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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.

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 an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It? Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

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Last Updated on August 10, 2020

What Is Life About? 9 Ways to Find Your Meaning in Life

What Is Life About? 9 Ways to Find Your Meaning in Life

What is life about? What is the meaning of life? Why do we exist?

Everyone, from ancient Greek Stoics all the way to modern lifestyle gurus, have answered these kinds of questions in an endless variety of ways. And yet, we still search for a satisfying answer.

Neither this article, nor any other one, can deliver a tangible solution to the curious case of life. And that’s okay!

The truth is, part of what makes the meaning of life so alluring is its engrossing diversity, mystery, and intangibility. However, it’s important to point out that the lack of a solid answer doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking for one. The search for what life is about is a journey that each individual person must embark on for themselves. Each person must look for their own, uniquely fulfilling answer to the question.

Fortunately, there are many different behaviors, ideals, and actions that humans have found over the centuries that can be excellent methods to draw us towards that final, inner conclusion of why we exist. Here are a handful of ways to kickstart the adventure of finding out just what life is really about.

1. Love People

Like life, love is one of the most commonly discussed yet, elusive things that humans encounter. Is it a behavior? A lifestyle? A person or object? A relationship with God? It’s used in all of these ways, depending on the context.

However, one thing that always remains is that love is a powerful force for good. Many of the most meaningful things in life are borne out of love — whether we’re loving things, others, or even ourselves.

One of the best ways to find the meaning of life through love is to practice connecting with our families. From parents and siblings to a spouse and children, loving our family is a powerful way to grow in our knowledge and appreciation of what life has to offer.

A spouse, children, friends, life partners, and strong platonic relationships provide a unique and powerful feeling that is difficult to find anywhere else. This is largely because they’re intimately connected to the eye-opening, natural desire to reproduce and leave our mark on the world through posterity.

2. Detox from Technology and Gain Perspective

Next up, we have the extremely important need to detox from time to time. Modern life is fraught with dangerously addicting distractions like social media, that can take up gobs of time without our ever even realizing it. And the effects can go beyond simply frittering away time. In fact, one study suggested that perhaps as much as a staggering 30% of divorces originate with Facebook interactions.[1]

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Life doesn’t simply happen in a vacuum, though. Once you’ve managed to disconnect from those devices and social profiles, it’s important to take that time and energy and redirect it towards a healthier mindset.

Spend time meditating, praying, and even simply dwelling on an attitude of gratefulness. Find things that you’re thankful for and make an effort to express appreciation for what you have on a regular basis (you know, rather than envying others as we scroll through our Facebook feeds).

One of the keystones to life that numerous wise men throughout history always hearken back to is the simple appreciation, gratefulness, and thanks that come with a good perspective.

3. Look for Meaningful Ways to Give Back

Donations and charities aren’t lacking these days. In fact, the phenomenon of charitable giving is at an all-time high. Awareness has skyrocketed in the age of information, and Americans gave a record-breaking $410.02 billion to charity in 2017 alone.[2]

But just because we know how to give doesn’t mean we’re really, truly invested in giving back to others. Real, honest giving doesn’t come out of personal abundance and overflow, nor does it typically take the form of a crisp dollar bill. It comes out of a desire to help others — a desire that can be huge in helping to get a healthy perspective of life.

If you want to find out more about life, consider genuinely giving back to the world around you. Don’t just scrounge up your extra cash and give it to a cause someone else is passionate about.

Find out where your own passions are. What needs and hurts in the world get your heart racing and your mind searching for a solution? Find those, then invest yourself. Give until it hurts. The results are exhilarating. This article can help you: How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life

4. Try a Hobby

While we’ve already talked about what we can do for others, that doesn’t mean a little self-care isn’t needed once in a while too. We’re not talking about indulging those shallow, fleeting desires like a bowl of ice-cream or a trip to the spa, though.

Small treats are perfectly fine, but they don’t go very far in helping us truly appreciate life itself. Instead, try looking for a new challenge.

A challenge can be the perfect formula for helping to open our eyes to the beauty of the world around us. They provide value without the perpetual responsibility and financial concerns that come with our careers and professional lives.

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Find a hobby that indulges your interests and simultaneously challenges your skills. Dive into a pursuit that has always intrigued or fascinated you, but you’ve never had the time to explore on your own. Practice a new instrument, go fly fishing, try painting, learn a language — the world’s your oyster! This list of 50 low-cost hobbies will inspire you.

If you’re thoughtful in your selection, you may even be able to pursue an interest that can inadvertently develop your life skills and possibly even add to your resume.[3]

5. Overcome Insecurities

Let’s circle back around to the personal, inner thoughts and behaviors. One of the critical elements to a life well lived — and thus better understood — is overcoming insecurities.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Everyone has insecurities.

Sometimes those insecurities are a bit difficult to pin down and see for what they truly are. One of the best ways to rise above the fears and anxieties of life is to work on your insecurities. Try to practice mindfulness, look for thought patterns, analyze your behavior, and identify when you’re being influenced by insecurities.

The more you become aware of your own insecurities, the more you’ll be able to rise above them, prevent selfish behavior, and enable yourself to do things that would have been impossible before.

If you’ve been trapped in a job you don’t like, for instance, due to insecurities about financial failure or peer pressure, overcoming those insecurities at their roots will enable you to move on somewhere else, to ask for that promotion you’ve been eyeing, or even simply move horizontally within the company in order to find better work that better satisfies your personality and talents. [4]

6. Never Stop Learning

Twelve years of structured school (not to mention a mini-career arc through college after that) can leave many of us feeling like we’re done with academics, school, and learning in general.

But the truth is, learning should be a lifelong process. Healthy humans are always in a state of learning. They see what’s around them and want to learn more, understand more, and see why everything is the way it is.

This doesn’t mean you need to manufacture a desire to start reading textbooks on calculus in order to see what life is about. It’s simply an encouragement to start to take an interest in the world around you. Investigate, probe, and learn more about things that catch your interest, and your passion for learning will start to grow on its own before long.

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For instance, even if you pushed yourself all the way through a masters degree already, don’t close the book on your academic career quite yet. Consider going back to school (no matter your age) in order to get a post-master certificate. [5] This won’t just give you an edge in the professional arena; it will also serve as a way to satisfy that inherent desire to learn.

While that’s just one example out of many, the point is, it’s important to find ways to continue learning and growing on a regular basis.

7. Go Minimalist

It’s easy to hear about concepts like “minimalism” and think about extreme lifestyles, like Buddhist monks living in barren temples up in the mountains. But the truth is, minimalism is an easy lifestyle to adapt even in the cluttered, materialistic West.

If you take small steps like avoiding purchasing unnecessary new things, storing seasonal items, and generally decluttering, you can ease into a minimalist mindset without much trouble.[6]

This doesn’t just help with finances and your cleaning schedule, either. A life with less clutter often leads to a clearer, more grateful mindset. And a grateful mindset can be a key part of gaining deeper insight into what this life stuff is really about in the first place.

8. Travel

You saw this one coming, right? Those that seriously travel tend to gain a deeper perspective of life as a whole. The trick is, though, you can’t go into your travels as a fanny pack-touting tourist that’s only interested in “seeing the sights” and hitting up the pristine beaches.

Here’s a good litmus test for you: if you expect everyone to talk to you in your native language as you travel, you’re not in the right headspace.

If you take the time to travel, make sure to do so with the specific purpose of seeing the world outside of your own comfort zone. How are other cultures different from your own? How do other geographic areas affect how people live? What does a developing or war-torn country truly look like?

If you set out with this perspective, you’re much more likely to have your heart and mind opened in ways you never could have expected.

9. Try to Be More Aware

Finally, we have one last, gigantic call to action: be more aware.

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If a person can truly foster the ability to pay attention to everything around them, they develop the ability to break free from the self-centered mindset that all humans naturally slip into when we’re not paying attention.

Just to clarify, this isn’t a call not to pay attention to your own thoughts and needs. They’re important too. In fact, the Dalai Lama said,

“One must be compassionate to one’s self before external compassion.”

Whether it’s ourselves at first or others afterward, truly developing the ability to be aware of and empathize with the life that goes on in and around us is a critical part of understanding just why we’re all alive in the first place.

So, What Exactly Is Life About?

Hopefully, by this point, you don’t really expect an absolute answer to that question. On the other hand, you may not feel it’s a hopeless inquiry, either.

Remember, the reason we don’t have a good answer about what life is about is that it’s too complex to fit into words in the first place!

The complexities and nuances of a “good life” are so profound that they take an entire lifetime of exploration — both of ourselves and the world around us — to even begin to formulate an answer. And even then, we’ve typically only scratched the surface.

When you break it down, the meaning of life is so deep and valuable, it’s worth chasing, even if the end goal is only to catch a glimpse of the glory that keeps us all moving forward day after day.

More About the Meaning of Life

Featured photo credit: Emma Dau via unsplash.com

Reference

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