How delayed gratification changes the way you live and work

June 23, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is delayed gratification?

3 examples of delayed gratification

Instant versus delayed gratification

The challenges of delayed gratification

The benefits of delayed gratification

Delayed gratification and your career

Trust: an essential factor in how to delay gratification

How to improve delayed gratification: 5 techniques

Start practicing delayed gratification today

It feels great to have something you want right at this moment. Life is short, right?

But some things that make you feel good or help you avoid discomfort in the present moment come at the cost of what you truly want in your life

These longer-term goals are the reward for delayed gratification. They don't even have to be that far in the future. But they have the potential to bring you more joy or avoid more significant pain than the promise of the present moment.

Let’s take a closer look at what delayed gratification is, why it’s so difficult to practice, and how you can become better at it.

When you know how to practice delayed gratification, you can wait for what you truly want. 

Instant gratification is the opposite of that. Instead of waiting patiently for what you want, you settle for someone that will bring you pleasure right away.

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3 examples of delayed gratification

So what does delayed gratification look like? It takes various shapes depending on the aspect of life. Let’s look at some examples of delayed gratification in personal, professional, and interpersonal aspects:

1. Personal example: healthy eating habits

Nutrition is a long-term goal that can help you improve your health, regardless of your weight.

But it requires a lot of self-discipline and delayed gratification.

Indulging in delicious foods that don’t properly fuel your body or eating excessive amounts might feel good in the present. However, proper nutrition is a greater reward that takes a long time to achieve.

Instead of feeling gratification eating or overeating delicious yet unhealthy foods all the time, you get to feel the gratification of being healthier.

To do this, you must be able to forgo immediate pleasure and keep your long-term goal of health in mind by having stronger impulse control.

2. Professional example: improving yourself for a promotion

Let’s say you’re working towards a promotion.

To achieve this, you know you need to develop and improve and work towards developing qualities that make a good leader.

Improving these skills will require you to practice these outside of work, even when you don’t always feel like it.

It’s easy to give in to immediate gratification and spend your evenings bingeing your favorite TV shows. But that won’t be rewarding in the long run.

Getting the bigger reward of a promotion instead requires you to spend some time working on yourself. This is so you can become a better leader and improve your chances of achieving your long-term career goal.

3. Interpersonal example: give and take

Any healthy relationship has an equal amount of give-and-take from both parties.

When you’re building a relationship with someone, your needs can’t always come first. Sometimes, you’ll need to give so that you can later receive.

The result is a lasting relationship that benefits both parties.

Someone with instant gratification may put their own needs first, even when someone they care about needs them.

On the other hand, delayed gratification helps both parties work together to build a healthy, equal relationship.

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Instant versus delayed gratification

Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with children in 1972 called the Marshmallow Experiment.

In this experiment, preschoolers were shown a marshmallow and a pretzel and then asked to pick which one they preferred. 

Afterward, the experimenter would tell the participant they needed to leave. But they could eat their favorite treat if they waited for the experimenter to come back.

Each child was also told that they could signal the experimenter to come back at any time. 

However, doing this would result in them only getting the treat they didn’t choose as their favorite.

For this test, both treats were left in plain sight for the child to see. For a later test, the treats were covered.

One group was given a slinky to distract themselves as they waited. Another group of children wasn’t offered treats as rewards at all.

This experiment resulted in several insights, including the following:

  • Children given distracting objects performed much better than those who weren’t.
  • Children were more willing to wait for longer periods of time when they had a reward.
  • A young child’s ability to wait was better when the treats were covered. 

Kids who waited for longer periods of time were also found to have better academic performance and stress management as teenagers. 

These same kids were evaluated 30 years later for health. Those who waited longer were found to have better health at that time. The academic and health findings are less compelling because they were based on a small sample of kids who were all connected to Stanford. But the insights about strategies that helped kids delay gratification are still relevant. 

A more recent 2020 study also shows that kids can perform better in the Marshmallow Experiment when there is a need to cooperate with others in order to achieve group goals.

This could indicate that people can develop delayed gratification by collaborating with others instead of focusing on individual goals.

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 The challenges of delayed gratification

Delayed gratification, also referred to as deferred gratification, is often difficult because we’re wired not just to seek pleasure but also to avoid pain.

That’s because two separate sections of your brain handle pleasure and pain, respectively.

Pain-avoiding neurotransmitters are called Glutamate, and pleasure-seeking neurotransmitters are called GABA.

According to recent research, different contexts will determine whether you seek pleasure or avoid pain.

For example, it’s less painful to zone out during a conference call than to listen attentively.

It’s also less painful to avoid a workout than to go through with it to improve your physical health. Instant gratification is the avoidance of that pain. 

However, when you choose to feel a little bit of pain instead (what we think of as discomfort), you know you may feel more pleasure in the future. This is delayed gratification.

It requires you to stop avoiding pain to a certain extent, which is why it’s so challenging.

 

The benefits of delayed gratification

Delayed gratification is challenging. But there are several benefits to not succumbing to an immediate reward.

1. Better health

In the marshmallow test, kids who were more willing to wait for longer periods of time were also proven to have better health in the future.

This is likely because they can delay their gratification instead of giving in to the temptation of unhealthy habits.

For example, they’ll be better at resisting the urge to smoke, eat unhealthy foods, avoid working out, and drink too often.

2. Improved self-worth

When you’re able to delay your gratification, you can achieve more of your long-term goals.

As a result, you can prove to yourself that you’re capable of doing these things. This can help you improve your self-worth.

3. Long-term success

If you want to reach your long-term goals, in work and in life, you often have to make tradeoffs. Do I spend my time watching a video or doing homework? Do I buy the new outfit or save the money for a better apartment? Tradeoffs imply at least some delayed gratification. Doing so often provides a better reward than you would get in the short term.

When you’re able to sacrifice your current pleasure and work towards your goals, you can build up success over longer periods of time.

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Delayed gratification and your career

Regardless of whether you enjoy your career, working for a paycheck requires delayed gratification. You’re going to work every day, even when you don’t feel like it.

The delayed reward is a paycheck every few weeks. 

Over the long term, you can also achieve fulfillment through your work — not just get a paycheck. But this requires vision.

And vision is an important core value to becoming a great leader at work.

If you can put in the work to improve yourself, perform well, and be productive in your company, you increase your chances of getting noticed for your dedication.

Keep in mind that delaying gratification at work isn’t the same as sacrificing everything in your life for your job. It’s important to maintain a healthy work-life balance and keep a pulse on your well-being.  It simply means keeping an eye on the longer-term rather than just the immediate and learning to weigh the costs and benefits of each.

Trust: An essential factor in how to delay gratification

Delayed gratification cannot happen without first building trust, especially in the workplace.

Think of it this way. If you don’t trust that your superiors have your best interests at heart, you may struggle with motivation to put in the work to achieve your long-term goals. 

That’s because you may not believe those goals are achievable at all. Delaying gratification becomes less compelling if the future seems uncertain and unpredictable.

On the other hand, trust allows space for patience and discipline. If you trust that your employer believes in you and will allow you to succeed, you’ll be okay with sacrificing what you want in the short term to build a long-term career instead.

The same principle applies to your personal life. If you don’t trust a friend, it’ll be difficult to make sacrifices for that person.

As a result, you won’t experience the give-and-take dynamic of a healthy relationship because you're unlikely to be willing to give.

If you’re trying to eat healthier, you need to trust that it’s possible. Depending on your motivation, you need to also believe that eating healthier will deliver a positive benfit to you, to avoid disease, feel more energetic, or lose weight. If you don’t trust that it’s possible, then resisting the temptation to eat that slice of cake doesn't make very much sense.

How to improve delayed gratification: 5 techniques

Luckily, you can learn how to delay gratification and become better at it over time. Here are five ways you can get better at delayed gratification:

1. Understand your values first

If you don’t know what you’re working towards, how can you make sacrifices?

That’s why it’s important to identify your work values and personal values before you try to become better at delayed gratification.

When you know what you’re working towards, it’s easier to remind yourself of your purpose when you feel tempted.

2. Start with something small

There’s no need to start flexing your delayed gratification muscles with something that’s years ahead.

Before you work towards your big, long-term goals, start with something small.

The delayed gratification for something small should still be delayed, but it shouldn’t require you to wait for too long.

How long you should wait depends on your current ability to perform delayed gratification. For instance, if you currently struggle to wait one week for a reward, you can start with one day. Over time, you can build the habit into your life.

If there’s nothing specific you need to work towards, build it in your life.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to improve your public speaking skills at work.

The results of your practice won’t come right away. However, you can reward yourself for working on these skills every day by allowing yourself a break with something fun. This could be watching one episode of your favorite TV show.

If you don’t practice, you can’t watch, and then you need to wait until tomorrow.

Slowly build up your tolerance over time. Perhaps you can treat yourself to an outing at the spa after a full month of developing your skills.

3. Use the Seinfeld Strategy

The Seinfeld Strategy is one of several helpful self-gratification techniques you can use to defer gratification for longer periods of time.

Every day that you delay gratification and avoid temptation, you cross it off your calendar. After a few days, this creates a chain.

This strategy works well for people who enjoy gamification.If you find it satisfying to keep the chain going, you’re less likely to give in to temptation.

4. Interrupt your autopilot

Do you find yourself going back to your temptations without thinking about it?

If this is the case, you can practice mindfulness to become more aware of what you do.

When you notice yourself doing something out of habit, stop for a moment. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Take some time to analyze how you’re feeling.

Pay attention to the details.

Take a moment of mindfulness to interrupt your autopilot every time this happens. The more you practice this, the more you’ll break the habit of going for instant gratification.

5. Eliminate temptation

If you’re still struggling to delay gratification, find ways to eliminate the temptation where you can.

For example, let’s say you tend to spend money on items you don’t need instead of saving. You can make it difficult for yourself to spend that money instead.

Set up automatic transfers to a savings account that’s difficult for you to access. You can even create this account at a separate bank so that you can’t easily transfer the money back.

Start practicing delayed gratification today

Gratification delay matters if you want to work towards long-term goals.

Practicing delayed gratification is just one skill needed for personal growth and professional development. You can learn more about yourself and get support through coaching with BetterUp. Request a demo to find out more.

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Published June 23, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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