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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) happiness and self confidence Why Confident People Are Also Happier People How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life What’s the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Live with Meaning What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It?

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Last Updated on September 28, 2020

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist (Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist (Step-by-Step Guide)

If you’ve found your way to this article, I’m guessing you consider yourself a perfectionist. And if you’re reading about how to stop being a perfectionist, you also know your drive for perfection can be as much a curse as it is a blessing.

Like any natural force of nature (e.g., wind, fire, or water), too much of anything can lead to chaos. When the rain waters the earth, for instance, think about how it revives and brings new life to everything it touches. But excessive rain can cause flooding and leave a trail of devastation in its wake.

The same principle is true with perfectionism. You already know the benefits of being meticulous, detail-oriented, conscientious, and successful. The challenge comes when pursuing these things does not lead to a sense of well-being and fulfillment.

Continually striving to get everything right and be the best can come at a high cost and affect your personal relationships, health, and well-being adversely.

I’ve worked with many highly-successful people quick to identify themselves as perfectionists — striving for the perfect life, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, the perfect email, the perfect image, or to be the perfect student, the perfect wife, the perfect employee… You get the point.

They are talented people whose relentless drive has helped them achieve many great things. Although others may be in awe of their achievements, they talk about feeling stressed and anything but perfect.

Listening to clients’ experiences, I’ve seen very clearly that striving for perfection is destined to bring pain, exhaustion, and a sense of failure because it is unattainable. There’s no finish line, checkbox, or wrap party. (Even if it were attainable, and there was a party, would there be anyone left to celebrate with?)

What Is Perfectionism?

The dictionary defines perfectionism as “the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” One study describes it as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”[1] Perfectionism is an unrelenting need to meet your or others’ expectations of yourself.

Refusal. Irrational. Unrelenting. These words represent difficult feelings for anyone to live with daily. These feelings can be attributed to the underlying fear and belief that they will never be good enough.

As author and speaker, Brené Brown shares on Oprah’s Lifeclass:[2]

“When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver….[perfectionism] is “a way of thinking…if I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, do it perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, criticism, blame, judgement or ridicule…perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we carry around hoping it will keep us from being hurt. When in truth, it keeps us from being seen.”

So, how do you harness your perfectionist powers for good? How do you honor your drive, ambition, and motivation without causing undue stress, frustration, and pain?

9 Steps on How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

As you read the following steps, remember that it isn’t about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, it’s about thinking deeper and wider about how you can keep those high standards without experiencing negative consequences.

1. Acknowledge

A mentor once told me that awareness is 90% of the solution.

When you are aware, and you acknowledge something in your life, it loses its power over you. When you bring it from an unconscious pattern to a conscious choice, you are now back in the driver’s seat.

how to stop being a perfectionist

    2. Understand

    Seek to understand what fuels your perfectionist nature. What’s your core driver?

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    There’s a reason why you are striving for perfection. Perhaps you learned that you needed to achieve that somewhere along the way or someone praised you at some point, and such comments made you feel worthy, validated, and recognized.

    Many strive to be perfect to fill a need for love, or a lack of self-esteem. I learned that much of my own perfectionist behavior came from my fear of getting rejected, even though it was ironically causing the rejection I was trying to avoid.[3]

    Take Action:

    Consider what drives your perfectionism. Being a perfectionist – no matter how painful or problematic it becomes – is likely serving you in some way, so try to understand the reasons behind it.

    3. Identify Consequences

    Based on an article, perfectionism can cause low productivity, troubled relationships, lack of confidence, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.[4] This drive you pride yourself on can come at a cost. When you identify and acknowledge the consequences of your perfectionism, it compels your mind to want to do something about it.

    How is perfectionism impacting your health and wellness? Have you missed opportunities to do something new out of fear that you wouldn’t do it perfectly? Is your pursuit of perfection causing friction in your relationships with your partner, kids, or friends? How is this trait sitting with your co-workers?

    As a leader and team consultant, I’m highly aware of how those perfectionist tendencies can be career-limiting if not recognized and managed.

    Take Action:

    Identify three negative consequences of perfectionism on your life, career, health, or relationships.

    4. Know You Are Enough

    Many people beat themselves up for not being ‘enough’ of something; for example pretty, fit, rich, successful, at home, etc. This is the inner critic’s voice. But guess what? That little voice that tells you that you’re not enough is wrong!

    You are enough. You are more than enough. You were born enough and will always be enough. You are deserving of love, happiness, and success, regardless of the things you do or how perfect you are. It might not be believable right now, but deep down, some part of you knows this to be true.

    I know it’s not easy. As a perfectionist, you tend to see what’s wrong before you see what’s right, including the one wrong question on the test, the single typo in your winning presentation to the team, or the three pounds you didn’t lose versus the seven you did.

    But instead of focusing on what went wrong, why don’t you acknowledge all the things you’re doing right? At least do that before you try to figure out how to make future improvements!

    Your new mantra: progress over perfection

    Take Action:

    Acknowledge your successes, talents, and strengths. Every day for 30 days, write down three things you are good at and what you like about yourself. These can be personality traits (kind, loving, hard-working); strengths (writing, speaking, your job); or wins from the day or lifetime achievements.

    Check out these articles for more tips, insights, and strategies to build your self-esteem and confidence.

    5. Do Your Best Every Day

    how to stop being a perfectionist

      Over the years, Dad has shared countless words of wisdom with me. However, “do your best every day” is the piece of advice I rely on the most. I’ve called my dad many times, worried about something that happened, beating myself up or second-guessing a decision. Here’s how our conversation goes every time:

      Dad: Did you do your best?

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      Me: Yes.

      Dad: That’s all you can do. You can’t control what happens from here.

      That’s it. Simple, right? But if you really stop to think about this, it’s a powerful way to stop being a perfectionist.

      When you do your best, you can rest, knowing you did everything you could. You can live with no regrets. Sure, you might want to do things better next time, and there are likely areas of improvement, but it’s just that — next time. You can’t change what has already happened, so using energy to beat yourself up about it achieves absolutely nothing.

      Take Action:

      Next time you beat yourself up over something you’ve already said or done imperfectly, ask yourself,

      “Did I do my best that I could [with what I had, with what I knew]?”

      If the answer is a resounding yes, then permit yourself to let go, move on, and use your time and energy to make things better next time.

      6. Switch

      Replace perfection with something more significant and attainable.

      Take a conversation I had with a friend of mine about my daughter, who is a successful and awarded competitive gymnast.

      Friend: Is she going to be in the Olympics?

      Me: No, she isn’t.

      Friend: Then, why does she spend so much time at the gym?

      Me: Because she loves it.

      Friend: Yes, but if she’s not going to the Olympics, why the waste of time and money?

      Me: Well, you run your own company, right?

      Friend: Yes.

      Me: Will your company be the best and most recognized one in your industry?

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      Friend: No, of course not. You know we’re a small company.

      Me: If you are aware of that, why would you keep the company running at all?

      That’s when she got it, but I was still concerned by her logic.

      “If my daughter won’t be THE BEST in the ENTIRE WORLD, why would she even do the sport at all?”

      Is this what our kids are hearing from us? If they won’t play NFL football, sing on a sold-out stage at Madison Square Garden, or display their work on the Guggenheim, why on earth would they continue pursuing sports, singing, or art, respectively?

      If you talk with my daughter, you will quickly learn that she does the sport because she loves the challenge. It pushes her body to the limit, and she finds joy, satisfaction, and purpose by going to the gym. I love that she loves it and know that she is learning life lessons that will serve her future success.

      Why not replace your drive for perfection with something much deeper and more significant?

      Take Action:

      Make the switch and identify what’s really important to you. Perhaps you can replace your drive for perfection with purpose, kindness, joy, fulfillment, contribution, or love. What resonates the most with you?

      7. Embrace Failure

      You’ve likely heard countless stories of successful people who have used their failures as a stepping stone for success.

      Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Oprah Winfrey was told she was “unfit for television.” And, in the words of Michael Jordan:[5]

      “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

      Most successful leaders, entrepreneurs, and elite athletes will tell you that failure has made them successful. Embracing failure is, of course, easier said than done.

      In one of my first jobs out of college, I worked on a project to get more people into a program I helped create. I was convinced it was awesome, and we could easily fill seats. I spent time, money, and energy trying to get it off the ground but to very little effect.

      I was embarrassed, defeated, and felt like a complete failure: I had let the company and myself down. One day, wallowing in self-pity, I called my mentor and told him what had happened.

      He said,

      “Tracy, failure is an event, not a person.”

      That single sentence has stuck with me throughout my career.

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      If you are growing and striving (which you likely are), you will fail a lot in your life. You will make mistakes, mess up, and let others down.

      When that happens, remember that you have made a mistake, but you are not the mistake.

      8. Celebrate Imperfection

      What if your greatest weakness was actually your greatest strength? What if your adversity is your advantage?

      In the famous 1937 personal development book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Napoleon talks about his son, Blair, who had a birth defect. He had no physical signs of ears and was destined to be deaf and mute.[6]

      Napoleon believed, “His affliction was not a liability, but an asset of great value.” He also thought that “every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage.”

      While he had no idea how his son’s affliction could become an asset, Napoleon had faith that it would. And he was right — Blair went on to lead an incredible, successful life. He attained his hearing and lived life on a mission to bring hope and help to the deaf and hard of hearing, positively affecting millions.

      Think of all the people who have overcome imperfections. Think of those who have inspired you many times. Often, our vulnerabilities and ability to overcome struggles and fears can create not only inspiration and hope but also a connection with others.

      “We cannot connect through this façade called perfection. Now more than ever, we are craving connection, but it is in the imperfect moments that our hearts speak to each other and the lessons are learned.” — Petra Kolber

      9. Step Back

      Chances are, sometimes your perfectionism gets a hold of you. Like a runaway train, you don’t even realize you are wasting time, money, or energy on something that doesn’t need to be perfect.

      When this happens, here are a few proven ways to get perspective.

      • Don’t do an A+ job on a C-level task. Identify what’s needed and decide on what is really important. After that, let the rest go. In economics, this is called the law of diminishing returns. It is the point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested.
      • Learn to satisfice (yes, that is a word). In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz talks about the power of satisficing instead of maximizing. Maximizers want to make the absolute best decision, while satisficers seek to find what is “good enough.” They know there is never a perfect choice, so they seek a decision that meets most of their needs or requirements. When you learn to satisfice instead of maximizing, you can make better, faster decisions with less regret.
      • When all else fails, meditate. Meditation has become the cure for all that ails you, and there’s a good reason why. It allows you to calm your thoughts, achieve greater clarity, reduce fear and anxiety, and create a silence that enables you to access your true self. Simply put, meditation will help you quiet your perfectionist tendencies, reduce your worries, and return your mind to a healthy state of balance.

      We Are All a Work-in-Progress

      You are human. Simply by being a human, you cannot be perfect.

      We are not finished “things” — we are ever-evolving beings. There will always be room for improvement, mistakes, and something new to learn. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, perfectionism is never-ending.

      How to stop being a perfectionist when you are already one?

      Instead of focusing on perfection, focus on the learning, the growth, and the journey, and strive to be the best version of yourself every day.

      I’ll leave you with this beautiful passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

      “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

      More on Ending Perfectionism

      Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

      Reference

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