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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

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.

    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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    Published on April 8, 2021

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    Want to know what Steve Jobs thought was the ultimate key in achieving success?

    “Focus and simplicity… once you get there, you can move mountains.”—Steve Jobs

    And this belief is even more important today than it was years ago. At your fingertips is a literal world of information and entertainment. So, it’s no wonder we all have such wandering minds nowadays.

    Thanks to the internet and smartphones, attention is practically a currency we should be more budget-minded about. In fact, a person who can stay focused is not only more likely to get more done but also be more satisfied at the end of the day because of it.

    Going further, a person who’s focused will more easily achieve their goals—anything from losing 20 pounds to getting a promotion at work is within the reach of this type of person.

    So, in the spirit of that idea, here are 10 ways to tame that wandering mind of yours and turn it into a laser-focused brain that gets things done.

    1. Find Your Totem

    Remember the totem in the movie, Inception? It’s an item that reminded people they weren’t in a dream when they touched it, and it was able to keep them grounded in reality.

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    You can replicate this idea when it comes to staying focused as well. All you’ve to got to do is find something to be your “focus totem,” and it’ll remind you that you should stop daydreaming and get back to work. Ideally, it’s something you can see and touch.

    In the movie, a chess piece and a spinning top were used—both are good ideas. You could also use a picture of your family, a mini trophy, or even wear a ring to focus your mind as well. (In fact, a green lantern ring might be kind of cool for this.)

    2. Promise a Reward

    Incentives are an obvious way to go. Having gold at the end of any journey makes you want to press forward just for the sweet results. In general, rewards should correlate to the difficulty/length of the work.

    For example:

    • Finish a quick house chore = a piece of chocolate
    • Complete an annoying administrative task = 10 minutes of Youtube
    • A successful day of work = a whole movie on Netflix

    Pretty simple stuff, right? But you’d be surprised how often you forget to reward yourself for doing solid work on the regular.

    3. Make It Stupid Easy for Your Wandering Mind

    I don’t know about you, but if I perceive my work to require more effort than I care to use, I’m instantly turned off. This then leads to distraction and procrastination. But you can offset this by breaking a difficult task into a bite-sized piece.

    Case in point, what seems easier: 30 pushups or 3 pushups?

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    It’s obvious, but sometimes our brains need to be “convinced” we’re only doing a small amount of work to get things going.

    But here’s something cool about this tactic: You can (and most likely will) keep going past your stupid easy benchmark. You don’t have to, but my experience tells me once you get going like this, it’s easy to go beyond your bare minimum goal.

    4. Empty Your Mind With Journaling

    Sometimes, there’s too much stuff floating around in your brain that is making your mind wander. In that case, it can help to spill everything in your head onto a journal to free up some space. You can use a pen and pad for this or something digital like Evernote.

    There are two basic ways to go about it:

    1. Freestyle – where you just write whatever randomly flows through your brain without thinking or pausing. This is great if you’ve got a million different ideas racing through your brain.
    2. Focused – where you create prompts or an outline to streamline your thinking and you just respond to the questions or format. This is best when you want to grasp a certain topic.

    5. Use the “Just 5 Minutes” Method

    Try telling yourself that you’ll work for “just 5 minutes” and then you can stop. You’ll find that the task feels far easier to handle. And like the “stupid easy” method, this tricks your brain into thinking the task is lower effort than it really is. After all, 5 minutes for even the worst task is psychologically manageable for any person out there.

    The key is to honestly allow yourself to stop at 5 minutes—no matter what. That’s what allows your brain to accept the method as legit and also lets it overcome the mental hurdle that makes your brain want to wander around and focus on anything but your task.

    6. Recite a Focus Mantra

    I like to think of mantras as a totem you can take with you anywhere you go. They serve the same purpose—reminding you to stay focused—but can be done anywhere and anytime.

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    I find the most powerful type of mantra to be based on reality. I learned this approach from Dr. Jon Fader—a performance coach who was on “Good Morning America”—and his book Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life. He calls this “objective optimism.”

    Basically, you create a mantra that’s based on personal success in your life. That way, the mantra isn’t just a fluffy positivity statement, there’s also the weight of real-life success giving it power

    Some examples:

    • If you’re struggling to make yourself go to the gym but have technically been there many times already, you could say, “just another day of heading to the gym—easy.”
    • If you’re suffering from impostor-syndrome after accepting a promotion, just say, “I’m here for a reason” to remind yourself that your efforts were recognized by others and are the real deal.
    • If you’re nervous about an upcoming sports competition but have trained diligently for it, you could say, “I’ve done all the work possible” to remind yourself that your earlier efforts have created the best version of you for the event.

    As you can see, the most powerful mantras are evidence-based and positive. So, just find proof of relevant success in your life and transform it into a motivating mantra.

    7. Use the “Multi-Yawn” Approach

    One of the best ways to be distracted is to be tired. And sometimes, you’ll be tired in such a way that you’re “sort of” working but not realize that you’re actually constantly distracted.

    If you can notice when you do this, one thing I like to do is crank out as many big, satisfying yawns as possible. Olympic athletes sometimes do this before their big events. It calms them down and helps them perform better in the process. And it works just as well for us regular folks. I find it has a similar effect to taking a good nap (and actually works best in unison), so you can imagine how effective this can be.

    8. Find an Easy Win

    Nothing feels good like winning. So, it can help to find a few simple tasks you can do with little effort and just get them done immediately. This will create momentum and propel your productivity forward. The feeling of success will lock your focus in on the task at hand and refocus your wandering mind. Use this when you feel “resistance” to getting your work started.

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    9. Create a “Wins” List

    Feeling like a capable person who can win at life is motivating in and of itself. In light of this fact, it can help to have an ongoing “wins” list to prove you’re an able person.

    Just keep track of all your daily wins—big and small. And whenever your focus starts to wane, give that list a peek and remind yourself that you’re more capable than you realize.

    10. Add Stakes to the Mix

    If you were to lose $20 if you failed to complete a task, would you be more focused on completing it? Of course!

    Try and find ways to put something on the line when it comes to completing your tasks, and you’ll find your focus, motivation, and ability to things done to be higher than ever before.

    For example, if you’re at work, you could involve a co-worker by saying you’ll buy their food if you don’t complete a task before lunchtime rolls around. At home, you could say you’ll also mow the lawn if you don’t remember to wash the dishes before the day is over. Or you could just use something like Beeminder or TaskRatchet, which actually charges you cash for failing to complete a task or goal on time. (It’s scary but effective)

    All are viable methods, so just give one of them a shot.

    Who Else Wants More Success?

    Of the many methods of winning at life out there, focusing is definitely a top-three contender. You can’t get anything you want in life if you don’t buckle down and get your work done—a wandering mind won’t create success.

    But with these 10 focus tips, you’ll be ahead of the competition and be closer to a fitter body, higher income, and a flat-out better life than before.

    More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus

    Featured photo credit: Clay Banks via unsplash.com

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