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Last Updated on December 14, 2020

How to Stop Struggling with Instant Gratification and Reach Your Goals

How to Stop Struggling with Instant Gratification and Reach Your Goals
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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.

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Last Updated on July 29, 2021

A Complete Guide to Goal Setting for Personal Success

A Complete Guide to Goal Setting for Personal Success
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If there was a rule book of life, there would be one particular page that was highlighted, underlined, and titled as most important. It would be the one which told you that you need to master effective goal setting and have an aim in mind before you get on with the process. While there may not be an actual rule book of life, we do have this helpful goal setting guide to offer.

Yes, goal setting is important. In fact, it’s more important than achieving the goal itself. This is because it is the sense of direction that is needed for you to fulfill any task in life.

You don’t have to feel overwhelmed if this sounds new to you, as all the following information has you covered.

Today, you’ll find out all about the importance of goal setting, types of goals, and tips to define realistic goals for yourself!

What Are Goals?

To kick off our goal setting tips guide, you need to first recognize what goals are and how they are different from objectives, dreams, and expectations.

A goal is essentially your aim for the long-term future. It is the bigger umbrella, the main focus.

Objectives, on the other hand, fall under the umbrella of goals. They are the stepping stones that help you achieve your goals[1].

Objects vs goals for goal setting tips

    For example, you may decide you want to learn a new language. Your goal is to be fluent in the new language. Everything you do to achieve this goal, such as the daily tasks and monthly learning aims, are the objectives.

    Similarly, your expectations, visions, and dreams are not your goals. If you wish to learn a new language someday, that is your dream. If you see yourself fluently speaking multiple foreign languages, that is your vision. If you think you’re capable of learning a new language, that is your expectation.

    However, if you aim to fulfill these visions, dreams, and expectations practically, that is your goal.

    Why Is Goal Setting Important?

    Why should you bother with goal setting at all? Wouldn’t it be more convenient to just get on with your daily objectives, follow a dream or vision, and let life take you wherever?

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    While that road can feel exciting and spontaneous, if you actually want to tick off things from your list of goals to achieve, learning how to set goals is necessary.

    Being committed to a goal puts your brain to work in one specific direction. Believe it or not, by having a defined goal, your brain does its magic unconsciously, 24/7, with full efficiency, to achieve the desired results[2].

    Goal setting is important to shift your focus, boost your motivation, and give you a sense of direction. Without formally defining a particular aim that you want to reach, you won’t be able to keep your objectives in line.

    Hence, this one tiny step can end up saving you a lot of hassle and time while also encouraging your productivity.

    Types of Goals

    Before we move onto the technique of setting effective goals, we need to first take a look at all types of goals in this goal setting tips guide.

    These categories will not just help you brainstorm new one for yourself, but it will also guide you to list them down in the right way.

    Time-Based

    One of the two broad categories of goals is based on time. These goals define how far in the future you want to achieve them.

    Daily

    There are certain smaller goals that you can easily achieve in a day or two. In fact, some of these daily goals can be recurring, too. For example, you may want to run for an hour every morning.

    Now, these daily goals can also serve as objectives for a long-term goal. You may be running every day because, in the long-term, you want to increase your stamina.

    Daily goals are highly effective for people who want to improve their mental wellbeing, time management skills, and stress management.

    Short-Term

    Next in line are short-term goals. As you would have already guessed, goal setting in this area is aimed at the near future.

    The great thing about these is that they are generally easier to achieve. This is because short-term goals are set for the foreseeable future. You are aware of the circumstances and have a general idea of how much the situation can change.

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    Just like daily goals, short-term goals may also serve as objectives for a long-term goal. Your short-term goal may be to lose 5 pounds in one month. That could be a goal in itself, or maybe it is just one objective to fulfill your goal to adopt a healthy lifestyle in the next two years.

    Another example of a short-term goal is to fulfill the checklist for promotion within the next 6 months. Or, you may want to reduce your screen time within the coming week.

    Long-Term

    Lastly, we have long-term goals that are meant to be completed over a stretched period.

    Whatever you want to achieve in a later stage of life is a long-term goal. An insurance plan, for example, is a long-term goal.

    Some long-term goals don’t have any time frame at all. They are goals that you want to accomplish at some point in your life. So, something like traveling the whole world is a lifelong goal with no specific time constraint at all.

    There’s one thing about long-term goals that isn’t great.

    They are the hardest to keep up with since you’re not seeing any huge achievements regularly. This may take a toll on your motivation. To tackle this problem, it is best to divide a long-term goal into various, short-term and daily objectives so that you’re always tracking the progress you’re making.

    Life-Based

    Moving forward, you can also start goal setting based on the results you want to achieve instead of the time period.

    Career

    Like most people, you will likely want to succeed and excel in your career. Anything that has to do with this intention, regardless of the time frame, is a career goal. These are usually measurable goals, such as receiving a promotion within two years, finding a job at a certain company within the next six months, etc.

    You can learn more about how to set successful career goals here.

    Personal

    The past few years have all been about emphasizing your personal health. So, when it comes to goals, how can we forget the ones that have to do with our personal gains?

    From health to finances to relationships, everything that brings you happiness and composure as a person is a personal goal. It’s important that these are realistic and attainable goals for your life.

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    Whether you want to get rid of your debt, quit smoking, start a side hustle, have children, or travel the world, all of these goals are personal and very important to have on your list.

    How to Set Goals

    The best way to guarantee the fulfillment of goals is to set them the right way.

    1. Use SMART Goals

    Every goal you define has to be SMART[3].

    SMART stands for:

    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Attainable
    • Relevant
    • Time-Bound

    In summary, your specific goals should be very well defined. They shouldn’t be generic or broad, and every detail should be clarified as you’re goal setting. 

    If you want to start running, how often do you want to do it? How long will each session be? For how long will you continue this habit?

    There has to be a connection between your goals and beliefs or you’ll never be able to achieve the results you want. Most importantly, do not be unrealistic. You cannot learn to fly, and forcing yourself to try is only going to demotivate and stress you out.

    2. Prioritize Your Goals

    As you’re looking into how to write goals for the next month or year, it’s likely you’ll come up with more than one. In this case, it’s important to prioritize which are the most important or the ones that have the tightest deadline. This is going to be subjective, as only you know which goals will have the most impact on your life.

    3. Think of Those Around You

    As you’re working on goal setting, keep your loved ones in mind. You may have a partner, children, or employees that depend on you, and you should take them into consideration with your goals. For example, if you set a goal to travel to 10 different countries in the next two years, how will this affect your children?

    If you want to lose 30 pounds this year, is there something your partner can do to support you? S/he will need to be made aware of this before you set off on your weight loss journey.

    4. Take Action

    Setting goals is the first step, but in order to be successful, you have to follow this with action. If you set goals but never act on them, they become dreams. Create an action plan laying out the steps you need to take each day or week in order to achieve your big and small goals.

    You can also check out Lifehack’s free guide: The Dreamers’ Guide for Taking Action and Making Goals Happen. This helpful guide will push you to take action on your goals, so check it out today!

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    5. Don’t Forget the Bigger Picture

    Most people refer to the big picture as their vision. Whether it is the long-term result or the connection of the goal with your desire, keep it in mind to keep yourself from getting distracted.

    You can learn more about creating a vision for your life here.

    I also recommend you to watch this video to learn 7 strategies to set goals effectively:

    How to Reach Your Goals

    You can ensure your progress by following some foolproof tactics. The use of relevant helpful tools can also keep you on the right track.

    Tactics

    One rookie mistake that most people make is that they work on too many goals simultaneously. Create an action plan and focus on one thing at a time.

    Divide your goal into smaller, easily achievable tasks. Taking it one step at a time makes it much easier. However, do not break them down too much. For example, for long-term goals, you should go for weekly checkpoints instead of daily ones.

    Also, keep track of your progress. This will keep you motivated to work harder.

    Tools

    With so many categories of goals and so many aims, it is almost impossible to remember, let alone work, on all of them.

    Luckily, numerous goal tracker apps will help you keep track of your goals, as well as your plan to achieve every single one. Have at least one installed in your smartphone so that your plan is always within reach.

    The Bottom Line

    In conclusion, using a goal setting tips guide is not rocket science. All that it takes is strong will power along with all the knowledge that you’ve learned so far.

    Try out the tactics and goals setting tips mentioned above to be able to set successful goals so that you can achieve the life that you want!

    More Tips on Achieving Success

    Featured photo credit: Danielle MacInnes via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Smart Insights: The difference between marketing objectives and marketing goals?
    [2] Confluence: Goal Setting Theory
    [3] University of California: SMART Goals: A How-To Guide

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