According to a famous study on delayed gratification.
Last Saturday night I had a bulletproof plan for my Sunday. I had my alarm set for 5:30 am and was going to attack the day like a honey badger. Do honey badgers take Sundays off? Hell no they don’t. They slam their face into an angry bees’ nest, embrace the pain, and take what is theirs!
The day was going to start with a three-mile run just to get the blood pumping. After that, I was going to smash the keyboard and bang out 2000 words like a champ while I enjoyed my morning coffee. The grocery store was next because my fridge was empty. I was going to fill it with a kaleidoscope of fruits, vegetables and lean meat. Healthy.
When I got home I’d do laundry, followed by a nutritious lunch, some meditation, a home workout, and then catch up on some reading. There was a great football game on in the evening and that would be my reward for conquering the day. I peacefully fell asleep as I looked forward to crushing my Sunday like a grape.
What actually happened
When the repulsive sound of my alarm jangled I shut it off without a second thought. I rolled out of bed at 8:30, put the coffee on, and defaulted to my phone routine. Sports, news, social media, email. Before I knew it my buddy was texting me and telling me to grab some beer and come over for the morning games. I had an internal battle for a nanosecond before the devil on my shoulder dropkicked the angel, and I was on my way to my friend’s house with a case of Deschutes.
We spent the next six hours watching football, eating pizza, drinking beer, and gambling. I came home in a haze at the end of the night and went to bed. The next morning I woke up with an empty fridge, a bigger gut, dirty clothes and a foggy mind. Not an ideal way to start the week. I had given in to instant gratification in every way imaginable.
Is having a Sunday Funday the worst thing a person can do? It’s not. But it definitely wasn’t in my plans and occurred because I gave in to my impulses. That Monday morning I learned that it’s always good to have a focused plan on delaying gratification.
In 1972, Stanford professor Walter Mischel published a study that later famously became known as The Marshmallow Experiment. The experiment tested hundreds of young children around four and five years old. The researchers brought each child into a private room where they were sat down with a marshmallow placed in front of them. They were told that the researcher was going to leave the room for a little while and that they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted to, but if they waited until the researcher came back, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows instead of one. It was a simple concept, one now or two later.
Some children gobbled the treat down immediately, some squirmed for a period of time before acquiescing, and some managed to wait it out and be rewarded with double the pleasure. It was no doubt an entertaining experiment to watch, but what was remarkable was what happened in the 40 years of follow-up studies conducted on the same children.
What researchers found was that the children that delayed gratification and waited for the second marshmallow wound up having higher SAT scores, were less prone to substance abuse, less likely to be obese, suffered fewer mental problems, and had better social skills. Of course, this is just one study and is not to say that a choice you make at four years old will determine the rest of your life, but it makes a fascinating case that delaying gratification is indeed a powerful phenomenon.
We’ve all heard the expression, ‘good things come to those who wait’. It’s a popular saying for a reason. The truth is that success is usually based on the ability to have discipline now, in order to reap the rewards later. Success has never been known to come to those who take the easy way out. In the case of delaying gratification, the hard part is the now. It’s painful.
Of course it would be nice to blow off work for drinks with friends, eat that ice cream instead of going to the gym, buy that brand new cellphone on your credit card instead of saving until you have the money. But succeeding at something requires ignoring the easy and doing something hard so that you can be rewarded with an even better benefit later.
How do we learn to master delayed gratification?
Delaying gratification is a learned skill and one that gets stronger with practice. When we delay our impulse for instant pleasure in favour of long-term rewards, we develop a vital skill required for continuous growth. When we recognize that ignoring the impulse results in greater rewards down the road, we form new neural pathways through neuroplasticity, which creates new and better habits. So how do we do it?
Rewire our autopilot mind
A great way to start is to become mindful of your impulses. Recognize them, understand them for what they are, and instead of reacting reflexively, have a plan to combat them. By doing this you will delay the “autopilot” reflex, which will in turn weaken the impulse. It will be uncomfortable at first, but every time you are mindful of your impulses, your resolve will grow stronger to ignore them. You are rewiring your brain with positive behaviours.
The next time you are hungry and walk by that fast-food joint that’s emanating that alluring smell inviting you in for those tasty 1500 calories — pause. Recognize your impulse for what it is, and then mentally reward yourself for not giving into temptation.
Get rid of your temptations. If you impulsively drink alcohol, rid your house of booze. If you can’t stop late-night snacking, skip the chip aisle at the grocery store. If social media is your Achilles heel, leave your phone in another room while you work. We are human and temptations are ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Why not gain a competitive advantage by manipulating your environment?
There was an experiment done at Google with two refreshment stations. One station had snacks right next to the beverages. The other had snacks much farther away. The study found that when employees went to get a drink they were much more likely to take a snack when it was right in front of them. The men were twice as likely to grab a goodie while the women’s odds went up by a third. The proximity of temptations matters!
Positive distraction can be a powerful tool for delaying gratification. Studies have shown that using positive distractions can reduce the urge to act on impulses. It redirects your focus so that you are no longer fixated on the pain or desire related to wanting instant gratification. These can be found in the form of music, puzzles, video games, reading and more.
In the famous marshmallow test, it was shown that the children that distracted themselves by singing songs or playing games were more likely to hold off for the second marshmallow.
Once you become mindful of the impulse, have your preferred positive options in your toolbox and use them to take your mind off of temptation. Remember, sometimes what you’re not doing is just as important as what you’re doing.
Keep your goals in front of mind
It’s important to know what your goals are and keep them in the spotlight at all times. If you don’t have goals that you’re striving towards it’s much easier to fall into the temptation trap. When you have your goals laid out in your mind it’s easy to do a quick analysis of whether or not a certain action is going to help or hinder your progress towards that goal.
If you want to lose weight, are those french fries going to help you hit that target? If you want to crush your morning routine are those happy-hour drinks going to be of help to you? When your goals are clearly defined it becomes much easier to avoid activities that are going to thwart your progress.
Play the tape in your mind
Think of what happened the last time you decided to give in to instant gratification and ask yourself if that’s something you’re okay with doing again. Play the recording in your mind. The next time I’m enticed with a Sunday Funday when I have a day of productivity lined up, I’m going to delve into my memory catalogue and play the tape of what happened the last time I was faced with this decision.
How did I feel after ignoring my priorities and giving in to my impulses? Do I want that to happen again? Remember that if you repeat the same decision you are likely to feel the same and suffer the same consequences as the time before. Ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Get an accountability partner
This could be a workout partner, your life partner, a study partner. Make a contract with each other. Set out some rules and consequences and hold each other accountable. I recently did sober October and I can tell you that I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t have an accountability partner. I know this because I didn’t do it!
My accountability partner (also my brother) decided to quit on October 18th. All of a sudden I had no one to be accountable to and I ended up slipping a few days later. I’m confident that if he didn’t quit first, I would have kept holding myself accountable to him. It was still a positive month but I did end up having alcohol on two different occasions. Sometimes you need someone other than yourself to pull strength from.
Reward yourself for following through
My initial plan in my aforementioned anecdote was to reward myself with the Sunday night football game. It was a great plan in theory. Unfortunately, I didn’t apply the other tools I needed to fight off temptation. But you don’t need to deprive yourself of all happiness in life.
If you’re trying to make a choice between studying and going out for drinks with friends, choose to study and reward yourself with a glass of wine at the end of the night as you unwind while watching your favourite show. Or if you’re up against the decision of going to the gym or eating fast food, make sure you go to the gym first.
It’s likely that by the time you finish working out, your unhealthy craving will have disappeared. Positive actions tend to beget positive actions. Rewarding yourself on your journey will give you those little dopamine boosts that you need to keep you motivated.
Delaying gratification is not easy — and it’s not supposed to be. It’s the drive that keeps you on a growth trajectory and requires work and discipline in order to succeed. But the benefits of creating strategies to quell impulses are far better than the benefits of giving in to instant gratification. The good news is that these skills and strategies are available to anyone and offer the potential to change your life.
I was recently listening to an interview with Matthew McConaughey and he was talking about his Oscar-winning role for Dallas Buyers Club in which he lost 50 lbs to play his character. His young son one day asked him why he had the trophy.
“Remember a year and a half ago when papa was really skinny and you said his neck looked like a giraffe? Remember when you’d wake up and papa was already gone to work? What I was doing every day then, someone gave me a trophy for a year and a half later.”