Overcoming instant gratification: Why learning delayed gratification is necessary to become successful

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Kevin Mangelschots

We have this notion that we should be instantly rewarded whenever we do something good.

When we don’t get this immediate gratification of our impulsive desires, we get the feeling that we didn’t get the payoff we deserve. This short term gratification that we so desire can be in the form of a compliment, a present, or anything else that brings us pleasure.

However, learning delayed gratification is necessary to become successful. This is why.

Why is learning delayed gratification needed to achieve success?

The word “why” written multiple times on a blue background with question marks surrounding it.

I would say that there is one thing that sets humans apart from most other animals. Namely, our consciousness. One of the functions of this awareness is that it enables us to analyze and adapt our behavior to fit our ever-changing environment.

It sets us apart from animals

If we would only live to satisfy our impulses, then what’s left that differentiates us from other animals? I would say that immediate gratification of the senses like sex, drugs, gambling, alcohol, junk food and so on do not necessarily bring out the best in people.

However, small, irregular, and instant gratification can serve as powerful motivators that help solidify good, helpful behaviors.

Allows you to survive

Image of a man making a fire in the woods.

Chances are that you won’t live a very long life, nor a content existence without a purposeful routine and if you’re solely being guided by your emotions and impulsive desires. In fact, that would just make you a slave to your feelings.

Just imagine if you choose to eat junk food and drink alcohol all the time, either because you are sad, because it makes you feel good, or because you feel the need to relax. Or if you never work out since you don’t like getting tired and wasting energy.

That might be enjoyable for a short while, but that feeling won’t last, since your body won’t stay healthy for long. Human beings are made to move around and to eat a clean diet.

We can’t survive by just doing the things we find fun. Sometimes we need to suffer, and do the very things we don’t necessarily want to carry out in order to get a better outcome in the future.

Allows you to establish good habits

Image describing how a new habit is created.

This conveys that healthy routines and learning to delay immediate gratification of the senses are both required to live a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.

I feel like most folks greatly undervalue how essential these purposeful habits are. Just think of how much healthier you would be if you could limit how much junk food you eat during the week. Image how much of a difference working out a couple of times each week would make to your personal wellbeing and to keep your body weight in check.

The point is that small changes are typically the most critical in the long run since they create a snowball effect, and because we’re more likely to sustain these new habits as long as we don’t feel overwhelmed.

To become successful in the future

The word “failure” is crossed out by a blue marker, while the word “success” is being highlighted with a blue marker.

Sometimes you will need to suffer a bit and sacrifice a small amount of freedom, and rewards in the present, so you can thrive in the future. However, there is also freedom in this sacrifice, which might seem like a bit of a paradox at first.

Even though you need to relinquish some of your time and immediate gratification by delaying gratification, you get to decide how much time you spend doing so. You’ll also get to pick what you are going to spend that time on that you otherwise would’ve “wasted” pleasing your impulses.

Image of multiple road signs saying, “success begins with mindset”.

This means that you get to set up your own schedule the way you want it to. That’s why you are in control of your life. This will give you the freedom that every human so desires as well.

Let’s think this through for a second. If you always try to satisfy your impulses instantly, then how many stupid decisions would you make?

For example, there are many young people who dislike going to school and don’t like to learn. And I understand perfectly why, since I was the same way. Let’s face it, there are a lot more fun and exciting things to do at that age for most people!

Nevertheless, if your mentality is, “screw this, I’m not learning for these examinations, I’m just going to play video games”, then chances are large that you are not going to get the degree that you desire. In turn, you won’t be able to practice the job of your dreams in the future. Each decision you make in the present and past has consequences for the future you indeed.

Teaches you to negotiate with yourself

A handshake between two businessmen.

We all need to learn to negotiate with ourselves.

Ask yourself this, is studying a few years in the present and future really that bad if that permits you to practice a career that you enjoy and find meaningful for about 50 years?

Is that not a relatively small investment and price to pay for delaying that instant gratification? Is that not worth it for a nice and prosperous future? Logically speaking, I think it is.

Protects you from harm

The words, “safe from harm” written in white letters in multiple blocks.

Of course, delaying gratification can also protect you from real harm and making stupid mistakes.

Some people, myself included, like to seek a bit of thrill to spice their up their existence. Driving fast, to give you an example, can accomplish this feat for some people. Nonetheless, this is not only dangerous for yourself, but also for those in your vicinity.

This is precisely why you don’t exceed the speed limit. We don’t want to end up hurting other innocent people.

A better alternative would be to go track driving a couple of times each year if you so crave this rush of adrenaline and excitement. This way, you’ll at least minimize the chances of hurting yourself and other people because you’re driving in a controlled, and safe(r) environment.

Image of sleeping pills lying on the nightstand next to the clock.

To give you another illustration, it might also be tempting to take sleeping pills when you have trouble sleeping at night. In the short-term, this might work out perfectly fine. But after a while, you’ll find that you have even more trouble catching sleep than you did initially before you started taking those pills.

You might also have to up the dosage in order for those same pills to remain effective. In the long run, you’ll notice that you are now dependent on those pills, and that you can’t sleep without them anymore.

“Worst case scenario” written with white chalk on a blackboard.

The worst case scenario is that you take a sleeping pill, wake up during the night in order to go to the restroom, and fall in the process. This can lead to breaking something, or worse, since you were drowsy from the sleeping pill you took before.

Immediate gratification by taking medication because you can’t sleep might not be in your best interest, since it doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t take care of the root of the issue. Of course, there are always rare cases where taking a sleeping pill is beneficial, and even absolutely necessary to guarantee one’s physical and mental safety.

How to teach delayed gratification?

Image of the quote, “when we talk of blocking social media, I fear that what we are actually doing is denying students the ability to develop the willpower to delay gratification”.

Banning short term gratification is not the way

Simply banning all children and adults the access to short term gratification by banning social media for instance is not the way. Nevertheless, it can be used sporadically as a way of punishing bad behavior that you would like to see ceased.

But we know that people learn from failures, and so we don’t want to deny them the right to acquire knowledge from their mistakes and failings.

The things we’ve denied ourselves, or didn’t experience in the past, have a tendency to come back at an increased frequency and intensity at a later age. So it’s best to fail early on, and utilize the life lessons that go with these failures as soon as possible.

Teach people discipline

A sign reading, “discipline, doing what you know needs to be done, even though you don't want to.” Written in white letters on a black background.

Educating people discipline is paramount if teaching delayed gratification is what we want to do.

Discipline is needed if people need to learn how to forego the immediate rewards for a larger, yet delayed reward in the future. That is most certainly not an easy thing to do. Surely not if our senses are basically screaming to be satisfied.

Yet, perseverance is necessary because if we’re constantly busy gratifying these desires, then we won’t get anything done, nor is the way we satisfy these cravings always conductive for our overall health or the road towards success.

Teach people to establish and practice good habits

Image of a sign saying, “habits to be made” in green letters on a black background.

Overcoming instant gratification is only possible if we construct advantageous routines that work for us instead of against us.

There’s less need for discipline and conscious effort once good habits have been established. Nevertheless, we require a large amount of discipline to set up those purposeful routines. Thus, discipline is essential to breathe those beneficial habits into existence.

Building good macro and micro habits will go a long way towards becoming healthier, more content, and flourishing. You should make it a point to set them up as early as possible in your life, since your personality and learning capacity is more malleable when you are still young. And you should absolutely take advantage of this fact.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What is gratification?

Gratification is a sense of pleasure we gain. Especially if that delight comes from satisfying one, or multiple, desires of our senses.

Satisfaction typically comes in the form of a reward, but can also come from pleasing an impulsive desire. Think of examples such as sexual gratification through sex, hunger gratification through eating, and so on.

What is instant gratification?

Instant gratification is an immediate satisfaction of the senses instead of waiting longer for a potentially more satisfying, but less immediate satisfaction in the future.

You kind of avoid pain in the present for pain that will present and manifest itself somewhere in the future.

A great example of this phenomenon is the fact that most of us immediately want a reward like a new video game, fresh clothes, or any other present that satisfies our desires when we get good grades in school.

This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as we don’t practice short term gratification every time we do something that we deem to be positive. On the contrary, rewarding ourselves immediately, but sporadically, can be a great way to motivate us to practice certain behaviors. Granted, that’s as long as we don’t overdo it with the reinforcements.

What is delayed gratification?

Delayed gratification is when you postpone the immediate gratification of one or more desires to wait for a more satisfying, but less immediate, gratification in the future.

You voluntarily take on a bit of pain in the present by foregoing instant satisfaction of one or more senses in order to avoid trouble in the future.

A popular example of this process that most of us know all too well is when you need to study the evening before an examination. You have the option to immediately satisfy your desire for relaxation and distraction by watching TV or YouTube videos.

However, in order to pass for your examination, it might be better to learn your whole study book, and to repeat it a couple of times. Instead, you can choose to watch TV and YouTube the following day when the examination is over in order to pass for your examination. Thus, effectively practicing delayed gratification.

Conclusion

Image of a hand holding a card with the word “conclusions” written in blue.

Overcoming instant gratification is possible if we are disciplined, and motivated to practice good habits that work in our favor to counteract the desire for continuous instant gratification.

Living a hedonistic life might seem appealing and the appropriate way to experience a fun, exciting, and fulfilling life. But in my opinion it is not. At least not for long.

I can assure you that this would get very dull and boring after a few weeks, or if you’re lucky, a few months. You would not be able to tolerate your miserable existence for long without any purpose.

This lifestyle will sooner rather than later make you very sick. Both mentally and physically.

Call to action

“Take action” written with white chalk on a blackboard.

We’ve established that always satisfying the senses and desires immediately is not a viable long-term strategy. This means that we must learn to practice delayed gratification.

Exercising postponed gratification sets you up for a content in addition to fulfilling life in the future by giving us a chance to live up to our full potential.

On the flip side, we might have to sacrifice a bit of freedom and direct pleasure in the present. This is absolutely manageable, if you know who you are, what your values are, and most importantly, what your goals are that you want to accomplish during your lifetime.

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