Delayed gratification means saying “no” to something you want in the moment in exchange for a greater benefit or reward later. It’s the work of putting off pleasure, especially when indulging in that pleasure would have adverse consequences down the road.
But how do experts define “delayed gratification,” and more importantly, how can you use it to become more productive?
Encyclopedia Britannica defines “delay of gratification” as:((Encyclopedia Britannica: Delay of Gratification))
“the act of resisting an impulse to take an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more-valued reward in the future.”
Let’s break that definition into two parts. First, delayed gratification requires us to resist an immediate urge. Second, it requires that we have reason to believe we’ll gain something if we do.
Situations that fulfill only a single part of that definition do not call for delayed gratification. There’s no reason to resist the impulse to run from an angry tiger, nor is there reason to put off a momentary pleasure that’s adaptive or healthy, such as laughing at a friend’s funny story.
Research suggests people who practice delayed gratification benefit in all sorts of ways. In the 1960s, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel set up an experiment.((Los Angeles Times: The surprising thing the ‘marshmallow test’ reveals about kids in an instant-gratification world)) He placed a marshmallow in front of children between the ages of 3 and 5 before leaving the room.
Although they could eat the treat at any time, Mischel’s team told the children, they’d earn even more treats if they waited to eat the marshmallow until the researchers returned.
What did Mischel discover? The children who waited longer to eat the marshmallow fared better in life. Relative to the kids who ate it right away, they earned better grades in schools, were more likely to go to college, enjoyed greater self-confidence, and were less likely to struggle with drug problems later in life.
That’s the power of delayed gratification. But it’s not just important for children. Adults who practice delayed gratification are better able to achieve what they want in life.
In both personal and professional life, delayed gratification is a smart strategy.
Say you’re starting a business. You know it’s going to be a lot of work, and you have a limited budget. You could hire the best talent now, get the best technology, and rent a sleek office to work out of. Or you could start small, use your existing computer, and set up shop in your basement until you’re bringing in enough revenue to cover office rent.
On one hand, you’ll be less stressed if you spend the money upfront. But on the other hand, you know you’ll need that money for product development. By practicing delayed gratification, you put yourself in a better position for the future.
But you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to benefit from delayed gratification. Think, for example, about what you’ll eat for lunch this afternoon: You could go out to your favorite fast-food restaurant, or you could eat that salad you packed for lunch.
Yes, fast food is inexpensive, and yes, you could always eat your salad another day. But lunches out add up, and your salad won’t be as fresh if you wait to eat it tomorrow. You know, too, that you’ll feel better this afternoon if you eat vegetables rather than a burger and fries.
The most important step in delayed gratification is thinking through the consequences of your choices. Learn to control your impulses, and you’ll be not just healthier and happier, but more productive.
Delayed gratification is a great way to optimize your productivity. To convince yourself to put in a little extra work now for a better outcome down the road:
Without a reason to delay gratification, you’ll struggle to do it. Think through what you want to achieve and what you can do to get there. It could be:
Have you always wanted to run a marathon? If so, you’ll need to train for it. Although it’s tempting to sit on your couch and watch television, delayed gratification is what gets you to lace up your sneakers.
Nearly 90% of Millennials say they would like to own their own home, but two-thirds of them will need to spend two decades saving up for it.((Inc.: Study Finds 89 Percent of Millennials Want to Own a Home. But 67 Percent Will Have to Wait 20 Years or More to Afford It)) Putting a little money away each month — despite the fact that you’d rather spend it on vacations or dinners out — is a matter of delayed gratification.
No employer is going to hand you your dream job simply because you want it; you have to work for it. Spending four years going to college, attending tedious seminars, and practicing your craft in your free time are all examples of delayed gratification.
Friendships are not formed in a minute. If you want more friends or deeper friendships, you’ll need to invest in them. Delayed gratification might lead you to take a connection out to lunch, learn more about a shared interest, or volunteer for a cause he or she cares about.
When you’re frustrated with a family member, you might be tempted to snap at her. Why do you resist that temptation? Delayed gratification. You realize that you love that person, and you owe them your patience.
The big questions of life can only be answered with self-reflection and study. Looking deeply into yourself or reading religious texts can be uncomfortable. The reason you do them anyway is delayed gratification: You know you’ll be happier once you build out your belief set.
Typically, the best decision becomes clear when you look down the road. One of the oldest and best tools for doing this is called a decision tree.((Harvard Business Review: Decision Trees for Decision Making)) Decision trees allow you to visualize the follow-on effects of each choice.
Say your car breaks down. Should you repair it, or should you buy a new one? In a decision tree, you might start with cost: Can you make a down payment without taking out a loan? If not, you might decide against buying a new car. But should you go for a temporary fix, such as adding oil every week to a leaking engine, or a permanent one, like replacing an engine gasket?
Delayed gratification is a good guide at both levels. You put yourself in the best position to save money by not just keeping your car, but also by opting for the less expensive solution.
Delayed gratification is particularly important when you have a job to do. Sure, it might be more fun to scroll through Facebook than make that next sales call, but you can’t afford to waste your workday.
Technology can get in the way, but it can also keep you on task. You can actually block apps and set limits for yourself. Not only can keeping yourself from accessing Facebook between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. make you more productive, but it can help you enjoy your evening social media time more.
If you’re married, you and your partner probably share your finances. Why not leverage that partnership to make delayed gratification easier?
Start by setting ground rules. What expenses, exactly, are you worried about? Do you tend to shop for shoes when you’re stressed?
If so, decide when it’s appropriate to purchase shoes and when it is not. Agree on consequences in case you slip up, and ask your partner to hold you accountable. Perhaps you’ll make up for unnecessary purchases by not going out to eat that week.
You can find an accountability partner in almost any context. At work, you have colleagues. If you go to church, you sit next to someone who can encourage you to attend sermons.
Inherent to delayed gratification is some benefit you earn by doing the hard work upfront. But if you struggle with delayed gratification, you can make it easier by giving yourself a little something extra.
Rewards do not need to be time-consuming or expensive. For $5 or less, you could:
Delayed gratification should not get in the way of self-care. By giving yourself small treats here and there, you can control yourself when it’s tempting to indulge in something you know you should not.
Mastering delayed gratification is difficult, to be sure, but you can do it. Use these tips to put aside temptation, which can make you happier, healthier, and more productive. And when in doubt, don’t eat the marshmallow.