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Published on April 13, 2020

How to Stop Struggling with Instant Gratification and Reach Your Goals

How to Stop Struggling with Instant Gratification and Reach Your Goals

Would you take $1 today or $5 after a month?

If you chose the second alternative, then more kudos to you. But research tells us that most people will go for the first option.

This is a classic example of what is called instant gratification.

Why We Prefer Instant Over Delayed Gratification

Let’s face it—instant rewards are great.

Remember how you felt when you won some money from a scratch-off lotto ticket or when you went on your last shopping spree?

You probably felt so elated. The high is unbeatable. It gives you an immediate feel-good sensation. It sounds like a good thing that we all should try to get more of.

Research tells us that we often lean toward seeking instant pleasure because of the uncertainty about the future.[1] After all, who knows if you will ever get the promised $5 in a month? A lot can happen in this timespan.

We all want to get what we what right away. So why prolong and deliberately make ourselves feel bad?

Given the undeniable feel-good benefits and its contribution to our overall happiness, it seems almost counter-intuitive that instant gratification has such a bad reputation.

Let us see why.

Why Instant Gratification Is Really Not So Great

The concept of gratification is tightly linked to another popular hero in psychology: self-control.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how each of us can get better at practicing self-control, which leads to a more fulfilling life.

As I noted in my other article How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life:

“Study after study confirms that if we just find the way to strengthen our self-control, our lives will become so much better—we’ll eat healthier, exercise, won’t overspend, overdrink or overdo anything that’s bad for us. We will be able to achieve our goals much easier.”

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Many of us have heard of the famed Marshmallow test. It is the first of its kind to look behind the curtain and present hard evidence why instant gratification is not as beneficial as its counterpart—delayed gratification.

Done in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the test was simple enough. Researchers told children to either get only one treat now or get two if they were willing to wait for 15-20 minutes. It is not hard to guess that most youngsters went for the I-want-it-now option. This proved that most of us do not like to wait for rewards.

Where it got more interesting, though, is that the researchers tracked the children for a few years afterward. They discovered that the ones who were able to restrain themselves fared much better later in life—academically, career-wise, financially, and in their relationships.[2]

Simply put:

Although on the surface it may appear that instant gratification is the better route to wellbeing, research confirms otherwise. The ability to practice self-control and discipline pays off much more later on in life. It’s directly linked to goal achievement and success.

Just think about it—how many times have you regretted the decisions that you made on a whim? A shopping spree at the mall may give you an instant shot of happiness—true—but you probably do not feel so great when you have to pay your credit card afterward.

Or how often have you changed your mind about what you bought and returned it? We all have been there, of course.

The good news, though, is that we all can become better at controlling our impulses.

Here are some ways to get you started.

7 Ways to Get Better at Delayed Gratification

1. Get Yourself Distracted

In the original Marshmellow experiment, the researchers pointed out some of the strategies the children used to help restrain themselves from eating the treat right away.[3]

“They made up quiet songs . . . hid their head in their arms, pounded the floor with their feet, fiddled playfully and teasingly with the signal bell, verbalized the contingency . . . prayed to the ceiling, and so on. In one dramatically effective self-distraction technique, after obviously experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.”

Following the same steps, the next time you feel temptation rising, try to divert your attention to something else. Call a friend, watch a Youtube video, take a few breaths or sing a song. Wait a bit for the urge to subdue.

What matters is that you do not succumb to the first impulse that comes to your mind.

2. Daydream

Research has found that letting your mind wander helps you focus on the bigger picture and your long-term goals. And being less “present-biased” can help curb the impulse to make decisions you may later want to reverse.[4]

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Therefore, we should all take mental breaks more often.

Let your thoughts drift away, look out of the window, sit idle for a while. At work, Fast Company advises against jumping from one mental task to another because this consumes lots of cognitive energy.[5]

“Even if it’s just sitting right there at your desk, looking away from your computer screen and just staring off for a few moments to see where your thoughts take you.”

3. Remind Yourself of Your Goals

Delayed gratification, in its essence, is the ability to reach our long terms goals and dreams, Tony Robbins tells us.[6]

It is giving up the instant high by putting off a purchase today to buy, for example, your dream house in a few years. It is a sacrifice you need to make on the things you need to forego for the bigger ambition.

Keep a picture of your dream on your phone and look at it daily, especially when you feel the temptation, he advises. Remind yourself how far you’ve come, how proud you are of yourself and your discipline.

Alternatively, keep a vision board with all the great things you want to achieve in the future. Aren’t your dreams worth of the little discomfort you may feel today?

Tell yourself this every day, and this may help to subdue the urge to break your discipline. It will make delayed gratification easier.

4. Get an Accountability Partner

Accountability partners are a great way to keep yourself on track, especially if you are afraid that your self-control may slip. It can be anyone—your spouse, colleague, friend—acting as the voice of reason.

For instance, if you want to save money, know which expenses are essential and which ones are not. Plan what you have to do if you break the rules and know what the consequences will be. The more details you have the better prepared you will be to fight off the urge to overspend.

The same goes for every aspect of your life—losing weight, quitting smoking or other vices, saving for retirement, or any other goal you are after. You do not have to go through this alone. Share your plans and aspirations with someone you trust and ask them to keep you on track.

It will still be challenging, but you may find it a tad easier to follow through with your plans when you have an accountability buddy.

5. Keep in Mind the Wording and the Consequences

In a study from 2014, participants were asked the following questions:

Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $8.50 in 46 days? (called a hidden-zero format)

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Would you prefer to receive $6 today and $0 in 45 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days? (called an explicit-zero format).

Results showed that when people were presented with choices in the explicit-zero format, the lure of instant gratification was significantly lower.[7]

This means that immediate rewards were less appealing, and the participants chose delayed rewards versus the immediate ones.

We can all make better choices without having to put more effort, but rather, by giving people more choices and presenting the available options differently.

6. Start With the End in Mind

In his excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient People, the renowned American author and speaker Stephen Covey talks about the benefits of that very same habit.

It is a very simple idea—imagine your end goal and work backward to the present day. Outline the steps you need to take, how long it will take you to complete each one, what you need to do in terms of skills, knowledge, and resources, and the contingency plans you will have if things go sideways.

This concept synchronizes nicely with the see-the-bigger-picture advice, but it goes a bit further because it also focuses on the specific steps of how to achieve your goals.

Of course, a large contributor to the successful completion of any undertaking lies in the amount of self-control we can exercise and the discipline we have. Sacrificing our immediate pleasure today can pay hefty dividends in the future, as many studies have shown.

Visualization is also a big part of this process.

It is a technique, sworn to be highly effective by athletes, actors, coaches, and many others. Made popular by the books Think and Grow Richby Napoleon Hill and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, it is certainly a mind-changing way of looking at achievement and success.

Seeing your accomplished self in the future can give you a great motivational boost, and it can help you overcome impulsive behaviors more easily.

7. The Seinfeld Strategy

Remember the show, Seinfeld? It was co-created by Jerry Seinfeld and is still considered to be one of the funniest shows ever to play on TV. It had phenomenal success.

But according to New York Times best-selling author James Clear,[8] the most impressive thing about it is “the remarkable consistency of it all.”

The show was thriving and drawing large audiences, year after year, without failing. It delivered consistently high-quality entertainment.

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How did Jerry Seinfeld do it?

The secret really comes down to persistence.

The way to become a good comedian is to write jokes every day. Do not deviate; do not break the chain. It is a great way to stop procrastinating and keep going until you reach your goal.

It goes without saying, to be successful at doing this, you need to summon your good-old buddies “self-control” and “discipline”. You have to forego some momentary pleasures (e.g., going out to the bar with friends) for the long-term prize (e.g., finishing the book you are working on).

Final Thoughts

We live in a quick-moving world—of fast food, speedy internet, live streaming, online shopping, and new versions of pretty much everything every few months.

Life moves quite fast. And we have become used to expecting immediate outcomes. We feel impatient and agitated when we have to wait to get what we want.

It is barely surprising then that delayed gratification is so challenging to practice, and self-control is something many of us struggle with. Surely, it is not easy.

But according to years of research and studies, instant gratification is not the route to long-term happiness, wellbeing, and financial security, although it may feel good at the moment.

On the contrary, the good things come to those who are patient, those who have learned to embrace the pause, and those who think about the bigger picture. You need to keep your eyes on your end goals and have a plan on how to get there with contingency solutions in-between.

Yes, it may sound tedious and unappealing, unlike flashing a new watch or a purse and getting high on the compliments and the envy. But playing the long game is certainly the right road to the land of success.

That is if we are to believe pretty much everyone who has made it in this world.

More Tips to Help You Discipline Yourself Better

Featured photo credit: Andrea Leopardi via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It? Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It) What’s the Purpose of Life? A Guide to Live with Meaning

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Last Updated on June 2, 2020

10 Ways to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough

10 Ways to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough

Whenever you hit a rough patch in life, it can seem like the problems you’re confronting are unique to you and that the whole world is closing in. It might be that you are struggling to find a way out and just can’t see the light of hope anywhere when the going gets tough.

Thankfully, although you might not see it, there is always hope. Nothing lasts forever—not even bad times—and doing things like remembering why you started in the first place and practicing using your courage muscle are just a couple of things that can shorten the difficult times.

If you could find a way to not only survive but thrive when the going gets tough, how would your life change for the better?

Here are ten ways you can do to make that happen today.

1. Realize How Far You Have Come

Whenever you get discouraged on the path to wherever you want to go, it is usually because you are only looking forward, not around you or behind you. Your journey through life will last until your final day, so it is no wonder that you still see a long and sometimes daunting path ahead.

To keep going despite this, it’s important to take a moment or two to look around. Look at where you are standing now compared to when you first started. Look at how far you have come since you first began. Look at how many obstacles and challenges are behind you that you managed to overcome successfully.

The benefits of reflective practice are also extensive, and it is little wonder why.[1]

Looking back at how far you have come is usually the fire you need to keep on burning brightly into the future.

2. Remember Why You Started

When the going gets tough, you need something to cling to in order to keep your grit and remind yourself why you started doing something in the first place. Without this all-important “why, you will be quick to wander from your path.

Whenever things are at their worst, your number one reason for doing the thing is going to be what pulls you through.

As ex-Navy Seal and motivation master David Goggins puts it:

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“‘Why am I here?’ If you know that moment is coming and have your answer ready, you will be equipped to make the split-second decision to ignore your weakened mind and keep moving. Know why you’re in the fight to stay in the fight!”

Sometimes, life can be a bit of a fight, especially within yourself. So, having your reasons for continuing will always help pull you out when times are tough. Try writing these down and posting them in places you look at every day to help them have even more impact.

3. Make It a Habit to Move Forward

Habits are some of the strongest behavioral predictors that we have. Most of our habits happen in our subconscious and are triggered by external or internal cues.

The great thing about habits is that they can be formed through conscious, repeated behaviors, and when practiced enough, they can eventually take their place in the subconscious and guide your life.

Of course, you want good habits to be guiding your life in the background, not bad ones. That’s why it’s a good idea to make it a habit to always move forward.

Contrary to what most people say, moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be better every single day for the rest of your life. There are going to be slip-ups, bad days, and circumstances that blow you off course.

Moving forward is all about getting back on track as fast as possible. If you can make that a habit, you can always get closer to where you want to go.

4. Use ‘If-Then’ Planning

When the going gets tough in your life, one of the most effective frameworks that you can put into place is called the ‘if-then’ planning.

This is the simplified version of something called Implementation Intention, a concept created by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer in the mid-’90s.[2] It helps you to make sense of confusing situations and to be able to take action when you are really struggling.

The simplified process is as follows:

“If x happens, I will do y.”

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For example:

“If I start to have negative thoughts, I will take ten seconds to just breathe.”

“If I feel extremely stressed for three days in a row, I will take the fourth day off to recover and reset.”

If-then planning puts a strategy in place for when times are tough. It takes away the element of thinking, planning, and worrying as you already know exactly what you need to do in each situation.

The beauty of using if-then is that you can change the if and then for different situations based on whatever works best for you at any given moment.

5. Find Some Mentors

With the internet becoming more expansive and accessible as it has ever been, there are so many ways to get a peek into the world’s top minds and see what they do in their own lives when the going gets tough.

Most successful people have had to overcome some serious struggles to get to where they are. Do a simple search online, and you will no doubt find out about all of the challenges that your favorite people have had to overcome.

Because of this, you should try to take inspiration from these people and find your own mentors. It’s worth recognizing that nobody trying to live their best life can ever get through it without their fair share of challenges to overcome. That’s just part of the hero’s journey.

6. Get out of Your Head

Sometimes, all of the reasoning, thinking, planning, and ruminating in the world doesn’t get you anywhere. In fact, for the serial thinkers and problem-solvers out there, it is oftentimes that too much time in your head results in even more struggle rather than a release of it.

Yes, some things can be solved by thinking. But when the going gets really tough, it is usually just pure heart, emotion, and grit that are going to carry you through. Your mind can become a tyrant, and it is worth being aware of this.

When you feel your own thoughts weighing you down and can’t stop the incessant thinking and worrying about the past, present, and/or future, it is time to step out of your mind for a little while and get into your body. Lift some weights, go for a run, or take a pleasant walk.

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The mind and body are much more connected than most people think—especially when it comes to emotions and fears and doing something beneficial for the body often benefits the unsettled mind as well.[3]

7. Ruthlessly Forgive Yourself

One of the worst things you can do when the going gets tough is to come down hard on yourself. Everyone has these external and internal struggles, and the harder you are on yourself for having them, the more difficult and traumatic the episodes will be when you inevitably slip up.

A lot of people are far harder on themselves than they are on other people, and to keep going in tough times, you need to be just as empathetic with yourself as you would be with your best friend.

Made a mistake? Forgive. Are you still giving yourself a hard time? Forgive. Are you still getting angry over small things “even though we talked about this”? Forgive.

The hard times are much easier to get through when you are at peace with yourself. You will be astonished by how much less pressure you feel when this happens.

8. Take Smaller Steps

It is common for people to stumble in life because they are simply taking on too much at once. Whether it be too much ambition, unrealistic expectations of themselves or others, or some extra curveballs, big steps can sometimes be too much to take.

The truth about big steps is that they are rare, disruptive, and difficult to keep up without crumbling. The big steps—the real life-changing goals and dreams that you have—can often be broken into much smaller steps that are more manageable and that will get you to the same place.

If the going is getting particularly tough, it might be the case that you are simply trying to do too much at once. Try taking smaller, more manageable steps, and see if obstacles and difficulties become easier to navigate.

9. Use Twenty Seconds of Insane Courage

Everyone will agree that the courage we have stored within ourselves is often finite and difficult to sustain for long periods. We tend to think that making a big change in our life and getting out of a rut requires courage for long periods that we simply cannot manage.

The good news is that this isn’t true. Most of the pivotal moments of change in your life—including pulling yourself out of a hole when the going gets tough—come from small, courageous decisions in short, precise moments.

Quite often, using twenty seconds of insane courage when it is needed is enough to completely change the trajectory of our lives. Whether it be asking for that promotion, deciding to go to the gym for the first time in months, or having the courage to break through your insecurities and ask someone out, most of these only require a few seconds of insane courage.

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Standing up and walking into your boss’s office, getting the gym kit on, picking up the phone or sending the text—you only have to be courageous in these few moments, and then you can relax and let life unfold.

Twenty seconds? You can do that, easily.

10. Accept That Your Motivation Will Wane

One of the main reasons that people get discouraged and struggle to keep going in hard times is that they never expected their motivation to dip.

When we start a project or enter a relationship or take something new and exciting on in our lives, our motivation is high, and we are in a mindset of excitement. We start thinking about all of the positives that could come from these things.

However, as time wears on, motivation levels inevitably drop, and you start to focus on the negatives of what’s happening or the added responsibility that you forgot to consider.

When this happens, you have two choices:

  1. You can put on your rose-colored glasses of the past and falsely remember how perfect everything was;
  2. Or you can put on your realistic glasses, face the difficulties, and keep moving forward into something better.

The true test of character comes when you hit a dip, motivation wanes, and you just don’t feel like doing stuff anymore. The secret is to realize that all of this is temporary and that you don’t need motivation to act.

It’s nice to have motivation, but the true test of character comes when motivation inevitably wanes. In those moments, will you keep going?

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Each of these ten ideas for how to keep going when the going gets tough is versatile enough to be applied to almost any difficult situation that you find yourself in.

Life is going to present many difficulties. This isn’t something to fear but something to embrace. With these steps, you can navigate these stormy waters a little easier.

More Inspirations to Help You Stay Strong

Featured photo credit: Gaelle Marcel via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: What Is Self-Reflection and Why It Matters For Wellness
[2] American Psychologist: Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans
[3] The International Journal of Psychoanalysis: Emotional Processing: The Mind-Body Connection

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