Delayed gratification is putting off doing something enjoyable that presents itself immediately until a later time in order to reap some benefit in the future.
He described “The Marshmallow Experiment,” which is the study that popularized delayed gratification:
The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.
At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.
The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.
So the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later.
In this case, the reward of delaying gratification is very clear: if the children delay, they get two marshmallows instead of one.
In everyday life, the reward is sometimes not as obvious.
A college student faced with pressure from his friends to go out and party Thursday night when he has a big exam Friday morning can delay gratification and still go out on Friday night in order to reap the benefits of studying and sleep.
In this case, the choice is between two nights of fun and one night of fun with a better exam result.
You can see that the “reward” for delaying gratification isn’t as apparent in the short-term. But if the delayed gratification is chosen over the course of four years, this will compound to a higher GPA, which will lead to a better opportunity to land a great job, which will lead to a better overall quality of life.
This is why delaying gratification isn’t easy.
You have to have the foresight to identify the long-term benefit AND the discipline to delay gratification enough times to actually realize that long-term benefit.
Everyone delays gratification during the first two weeks of the new year when they are gung-ho about their resolutions. But it’s the people who do this consistently for years and decades who become truly successful.
As an adult, I like to view delayed gratification as an investment in building something great.
And building this thing wouldn’t be possible if every pleasure itch was immediately scratched.
Without delayed gratification, no one would ever build a great body because it’s always more instantly gratifying to sit on the couch than to go to the gym.
No one would ever build a great business because it’s always more instantly gratifying to watch Netflix than to work.
No one would ever build a great family because it’s always more instantly gratifying to check your Facebook news feed than to play with legos on the floor with your kids.
You can always sit on the couch later or watch Netflix later or check Facebook later, but after the important work is done to build something great.
So, how do you learn to delay gratification?
I didn’t get into how some kids were able to delay gratification while others weren’t, which was discussed in the second half of James Clear’s article.
It turns out the kids who successfully delayed gratification were “trained” in a way. The researchers created an environment of trust that led the kids to believe that they would actually receive the bigger reward.
They did this by following through on other promises before conducting the experiment.
The group of kids who were trained in the opposite way, by being promised certain things without receiving them, lost trust in the researchers and did not successfully delay gratification when it came time for the marshmallow.
This single difference reveals the key to learning to delay gratification: creating an environment in which you reward yourself.
You can do this yourself by promising yourself a treat at a later time if you do XYZ and then actually following through.
Tell yourself you can buy that new pair of shoes after you put in 100 hours of study and then actually buy them if you do it.
Tell yourself you can treat yourself to pizza after you have completed two workouts this week, and then actually eat the pizza.
Each time you assign stakes and follow through, you are training your brain and teaching it that delaying gratification is a good thing.
You don’t need to limit these “training exercises” to big things.
You can train yourself every day with small rewards for small delays. In fact, this may be more effective because you get more practice.
For example, yesterday after dinner, I wanted to eat a small piece of chocolate for dessert.
I told myself I could have the chocolate, but only after I finished doing the dishes, not before. So I did the dishes first. Then, I ate the chocolate.
Delaying gratification to eat the chocolate didn’t do anything to immediately make my life better. But that was only one rep.
You don’t notice any changes after one rep or after five. But after 100, you start to get better at it. It’s like you’re actually training your delayed gratification muscle.
Another way of “practicing” delayed gratification is to use it to build new habits.
Find something even mildly rewarding that you already do and tell yourself you will do that after you perform XYZ.
For example, if you want to do more pushups, tell yourself you will shower after doing a set of 10 pushups.
You were going to shower regardless, but delaying this activity by just 10 seconds to give yourself time to do those pushups makes all the difference in the world if you do it every single day.
If you want to read more books, tell yourself you will watch your favorite Netflix show after reading 5 pages.
After a while, you’ll find that delaying gratification becomes a habit in itself and you’ll be accomplishing more meaningful things in your day-to-day life because of it.
I’ve transformed my life by using systems and spreadsheets to track personal data.