Why Is Delayed Gratification So Important?

If I had to name one skill that correlates with success it would be the ability to delay gratification. Why is delayed gratification so important?

Because we humans only ever do one thing. We do whatever is most important to us in the moment.

If we can prioritize getting what we want long term, we can tap into delayed gratification during moments we’re tempted to go off track.

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Delayed Gratification is Hard

Recently I was speaking with a woman who shared her frustration with her lifelong battle to lose weight.

She explained she has started almost every new day with a pledge that she will stick to her commitment to follow a specific eating and exercise regime.

She told me that every day started with resolute but sometime between leaving her home at 7:30 AM, and heading back to the office after lunch at around 1:00 PM, she would succumb to the temptation to whatever snacks happened to be around the office that day.

As she described this to me the pain on her face was almost unbearable to watch. Tears welled up in her eyes because of how tormented she was by this seemingly insurmountable struggle.

Polly Needs That Cracker

As I listened to her I was somehow reminded of Horatio, our four ounce Meyers parrot.

You see, every now and then my wife Gimalle places a few pieces of fruit in Horatio’s food bowl as a treat.

You may not know this, but parrots have a sweet tooth (or beak, as the case may be). Like many humans, Horatio heads straight for the fruit and leaves his bird food untouched.

 I asked myself, what it is that humans and parrots have in common?

The answer helps explain the woman’s dilemma.

Neither humans nor parrots are particularly skilled at delaying gratification.

Why is delayed gratification so important?

When we want something, we want it right now, even when we know that means we’ll be sorry later.

In the case of the woman trying to lose weight, the gratification that comes with weight loss is only going to occur far, far in the future. The snacks are right here right now, and eating them now gives pleasure.

For many years I taught that learning to delay gratification was an indicator of future success, according to a popular psychological theory The Marshmallow Test, wherein researchers promised a bunch of kids an extra marshmallow if they could refrain from eating the first one they were given for a certain amount of time.

Except there is now a problem with The Marshmallow Test. Scientists have been unable to replicate its results. It’s one of many 20th century research studies whose results have come into question when scientists tried to replicate them.

Although my original point that delayed gratification predicts future success is now weakened, the new findings offers another exciting perspective on this issue.

In the original Marshmallow Test, the conclusion was that children without the ability to delay gratification had worse outcomes. In the new Marshmallow Test, scientists found that the children were able to develop the skill to delay gratification as they got older.

That people’s ability to delay gratification can be enhanced with effort.

This is much better news. We can all learn to put off immediate results for better long term outcomes.

How Will You Feel When You Get There?

What good news for the woman struggling to lose weight. If she can focus on how she will feel when she reaches her goal, and keep that present in her mind when faced with the allure of a short term payoff, she can without a doubt change her outcome.

I asked her how she would feel if she lost the weight.

And she used words like “fabulous’ and “proud” and “confident” and “strong. The more she talked, the more absorbed she became in those feelings.

I advise people aiming for goals that require delayed gratification to spend as much time as they can focusing on the feelings they’ll have when they achieve their goals, until those feelings become part of your everyday life.

Allow yourself to feel how you will feel when you have reached your goal, and you will feel if you don’t. Let your feelings be your guide.

Till we read again.

Photo of Rael Kalley,Habits coach in calgary canada

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