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Last Updated on May 13, 2020

How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses

How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses

Right now, you could eat a donut, book a trip to Tahiti, and tell your boss to buzz off. Why don’t you? Because at some level, you understand the value of delayed gratification.

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 improve your self-control and become more productive?

What Is Delayed Gratification?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines “delay of gratification” as:[1]

“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.[2] 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.

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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.

What Are Examples of Delayed Gratification?

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.

How to Boost Productivity Through Impulse Control

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:

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1. Know your goals.

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:

Personal

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.

Financial

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.[3] 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.

Professional

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.

Social

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.

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Emotional

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.

Spiritual

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.

2. Think through “what if” scenarios.

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.[4] 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.

3. Use tools to take away temptations.

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.

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4. Get an accountability partner.

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.

5. Reward yourself for following through.

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:

  • Watch a movie.
  • Go shopping at a dollar store.
  • Get coffee out.
  • Go on a hike.
  • Give a friend a call.
  • Take a nap.
  • Play a game online.

Final Thoughts

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.

Featured photo credit: Aron Visuals via unsplash.com

Reference

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John Hall

John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

How to Prevent Decision Fatigue From Clouding Your Judgement

What is decision fatigue? Let me explain this with an example:

When determining a court ruling, there are many factors that contribute to their final verdict. You probably assume that the judge’s decision is influenced solely by the nature of the crime committed or the particular laws that were broken. While this is completely valid, there is an even greater influential factor that dictates the judge’s decision: the time of day.

In 2012, a research team from Columbia University[1] examined 1,112 court rulings set in place by a Parole Board Judge over a 10 month period. The judge would have to determine whether the individuals in question would be released from prison on parole, or a change in the parole terms.

While the facts of the case often take precedence in decision making, the judges mental state had an alarming influence on their verdict.

As the day goes on, the chance of a favorable ruling drops:

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    Image source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

    Does the time of day, or the judges level of hunger really contribute that greatly to their decision making? Yes, it does.

    The research went on to show that at the start of the day the likelihood of the judging giving out a favorable ruling was somewhere around 65%.

    But as the morning dragged on, the judge became fatigued and drained from making decision after decision. As more time went on, the odds of receiving a favorable ruling decreased steadily until it was whittled down to zero.

    However, right after their lunch break, the judge would return to the courtroom feeling refreshed and recharged. Energized by their second wind, their leniency skyrockets back up to a whopping 65%. And again, as the day drags on to its finish, the favorable rulings slowly diminish along with the judge’s spirits.

    This is no coincidence. According to the carefully recorded research, this was true for all 1,112 cases. The severity of the crime didn’t matter. Whether it was rape, murder, theft, or embezzlement, the criminal was more likely to get a favorable ruling either early in the morning, or after the judges lunch break.

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    Are You Suffering from Decision Fatigue Too?

    We all suffer from decision fatigue without even realizing it.

    Perhaps you aren’t a judge with the fate of an individual’s life at your disposal, but the daily decisions you make for yourself could hinder you if you’re not in the right head-space.

    Regardless of how energetic you feel (as I imagine it is somehow caffeine induced anyway), you will still experience decision fatigue. Just like every other muscle, your brain gets tired after periods of overuse, pumping out one decision after the next. It needs a chance to rest in order to function at a productive rate.

    The Detrimental Consequences of Decision Fatigue

    When you are in a position such as a Judge, you can’t afford to let your mental state dictate your decision making; but it still does. According to George Lowenstein, an American educator and economy expert, decision fatigue is to blame for poor decision making among members of high office. The disastrous level of failure among these individuals to control their impulses could be directly related to their day to day stresses at work and their private life.

    When you’re just too tired to think, you stop caring. And once you get careless, that’s when you need to worry. Decision fatigue can contribute to a number of issues such as impulse shopping (guilty), poor decision making at work, and poor decision making with after work relationships. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.

    How to Make Decision Effectively

    Either alter the time of decision making to when your mind is the most fresh, or limit the number of decisions to be made. Try utilizing the following hacks for more effective decision making.

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    1. Make Your Most Important Decisions within the First 3 Hours

    You want to make decisions at your peak performance, so either first thing in the morning, or right after a break.

    Research has actually shown that you are the most productive for the first 3 hours[2] of your day. Utilize this time! Don’t waste it on trivial decisions such as what to wear, or mindlessly scrolling through social media.

    Instead, use this time to tweak your game plan. What do you want to accomplish? What can you improve? What steps do you need to take to reach these goals?

    2. Form Habits to Reduce Decision Making

    You don’t have to choose all the time.

    Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it doesn’t have to be an extravagant spread every morning. Make a habit out of eating a similar or quick breakfast, and cut that step of your morning out of the way. Can’t decide what to wear? Pick the first thing that catches your eye. We both know that after 20 minutes of changing outfits you’ll just go with the first thing anyway.

    Powerful individuals such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg don’t waste their precious time deciding what to wear. In fact, they have been known to limiting their outfits down to two options in order to reduce their daily decision making.

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    3. Take Frequent Breaks for a Clearer Mind

    You are at your peak of productivity after a break, so to reap the benefits, you need to take lots of breaks! I know, what a sacrifice. If judges make better decisions in the morning and after their lunch break, then so will you.

    The reason for this is because the belly is now full, and the hunger is gone. Roy Baumeister, Florida State University social psychologist[3] had found that low-glucose levels take a negative toll on decision making. By taking a break to replenish your glucose levels, you will be able to focus better and improve your decision making abilities.

    Even if you aren’t hungry, little breaks are still necessary to let your mind refresh, and come back being able to think more clearly.

    Structure your break times. Decide beforehand when you will take breaks, and eat energy sustaining snacks so that your energy level doesn’t drop too low. The time you “lose” during your breaks will be made up in the end, as your productivity will increase after each break.

    So instead of slogging through your day, letting your mind deteriorate and fall victim to the daily abuses of decision making, take a break, eat a snack. Let your mind refresh and reset, and jump-start your productivity throughout the day.

    More Tips About Decision Making

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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