We have three cats in our home and they’re really fun to watch at times. One of the most enjoyable things they do is to chase after things, whether it’s a laser light, a ball of paper, or a piece of string.
It’s almost laughable how predictable they can be. Cats can be extremely fickle, but more often than not they will instantly chase after these objects. Their sole focus becomes capturing the item, and nothing will keep them from accomplishing their mission.
What’s even more interesting is what happens after they’ve caught their prey. Sometimes they’ll play with the object a little bit, but the most common reaction is sudden disinterest. You can almost read their minds and hear, “I caught it! Not what? This is boring!” It’s not until one of us humans in the room move the object around again that the cat regains interest.
Delaying Gratification is a Choice
One of the many things that sets humanity above animals is our ability to make rational choices. You can argue that there are animals possessed of the ability to make choices instead of only responding to stimuli, but those choices are not necessarily rational. Yes, some animals can function highly enough that they remember the consequences of a past choice, but said animal is not stopping everything to think about the pros and cons or weigh the consequences of their actions.
On the other hand, we humans do have the ability to stop and consider not only the potential consequences of our choices, but also evaluate the possible options available to us. The problem is that we sometimes choose to not stop and use our ability to reason because we immediately give in to desire.
This was famously demonstrated during the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment back in the 60s and 70s. In this study, children were offered a choice between one small, immediate reward (such as a marshmallow or a cookie) or two small rewards if they waited for about 15 minutes. The children were then left alone in the room with the first reward to see how long they could hold out.
Some kids in the study immediately got up and took the reward as soon as the tester left the room. Some kids were able to stave off their desires for a few minutes by fidgeting, wiggling in their chairs, or otherwise distracting themselves, but ultimately they gave in and grabbed the reward. A small sampling of the children were able to delay gratification and wait the entire time, thus receiving the additional reward.
What’s most interesting about this study is that the researchers conducted follow up studies as the years went on. They found that the children who had been able to restrain themselves in the initial experiment were also more likely to achieve higher SAT scores, were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, had a lower likelihood of obesity, and experienced overall a higher quality of life and success.
To be clear, the oft-referenced Marshmallow Experiment is not the be-all, end-all of human response. In the study, they also subjected some of the children to a series of unreliable outcomes before the test, while others experienced a series of reliable outcomes prior to the test. It was clear that more of the children who’d experienced reliable outcomes before the actual test began were more likely to be able to delay gratification. So, it’s clear that past life experiences have great influence on our ability to make the conscious choice of delaying gratification.
For instance, when my wife and I were going through our foster care training, we learned that many foster children tend to hoard food. Even though you’ve brought them into an environment where food is plentiful and never withheld, their previous life experiences creates a lack of trust—their past experiences have been unreliable. This leads some foster children to either hoard food in their rooms—sometimes to the point of hiding it away—or to gorge themselves at every opportunity out of fear that the next meal is never a certainty.
Knowing this, we come to understand that learning to delay gratification is hard. We’re really talking about habit change, which means it’s best undertaken incrementally. As with any habit change, we want to exchange the bad for the good rather than trying to quit cold turkey. In terms of delaying gratification, if you’ve been generally unsuccessful with enacting such patience in the past, you can’t expect to simply flip a switch and turn your life around.
Why is Delaying Gratification Worth It?
To start, you have to focus on why you should delay gratification. Let’s be selfish for a moment and ask, “What’s in it for me?” That’s honestly a good question.
The answer is that you must take a step back and look at what your dreams and goals are—solidify them in your mind. What are you doing now that is keeping you from reaching your goals, or at the least delaying your achievement of those goals? Look at how delaying gratification in some areas of your life will ultimately help you not only reach your goals, but reach them faster and with better results.
Think about it. What happens if you can make the shift in your choices and choose to do the right thing instead of doing whatever is possible right now? What if you could learn to hold your tongue and appear wise rather than saying whatever foolish thought comes to mind?
What if you could learn to wait for the best outcome rather than accepting the “okay” or mediocre option? What if you could learn to offer your best effort by working hard over time rather than putting out sub-par work because you “just want to get this done?”
What if you took a year or two to work your tail off and save money for college instead of taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that will take you years to pay back? What if you waited and saved up cash for something you want rather than going into debt or opting for a rent-to-own deal?
Here are the answers to those questions.
You can become known as a person of their word, someone who is trustworthy, reliable, and who always chooses to do the right thing. Thus, your reputation becomes sterling.
You can become known as a person who doesn’t speak rashly, foolishly, or harshly. You become someone whose counsel is sought after because you’ve learned to speak wisely.
You can become known as someone who desires excellence but not perfection. People know you’ll encourage them to do their best because you’ve demonstrated that you expect the best from yourself. Again, you reinforce your reputation of reliability.
You can become someone who is free from the slavery of debt, and as someone who knows how to put off their personal desires. You are someone who understands the true value and purpose of money, as well as the difference between wants and needs.
Delaying Gratification is Hard
Knowing delaying gratification is a choice, and knowing that our past experiences determine how hard delaying gratification might be is all well and good. Knowing these things doesn’t change the fact that delaying gratification is extremely hard—especially when you’ve not done it very much in the past.
First, now that you know at least some of the benefits of delaying gratification, you can become intentional about giving it a try. Most often we fail at delaying gratification because we’ve never purposefully tried to do it. Maybe we didn’t know better or didn’t have any concept of why delaying gratification might be a good idea.
As I said above, making a big habit change like this is best done incrementally. For instance, let’s say you need to make a decision of some sort, and in the past your practice has been to simply choose to do whatever your desires led you to do. Instead, you now want to be rational and make a grown-up decision, but how do you do that?
Guess what, the simple of act of stopping and taking the time to consider your options is a fantastic first step. You’re already in uncharted waters in terms of learning to delay gratification!
The next step is to purposefully consider the pros and cons of your choices. Think about what’s called the opportunity cost of your decision. If you have $10 in your pocket you have three choices—you can spend it, save it, or give it away. What’s the best choice for your money? If you buy a pizza today, that $10 is gone, meaning you can’t spend it on something else in the future, save it for a rainy day, or give it to someone in need.
Notice that many of these choices are not necessarily ethical choices. There’s not always a right or wrong choice, so what’s the better choice? What the best choice? Getting a clear picture and understanding of better or best choices often helps us delay gratification.
Let’s experiment for a moment. Let’s say a very rich person came up to you and gave you the following choices:
1. They’ll give you $1 million right now.
2. They’ll give you a penny today and then double the amount they give you each day for the next 30 days.
Which one should you choose?
I’m Jeff M. Miller, and I help ordinary people who are stuck in a rut change their behaviors so they can be extraordinary. I’m an entrepreneur who retired from my full-time job in my early 40s to work from home. I’m a financial counselor, life coach, graphic designer, and passionate believer in helping others improve their lives a little more each day.