, and the participants chose delayed rewards versus the immediate ones.
We can all make better choices without having to put more effort, but rather, by giving people more choices and presenting the available options differently.
6. Start With the End in Mind
In his excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient People, the renowned American author and speaker Stephen Covey talks about the benefits of that very same habit.
It is a very simple idea—imagine your end goal and work backward to the present day. Outline the steps you need to take, how long it will take you to complete each one, what you need to do in terms of skills, knowledge, and resources, and the contingency plans you will have if things go sideways.
This concept synchronizes nicely with the see-the-bigger-picture advice, but it goes a bit further because it also focuses on the specific steps of how to achieve your goals.
Of course, a large contributor to the successful completion of any undertaking lies in the amount of self-control we can exercise and the discipline we have. Sacrificing our immediate pleasure today can pay hefty dividends in the future, as many studies have shown.
Visualization is also a big part of this process.
It is a technique, sworn to be highly effective by athletes, actors, coaches, and many others. Made popular by the books “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill and “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, it is certainly a mind-changing way of looking at achievement and success.
Seeing your accomplished self in the future can give you a great motivational boost, and it can help you overcome impulsive behaviors more easily.
7. The Seinfeld Strategy
Remember the show, Seinfeld? It was co-created by Jerry Seinfeld and is still considered to be one of the funniest shows ever to play on TV. It had phenomenal success.
But according to New York Times best-selling author James Clear, the most impressive thing about it is “the remarkable consistency of it all.”
The show was thriving and drawing large audiences, year after year, without failing. It delivered consistently high-quality entertainment.
How did Jerry Seinfeld do it?
The secret really comes down to persistence.
The way to become a good comedian is to write jokes every day. Do not deviate; do not break the chain. It is a great way to stop procrastinating and keep going until you reach your goal.
It goes without saying, to be successful at doing this, you need to summon your good-old buddies “self-control” and “discipline”. You have to forego some momentary pleasures (e.g., going out to the bar with friends) for the long-term prize (e.g., finishing the book you are working on).
We live in a quick-moving world—of fast food, speedy internet, live streaming, online shopping, and new versions of pretty much everything every few months.
Life moves quite fast. And we have become used to expecting immediate outcomes. We feel impatient and agitated when we have to wait to get what we want.
It is barely surprising then that delayed gratification is so challenging to practice, and self-control is something many of us struggle with. Surely, it is not easy.
But according to years of research and studies, instant gratification is not the route to long-term happiness, wellbeing, and financial security, although it may feel good at the moment.
On the contrary, the good things come to those who are patient, those who have learned to embrace the pause, and those who think about the bigger picture. You need to keep your eyes on your end goals and have a plan on how to get there with contingency solutions in-between.
Yes, it may sound tedious and unappealing, unlike flashing a new watch or a purse and getting high on the compliments and the envy. But playing the long game is certainly the right road to the land of success.
That is if we are to believe pretty much everyone who has made it in this world.
More Tips to Help You Discipline Yourself Better
Featured photo credit: Andrea Leopardi via unsplash.com