How Delaying Gratification Results In Remarkable Success

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Is waiting for something I want worth it?  That’s a question you ask yourself daily.  If you overeat, the jeans may not fit later.  Although you don’t have enough money saved, that new laptop could go on the credit card.  Your family wants to go on vacation, but that money could go toward business classes to improve your resume.  These are uncomfortable choices for most of us.  However, you probably know people who are quite adept at using their willpower.  They seem to turn off desire like a light switch.  And, as a result, they are successful in nearly all facets of life.  Those perfect jerks!  You want this power, don’t you?  Yeah, me too.  Why are some people better at delaying gratification and how does it help them become successful?

Like Giving Candy To A Baby

Standford professor, Walter Mischel published the marshmallow experiment in 1972.  His team tested hundreds of small children for self-control.  A researcher sat each kid in a private room and placed a marshmallow in front of her.  The child was then offered a choice.  She could eat the candy after the assistant left the room for several minutes or wait until the assistant returned to give her a second marshmallow.  As you can imagine, most of the children fidgeted and pondered and quickly gave into temptation.  But one-third of the kids held out for the bigger prize.

The research team conducted follow-up studies for decades.  They found the children who used willpower and waited for the second candy grew up to demonstrate more tolerance for stress, earn higher SAT scores, and exhibit greater social competence than those who gobbled down the first candy.  In 1989, the study concluded, “To function effectively, individuals must voluntarily postpone immediate gratification and persist in goal-directed behavior for the sake of later outcomes.”  Those who were capable of putting more value on the greater reward were effective at delaying gratification and benefitted academically and socially because of it.

To be truthful, I don’t know that I would have held out for the second marshmallow as a child.  But only because I hate marshmallows and wouldn’t have wanted another one.  I have my weaknesses, though.  Offer me a nice glass of wine or some dark chocolate, and I’ll squirm like one of the kids in the experiment.  My point is, people are more complicated than any study will show.

Perhaps you’re a dedicated worker, but you are a compulsive eater.  Maybe you exercise like a champ, then follow it up by blowing your monthly budget on clothes.  Professor Mischel refers to these reoccurring weaknesses as “hot spots,” and he believes we all have them.  If your hot spot is spending money, click here to find out how I paid off 40k in debt within two years.

 

It’s All In Your Head

I won’t get all textbook-y on you here, but it’s important to understand how the willpower process works.  The ventral striatum is the pleasure center of the brain.  It is the part of your mind that responds to the potential for immediate reward.  To bypass impulses from this area, the prefrontal cortex (in charge of rational thought), must be active.  As a person grows, the reasoning portion of the brain matures, and he or she learns how to deal with or avoid temptations.  This is why adults are better at self-control than children and adolescents.

However, we are all born into different environments.  If you were raised by people who frequently broke promises, you might have realized waiting for a fictional reward was useless.  Additionally, if you grew up poor, scarcity may have prompted you to choose immediate gratification.  One in the hand is better than two in the bush!  But that kind of thinking won’t help you reach your goals or overcome your indulgences now.

What’s She Got That I Haven’t Got?

It’s amazing to me how some people command incredible control over their desires.  They save money, exercise daily, eat right, and never make impulse purchases.  What’s the secret?  It’s all about the way they look at temptation.  People who successfully delay gratification believe they’ll be rewarded for sacrifice.  In addition, they’re able to put more emphasis on future pleasures than immediate ones.  Well, YIPPY for them!  I know what you’re asking; How does that help me?

According to Professor Mischel, both our biology and our psychology contribute to our overall self-control.  It’s not all predetermined by our DNA.  That means there’s hope for all of us.  We can learn how to increase our willpower and train it like a muscle.  However, this muscle can be fatigued.  According to the American Psychological Association, people who are subjected to repeated temptation are less likely to continue resisting the temptation.  They are “willpower-depleted.”  None of us make good decisions when we’re tired.

Can You Spare Some Change?

There are many different strategies to boost self-control.  You have probably tried several.  I’ll list the more common tactics I’ve used over the years that resulted in moderate success in delaying gratification:

  • Writing down both long-term and short-term goals

  • Having a daily schedule and routine

  • Eliminating exposure to temptations

“Been there, done that,” you say, “What else ya got?”  Those are great approaches, but you need more to get the ball rolling.  I know I feel the same way.  Here are some actions that you may not have tried yet:

  • Get an app to assist you.  There are numerous software programs designed to make it easier to reach goals and resist temptations.  Gympact rewards you with cash as an incentive to achieve your fitness objectives.   Level alerts you when you are overspending.  Quit That helps reinforce healthy habits and banish unhealthy ones by tracking your progress and updating you on how much money you’ve saved from quitting smoking or drinking coffee or alcohol, etc.   

  • Read The Willpower Instinct, by psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.  In the book, I found useful advice and exercises to help me make better choices through nutrition, fitness, and sleep.  Buy this one for yourself or a close friend.  I’m not so sure gifting this one to your boss or mother is such a great idea if you know what I mean.  It is a great read, though.

  • Get some help already!  If you’ve tried everything else, why not seek outside assistance?  Enough with the stigma about seeing a mental health professional in order to tackle this or any other recurring problems in your life.  The American Psychological Association can assist you in locating a qualified psychologist in your area.

At this point, I hope you are inspired to increase your impulse control and willpower.  It’s not just a talent given to some at birth.  Delaying gratification is possible if you understand and change how you think about temptations.  If you begin to choose anticipation over immediate reward, you’ll strengthen this ‘muscle’ and perhaps conquer a bad habit or two.

Do you have any tips or advice to overcome chronic indulgences?  If so, let me know in the comments section below.

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How Delaying Gratification Results In Remarkable Success

52 COMMENTS

  1. Really wish people would learn not to compare themselves with others. Especially women, we start as little girls and never seems to stop. Once I over came this in my life well everything has been so much better.

  2. Hi Jen! I’ve always appreciated the Marshmallow Experiment because it reminds me that so much of what leads to success (no matter what kind of success we are talking about). I have worked very hard during the years to establish habits that allow me to delay gratification on most levels. There are some that are more difficult but I find that by meditating regularly I am able to put a little “space” between the impulse and the action and that makes a big difference. Thanks for the good info! ~Kathy

    • Hello, Kathy. I have been meditating a little each day for the last two months. It really helps calm and focus my thoughts so I can make better decisions. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m also one who can easily delay gratification in some areas, but not in others. So, no suggestions. Rather, I have to work on areas (such as food temptations) that have been challenges for a long time.

    • I agree, Alana. Food is probably the number one issue for people struggling with temptations. I know it is one of my weaknesses!

  4. Really good post Jennifer! One of the questions I like to ask a patient with impulse control or a problem with delayed gratification is this. What are you telling yourself you’ll feel if you have that marshmallow, and what’s getting in the way of feeling that now? “If I have that marshmallow, I’ll feel ______. Or “I might not get another chance… (fear)” Or conversely, what might you feel if you don’t have the marshmallow. Fear again? Insecurity? If you can identify the feeling, you’re more likely to be able to soothe whatever the feeling is. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    • Thank you so very much, Margaret. It’s so nice to hear your expert advice. Next time I’m tempted, I’ll be more aware of how I will feel consuming the ‘marshmallow’ or waiting. Great comment!

  5. Love this Jen! Such a though provoking post Jen. When I use self control and pass on something I really think I want, it turns out, i usually end up not caring about it at all!

  6. Thank you for the post. I would like to try the marshmallow experiment on my children to see what they do. I think they would wait, but I’m not 100% sure. I make a conscious effort to stress the importance of self control because it is of my belief that if you cannot control yourself then you cannot expect to control anything else in life. Furthermore if more people worked on controlling themselves instead of trying to control everyone else, the world would be a happier place. I hope my kids get it.

    • I had the same thoughts about my kids, Sage. I think they would wait for the 2nd marshmallow, but I’m not sure. Thank goodness we can all work on this skill at any age.

  7. This is so interesting. And I agree with repeating temptation can really be a problem for most. This is really good. Taking notes for sure. -Jocelyne from resonatecreations.com

  8. This was a really helpful read as I battle binge eating, which only gets worse over the holidays. I am excited to try the apps and read the suggested book!

    • Hello, Shane. I do hope the apps and the book help you conquer binge eating. The holidays are a real struggle for anyone who overindulges in food.

    • I am flattered, Tomi. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Good luck shopping with your daughters. Teaching teenagers to delay gratification sounds like a difficult task. I won’t have to do that for another few years, thank goodness!

  9. My chronic impulse issue is buying notebooks and stuff. How I’m working on that is avoiding stores where I know I buy those items. Also, having a limited amount of Fun money to spend however I choose helps curb the spending urge.

    • Hi, Cori. It sounds like your strategies are working well for you. Shopping impulses are hard on your pocketbook and hard to resist. Thanks for sharing your tips. Perhaps they will help someone here overcome the urge.

    • Hello, Corinne. Human beings are so complex. We might have our “stuff” together in one area of our lives and chaos in another area. The important thing is to keep trying. A baby step is still a step forward, right? Thanks for sharing your struggle. Others will benefit from it.

  10. I think it’s all about practicing mindfulness. As a very impulsive person, practicing mindfulness has allowed me to use my prefrontal cortex more often to override the impulsive parts of the brain. There’s that great quote by Victor Frankl, “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space, and in that space lies our power and our freedom.” It’s true. Learning to pause is really all there is to it because willpower is such a finite resource. I teach this to my weight coaching clients with great success.

    • Hi, Shari. Mindfulness is the key. That’s for sure. Overriding the more primitive part of our human brains takes practice and determination. I love the Victor Frankl quote too. Thanks for the input. I wish you continued success with your clients. It doesn’t sound like you need it though!

  11. I have a history of poor discipline and I needed a strict daily routine to counteract it. Now, just 60, I learned the value and joy in delayed gratification during my 50s. The pay-off is almost bigger, the reward sweeter. I’m a walking talking advertisement that it can be learned.

    • I agree, Beth. You are never too old to learn how to delay gratification in order to get a bigger reward later. Congratulations on your success. That is no small achievement!

    • Well, hi there Ina. Thank you for reading my posts. Are you a biz owner or blogger? I want to direct you to the correct sites. I have a recent post, 15 Motivational Podcasts for Women Who Love Business. Some of the ladies who are on the list have business blogs. In the meantime, you can sign up to my email list and you’ll get my latest content. Let me know if you have any other questions I can help you with.

  12. I’m really struggling with potato chip addiction and it is an addiction! Trying to stay away one day at a time. I bought some healthier crunch options today.

    • Oh, Marya. Potato chips are so addictive! That sounds like a tough assignment you have given yourself, but I’m sure you can do it. Good luck to you and thank you for your feedback.

  13. Wow, such an inspirational post. Indeed Delayed gratification is the way to go. I have practiced in my life, and I believe is the best thing everyone can do.

    • Hi, John. If you use delayed gratification, it really does help you reach your goals. Thanks for stopping by and giving your feedback.

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