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Last Updated on November 26, 2020

How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses

How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses
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Right now, you could eat a donut, book a trip to Tahiti, and tell your boss to buzz off. You don’t do these things because at some level, you understand the value of self-control and 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 is moderated by beliefs and so 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.

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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 showed a tendency to delay gratification and wait 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.

You can learn more about that landmark experiment in this TED Talk with Joachim De Posada:

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.

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. 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.

However, 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.

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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 Master Delayed Gratification for Productivity

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, practice the following.

1. Know Your Goals

Without a reason to delay gratification, you’ll struggle to do it. Think through which long term goals 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 him/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. You can see a very basic example of a decision tree below[5].

Use decision trees for delayed gratification

    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.

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    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.

    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 random gadgets when you’re stressed?

    If so, decide when it’s appropriate to purchase gadgets and when it’s 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. If you struggle with delayed gratification, you can make it easier by giving yourself a little something extra.

    You don’t have to use time-consuming or monetary rewards. You could simply watch a movie, play an online game, or go on a hike. 

    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.

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    Mastering the ability to delay 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.

    More to Improve Your Self-Control

    Featured photo credit: Aron Visuals via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    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 27, 2021

    Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better

    Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better
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    What comes to mind when you think of learning how to focus better? Do you think of the attention or concentration it takes to complete a task? Do you consider the amount of willpower needed to finish writing a report without touching your phone? Do you think it requires sitting in complete silence and away from distractions so that you can study for an important exam or prepare for an interview?

    I’m sure many of you can relate to the above statements and agree that the ability to focus is about staying on task for a given period of time. Breaking that concentration would mean that you’ve lost your focus, and you’re either doing something else or trying to gain back that focus to finish up the intended task.

    With an ever-increasing amount of information—that is easily accessible online and offline—we’re faced with a lot more opportunities and avenues to create possibilities to experience things on a daily basis.

    Unfortunately, that can make it a lot harder for us to make progress or get things done because we’re either easily distracted or overwhelmed by the constant influx of information.

    That’s why many of us end up having problems concentrating or focusing in life—whether it be on a smaller scale like completing a task on time, or something much bigger like staying on track in your career and climbing the ladder of success. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we blame our failures due to a lack of focus.

    Learning how to focus better doesn’t have to be too complex. Here is some information to help you get started.

    Focus Is Not About Paying Attention

    What if I tell you that you’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time?

    Focus isn’t just the attention span of giving 20 minutes to a task. It actually goes far beyond that.

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    The real reason why we focus is because we need to do something that exceeds our existing capability. We need to devote large amounts of time and energy to move the needle in life, to make that progress and positive change.

    And why do we want to do that? Because we want to spend time becoming a better version of ourselves!

    At the end of the day, the reason why we stay focused on any task, project, or goal is because we want to succeed. With that success comes progress in our lives, which means we eventually become better than what we were a month ago, or even a year ago.

    Let me give you an example:

    Say you’ve been tasked to manage a project by your boss. You have targets to meet and favorable outcomes to achieve. Your focus and attention has to be on this project.

    Once the project has been completed, your boss is happy with the results and your hard work. She rewards you with praise, a promotion, or maybe even a year-end bonus.

    That’s your success right there, and you feel good about your achievements. Looking back at who you were before and after the completion of this project, wouldn’t you say you’ve become a better version of your previous self?

    Focus Is a Flow

    This is what focus is and how where learning how to focus better starts. It’s not a one-off, task-by-task mode that you jump into whenever needed. Rather, focus is a flow[1].

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    Focus is the way in which you deliberately target your energy to push progress in something you care about. Because focus takes energy, time, and effort, whatever it is that you need to focus on should be something meaningful to you, something that’s worth shutting down phone calls, text messages, and social media for.

    So, why is it that we sometimes find it so hard to focus?

    Usually, it’s because we’re missing two major elements. Either we don’t know where we want to go—in that we don’t have a clear goal—or we do have a goal, but we don’t have a clear roadmap.

    Trying to improve your focus without these two things is like driving to get somewhere in a foreign country with no road map. You end up using a lot of gas and driving for hours without knowing if you’re getting anywhere.

    Let’s go back to the example of your boss assigning you a project to manage. The company is opening a new office, and your boss wants you to oversee the renovations and moving-in process of this new location.

    Now, if you didn’t have a clear goal or end result of how the new office should look, you could be busy arranging for contractors, interior designers, or movers to come, but have no clue what to assign or brief them on.

    The second scenario is that you know exactly how the new office should look and when it should be up and running. However, because you don’t have a clear roadmap to get to that end result, you end up working all over the place; one moment you’re arranging for the contractors to start renovations, the next moment you’ve got furniture coming in when the space isn’t ready. What do you focus on first?

    The Focus Flow

    Without a clear goal and road map, things can turn out frantic and frustrating, with many wrong turns. You also end up expending a lot more mental energy than needed. But, having a Focus Flow when learning how to focus better can help.

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    Let me show you how theFocus Flow works.

    1. It starts from a clear objective.
    2. This becomes a clear roadmap.
    3. Then it manifests into a state oftargeted attentionand effort.
    4. This results in pushing your progress towards your ultimate destination.

    Setting a Clear Objective

    To start off, you need to set a clear focus objective. If you don’t have an objective, how can you decide on which things are worth focusing on? You can’t focus on everything at the same time, so you have to make a choice.

    Like driving a car, you need a destination.

    In this case, you don’t want to drive around aimlessly. You want to arrive at your destination before you run out of gas.

    A good focus objective, therefore, needs to be concrete. This means that it should be something you can visualize, such as determining how the new office is going to look after you’ve completed the renovation and moving in. If you can visualize it, that means you have a clear enough picture to know what’s needed to achieve it.

    Drawing a Focus Roadmap

    The second step is to lay out a practical focus roadmap. Once you have your ideas, setting an objective is easy. The most difficult part is determining how you’re going to achieve your objective.

    There are lots of things you can do to work towards your goal, but what comes first? What’s more valuable, and how long will it take?

    That’s where having a roadmap helps you answer these questions. Like driving, you need to have at least a rough idea of which major roads to drive on, and the order in which you need to drive them.

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    Yet, creating a roadmap can get tricky because you have absolute freedom on how you’re going to achieve your objective.

    To create a good road map, you should include major milestones. These are targets you need to hit in order to achieve success. Your roadmap should also include feasible and realistic actions that you can achieve as you learn how to focus better.

    Need a little help in drawing this Focus Roadmap? The Full Life Planner can help you. It’s a practical planner to help you stay focused and on track with your most important goals and tasks in an organized way. Get yours today!

    Power Up Your Productivity

    I hope you now have a better understanding of how focus truly works. By harnessing your focus using the Focus Flow, you’ll be able to work on a task more productively, not because you’re able to concentrate, but rather because you know exactly what your end goal is, and you have a game plan in place to make that happen.

    Once there is clarity, I can assure you that you’ll be less likely to get distracted or lose focus on your tasks at hand.

    You may think it’s going to take you extra time writing out an objective and setting out a roadmap. You may believe that you are better off getting right down to the actual work.

    However, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no point in rushing your efforts that lead you to nowhere or cause you additional detours. You’ll end up expending more mental energy and time than needed.

    Once you’ve made your roadmap and found your focus, follow it up with unbreakable determination with Lifehack’s Actionable Motivation On Demand Handbook.

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    More on Overcoming Distractions

    Featured photo credit: Paul Skorupskas via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Very Well Mind: The Psychology of Flow

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