• Delayed gratification is a process wherein you forego a short-term reward or some temptation in favor of a bigger reward that comes later. The ability to delay gratification has been closely linked with success and is an integral part of practicing self-discipline.
• If you wish to develop this skill in order to achieve your goals, there is a 10-step program you can follow over a 30-day period in order to see some results. The first three steps of this process involve deep reflection and asking yourself some hard questions about what exactly your goal is, what you want to achieve, the type of person you want to be, and how you plan on achieving your goals and becoming your ideal self in the future. This process can take up to a week since it’s imperative you take your time to come up with comprehensive answers.
• Next comes the step where you must make adjustments to your physical environment so that it is geared perfectly toward helping you achieve your goals. Pick a room in your house with a window, good lighting, and minimal exposure to outside noise. Then, set up an ergonomic workspace that is free of distractions, especially from sources like your phone.
• Once you’re done with this, you must start working on building a credit system. Each time you delay some gratification like checking your messages, award yourself credit points based on a scale that you come up with. Once you’re done with work, you can redeem these credit points for specific rewards like more free time, ordering takeout, etc.
• There are many more tricks that can help you delay gratification. Use self-directed speech, continuously motivating yourself to hold off on succumbing to temptations by verbalizing your intentions to continue working out loud. You can also use what-if scenarios and think of the outcomes your choices will have. Invariably, you’ll see that continuing to pursue your goals will lead to a better future than giving in to temptations.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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In the formula for motivation which we discussed earlier, one of the four key variables that influenced our motivation levels was delay. This referred to the time between the completion of a task and receiving the expected reward for it. The longer the time you have to wait to receive the reward, the less motivated you will be because there is no immediate gratification that you’ll get to experience from finishing a particular task. Though we discussed some ways in which you can cope with and complete tasks where a large delay is involved, mastering the art of delayed gratification is the ultimate antidote to relying on short-term rewards for motivation.
For the unfamiliar, delayed gratification is the ability to resist the temptation of indulging yourself through immediate rewards on an impulse. Being good at delaying gratification has consistently been proven to be a marker for success, as successful people can easily sacrifice short-term rewards for bigger rewards in the long run. An example of delayed gratification is this. Say you’re on a diet because you decided you want to lose weight and look good. You meet your friends at a fast-food joint and are extremely tempted by the fried chicken or hamburger that you know is going to obliterate your diet for the day. Your lips are watering at the prospect of biting into the food. However, if you manage to resist eating the junk because you are intent on losing weight, you’ve successfully delayed gratification.
Now the question is, how do you develop this skill of delaying gratification? In this chapter, we’re going to go through a 30-day plan filled with exercises that will help inculcate this ability in you. All of these are geared toward training your mind into incentivising itself to forego immediate pleasures for long-term gains. As you practice these techniques and see yourself succeed, thereby getting bigger rewards than you would have if you’d given in earlier, you’ll be more motivated to delay gratification in your personal and work life as well.
The 30-Day Plan
Before we jump into the activities themselves, we need to come up with and formulate the goal of this plan. What are we trying to achieve, and what gratifications are we delaying in order to do so? These are a few of the questions you need to answer before you start out on this journey. The first third of this plan, which can be completed over a week, is all about self-reflection and planning for the future. This extends not just to the thirty days, but for as long as you can maintain the habit. As such, the first step is to craft a rough plan to start out on the larger program you’re going to be following.
Exercise 1: Figuring Out Your Goals
In this exercise, you’ll need to answer some questions that you can put down on a sheet of paper in question-answer format. The first and most important thing that you need to note is what your intended behavioral change is. For example, if you struggle to complete your work because you’re tempted by television, distractions such as your phone, social media, etc., the intended behavioral change will be “being more disciplined in my work.” The next thing you need to note is what triggers the things that are preventing you from achieving your goal. To use the same example, what are the main triggers which lead you down the rabbit hole of distractions? This could be seeing notifications on your phone, watching YouTube endlessly, or something else. List down all the triggers you can think of.
After this, think of some ways you might counter these triggers and keep them from getting the best of you. So, if notifications lead you to waste time on social media, turn them off. If you find yourself repeatedly clicking on suggested videos on YouTube one after the other, limit the time you spend on the platform. There are often multiple things you can do about the same trigger as well. For the notifications, you can turn your phone off altogether at certain times in the day to limit phone use. The important thing to remember while noting these strategies is only to pick those that you reasonably believe you can actually do. For example, staying off your phone altogether might prevent distractions, but it’s not something that’s sustainable.
Lastly, note down what success looks like. This is incredibly important so that you have a clear goal to work toward and also a way to measure it. Though the desired outcome will be different for everyone, on a general level it can be something like “spending 2 hours every day working” as opposed to the current 1 hour or 30 minutes. Alongside your idea of success, also note down how you would celebrate achieving it. This could be literally anything, from indulging in fast food to having a night out with friends or spending a week doing nothing productive. The choice is completely yours.
Exercise 2: Making an Assessment of Rewards
The next exercise in our 30-day program is another assessment which will require a different sheet. You might be wondering why so much planning is needed, but the mental clarity that noting things down gives you will be immensely beneficial when you actually start trying to delay gratification. In the previous exercise, we made a list that included what your goals are, what’s preventing you from pursuing them, what you can do about them, and how you’ll know when you’ve succeeded. In this one, we’re going to focus more on why you want to pursue these goals and why you want to bother changing yourself at all, with a specific emphasis on the rewards of both behaviors.
As such, you should start by asking yourself what purpose your current behavior serves. So, if you’ve been procrastinating, what benefit do you think you’ve been deriving from it? This is a serious question, and there can be a bunch of good reasons behind your procrastination. Maybe you want to avoid the anxiety you feel about work or the feelings of self-doubt it fills you with. Or you want to prevent belittling yourself and getting overly critical about your abilities because of the negative self-talk in your head. Note all your reasons down.
Now that you’ve thought of the benefits, consider some negatives of maintaining this behavior. For example, even though you may avoid work to prevent self-esteem issues, your procrastination may just be another source of the same issue. It prevents you from cultivating a healthy work ethic which can drive you toward success, whatever that may look like for you. Procrastination is also the antithesis to discipline, and the more you engage in this behavior, the harder it is to be disciplined.
Just like you recounted the rewards and negatives of your old behavior, do so for the new behavior (in this case, being more disciplined in work-related matters) you seek to inculcate in yourself. It’s likely that you may not be able to think of a negative for the new behaviour, which is an indication that the goal you’ve selected is a good one.
Exercise 3: Learning Abstraction
The third and final reflective step of this plan essentially involves going into much deeper detail about the things you’ve mentioned so far in your previous sheets. The idea is to test your skill of abstraction, something that is key to being able to delay gratification. Abstraction forces us to think intellectually about our behaviors instead of giving in to irrational impulses. By thinking about goals in an abstract manner, you’ll gain some practice which will enable you to do the same with the temptations you need to avoid.
The first part of this abstraction exercise is to think about why exactly you want to achieve the goal you do. In this case, why do you want to be disciplined when it comes to work? Whatever your reasons, describe them in as vivid detail as is possible. So, if you want to be successful enough to live a comfortable life, write about why this matters to you.
Once you’ve done this, the second part is to describe in excruciating detail the steps you think need to be taken to achieve this goal. It’s not enough to simply be disciplined; you’ll also need to find a high-paying job in a field that you like working in. This requires taking up lower-level jobs, internships, and engaging in other related activities before you can climb up the ladder. Notice that though discipline isn’t the end of the story, it’s what will enable you to be able to do all the things you need to in order to reach your goal.
Lastly, think about the kind of person you want to be overall and how the behavior you want to inculcate fits into that ideal image you have of yourself. Maybe you want to be the employee who is the first to walk in and the last to leave because that’s how dedicated and passionate you are about your job. Or you want to be the person with enough money to be able to roam the world and enjoy all the exquisite experiences the world can offer. Whoever you want to be, write it down in as fine detail as you can.
Remember that you have a week to complete the questions in each of the three sheets, and that you can always come back to change, edit, or add things to your answers as the week progresses. Adding and making changes is natural and even good, because it shows that you’re giving the ways in which you wish to change serious thought and orienting yourself accordingly. Take your time with these first three exercises and be as authentic as possible.
Exercise 4: Remove All Distractions and Temptations
Now that you’ve had a week to visualize and write about everything you want to do and the person you want to be, it’s finally time to take the first concrete step toward that direction. In this exercise, we’re going to talk about how you can remove all distractions and temptations to minimize the willpower you need to exercise to delay gratification. Less exposure to temptations automatically means that you don’t have to deny yourself, which leads to less burnout and feelings of resentment about not being able to do as you please.
Depending on your goal, the removal of distractions can take place in several ways, but there are bound to be some commonalities across different goals. For example, your phone is likely a distraction no matter what you want to achieve, and the best way to get rid of this distraction is to literally get rid of it temporarily. A good way to do this is to keep it out of reach in another room of your house. Or you could simply turn it off for the periods when you need to concentrate and rely on a clock for keeping track of time. Another distraction is bound to be social media, and we suggested an extension that can block you from accessing these platforms for a given period of time that you set yourself.
Coming to the goal we’ve been discussing—being more disciplined in your work life—a good way to eliminate distractions and promote concentration is to set up the room you use for work in some specific ways. This begins with choosing the ideal room in your house to work. Pick the one where you won’t hear the traffic outside but that still has a window. If possible, keep some plants near the window so that you have something calming to look at when you want to take a short break. Also, make sure the room is well lit so that you minimize the strain on your eyes. Like plants, good lighting also affects your mood positively and makes you feel less stressed while working.
Next, you’re going to want to set up your desk in a way that eliminates distractions. For this, the first most important thing you should do is invest in a good ergonomic chair. Physical discomfort can be one of the biggest distractions while working and a high-quality chair will avoid that. Next, mark a space of about 30 inches from your face where you can place your laptop or monitor for work. Use a keyboard and mouse because these reduce strain on your wrists. Don’t keep any personal memorabilia or decorations because they can be distracting. If you’re using a notebook, make space for it beside your mouse for easy access.
Notice that there is no space for your phone here, which, as we’ve discussed, is easily the biggest distraction when it comes to work. If you absolutely must have it near you, you can keep it behind your laptop so that its not within eyesight while you work. Keep your working space as decluttered as you can and don’t keep anything on your desk that you won’t need while working. This will ensure that when you sit down to work, that’s all you do. It also makes entering a flow state easier, since you’ve done away with all distractions and oriented your physical environment in a way that is geared to maximize concentration.
Give yourself around five days to set up your home office or workspace appropriately. That should be enough for you to get everything you’ll need.
Exercise 5: Set Up a System of Credits
As you begin to use this new workspace and inch toward your goal of being more disciplined and avoiding procrastination, you’ll feel the temptation to take breaks and indulge in some distraction very often. The beginning of a new routine is always the hardest part, but there is a way you can cope with these temptations, and that is by setting up a system of credits based on how long you are able to delay yourself from attaining the gratification you desire. Take about 4 days to set up a credit system that works for you. Experiment with different values for each credit point and how exactly you want to set up the way to earn them, and stick with the system that works best for you.
Say you’re working on a work assignment and you really want to check your social media for updates by your friends. You think you’ve worked for long enough and that a few minutes won’t do any harm. Now, if you manage to refrain from giving in to this distraction, you give yourself a certain number of credits that can be redeemed in the form of work-free time later. For example, every ten-minute period that you go without checking your social media can earn you one credit point. Let’s assume that one credit point is worth 15 minutes of leisure, though you can choose this for yourself. Let’s further assume that you managed to hold off for 2 hours. That’s 12 credit points, which means you have 3 hours of free time to enjoy as a reward for holding off on the temptation to check your social media.
In practice, your reward can be anything and can play out in a lot of different ways. You can perhaps order takeout for every 10 credit points you earn from delayed gratification. Or you could assign a certain number of credit points as your goal for making a purchase you’ve been wanting for a while. It all depends on what kind of rewards work best to motivate you. Ideally, you’ll eventually be motivated to delay gratification simply out of recognition for the value of the work you got done that would otherwise be left pending. However, until then, setting up such a system of rewards can boost your productivity immensely.
Exercise 6: Doing the Right Thing
As we’ve discussed before, holding yourself accountable can be a tricky affair. After all, you won’t face any external consequences from anyone in particular if you simply don’t do what you were supposed to. This can make implementing the credit system from the previous step more difficult, but there is a way you can encourage yourself to not just go through with this, but also with other hard choices in order to achieve your goal.
Ask yourself one question: is this the right thing or the easy thing? Every time you’re tempted to give in to a distraction and just bypass the credit system altogether, ask yourself this question. The obvious answer will be that giving in is the easy thing to do, while refraining from indulgence is the right thing to do. Asking yourself this question takes you away from the realm of emotions and into that of cold, hard reason. Once you acknowledge to yourself that continuing to work is the right thing to do, giving in to temptation will automatically become a less appealing option because it starts to feel like a betrayal of your own principles.
Similarly, you can ask yourself this question every time you find yourself at a crossroads in the pursuit of your goals. Remember, choosing the right thing is not entirely without its rewards. The credit system is still in play, and if you do decide to do the right thing—continuing to work in the present—you can use your credits once you’re done however you see fit.
Exercise 7: Practice Self-Directed Speech
Self-directed speech is essentially words and sentences that are aimed at yourself. The previous exercise is also an example of self-directed speech, but here we’re going to use this in a broader way to help you remain focused and disciplined. This exercise works brilliantly when you use it to increase the number of credits you have available too.
Research shows that children, when told to repeat certain phrases, found it easier to wait to gratify themselves. So, if you offer a child a marshmallow now versus two marshmallows if they can wait for fifteen minutes, and you tell them to repeat the phrase “I have to wait so that I can get two marshmallows,” they fare much better than when left alone with their thoughts. We can use a similar strategy for delaying gratification in our own case.
For example, if you estimate that it’ll take you an hour to finish your work but you’re very tempted to check your phone, repeat to yourself “just one hour more and I’ll be done with work” over and over. This will make coping with your temptation much easier than if you simply tried to continue working. On top of that, you’ll accrue some credits to be used later as well. Take about 3 days to try out different affirmations and see which one makes you feel the most motivated to continue working. You can narrow your list down to a handful and rotate between them.
Exercise 8: Use What-If Scenarios
As you continue using self-directed speech, asking yourself whether you’re doing the right thing, and collecting credits for late use, there is one more activity you can incorporate to help you work longer and avoid distractions. This is through using what-if scenarios. Here, you basically have to gauge the future consequences of your actions and make an assessment as to whether it’ll be better to give in to your temptation or continue working towards your goals. Invariably, you will find that being disciplined will lead to the better future, giving you one more reason to continue.
Let’s see this through an example. Like last time, you’re working and have 1-2 hours before you finish but you want to check your phone or surf social media. Now, think of the possible consequences of doing so. You could easily grow distracted and spend much more time on these temptations than you originally planned. This will leave your work incomplete, which will keep nagging at you and prevent you from fully enjoying your indulgence. On the other hand, if you continue working for the next 1-2 hours, you’ll be free for the rest of the day soon and won’t have to worry about work at all. You can enjoy your distractions without any guilt, knowing you’ve earned it.
Similarly, do a cost-benefit analysis every time you feel yourself tempted to stray from the path to your goals. It should help you get back on track in no time.
Exercise 9: Waiting Before Making a Purchase
This exercise and the next one are just general tricks you can practice to improve your ability to delay gratification, and they are incredibly simple. Every time you feel the urge to purchase something, wait a week before doing it. Remember, you still get credits for waiting, though you may want to change the value of each credit point for this and the next exercise so that you don’t end up with too many.
Once you do this a few times, you’ll see that it becomes less and less challenging. You’re going to make the purchase either way, its only a difference of when, and eventually, with enough practice, the need for immediate gratification regarding purchases will cease. In the remaining ten or so days that we have for the program, try this activity at least once to see if you’re able to pull it off in light of all the changes you’ve made in pursuit of your goals.
Exercise 10: Wait Before Opening Your Presents
Closely related to the previous exercise is this one, wherein once you make a purchase and it arrives or you buy something from a store, you wait for two days to unpackage it or use it. This is yet another way to practice delaying gratification in a relatively minor way—again, you’re not being deprived of the pleasure altogether, the wait is merely temporary and you know it. Like with the previous exercise, you should be able to do this at least once before the 30-day period ends.