We live in a world of instant gratification; fast food, online shopping, information at the touch of a button, easily available alcohol and cigarettes, credit cards (buy now what you can’t really afford) etc.
It’s probably more difficult in the world as it is now, than at any other time, to delay gratification and hold on to long term goals. It is human nature to go for instant gratification over delayed gratification much of the time, and with the ease of finding instant gratification in the Western world today, the discipline require for delayed gratification is hard to achieve.
What do I mean when I talk about instant gratification? Here are some examples :
Reaching for the chocolate cake when you’ve started a healthy eating programme because you just ‘couldn’t resist’.
Spending the working day on Facebook because you don’t know where to start with the task you’ve been given.
Buying that beautiful pair of shoes because you just couldn't leave them behind, even though you are saving for a big holiday.
Scrolling through site after site on your phone in the evening rather than doing the housework.
Sleeping with someone you are not really attracted to because you are not sure when the right person will come along.
When instant gratification becomes ‘chronic’, the person is caught up in addictive behaviour like alcoholism, shopping addiction, sex addiction etc.
Instant gratification is known as such for a reason. It feels good ‘in the moment’. However, over time, if instant gratification becomes your overriding habit, the gratification starts to dwindle while the sense of dissatisfaction increases. There is a staleness or ‘soul sickness’ that accompanies instant gratification when it is indulged in excessively. Furthermore, the sense of being out of control of one’s own behaviour leads to feelings of shame, disgust and worthlessness. The negative effect of instant gratification seeking on self-esteem, not to mention the stuckness it leads to in life (you are not achieving your goals) can add up to serious mental health problems over time. Add to this, the fact that instant gratification is linked to procrastination (think of the employee above who spends the day on Facebook rather than working). Regular procrastination leads to feelings of anxiety. As tasks are deferred or ignored, internal anxiety rises. So for the chronic procrastinator, anxiety will be a big issue.
Delayed gratification on the other hand, as you can imagine, is the opposite of this. When practicing delayed gratification we put off a short lived pleasure in order to reach, a further off, but much more satisfying goal. While delayed gratification requires more discipline, the pay offs soon teach us that the discipline is worth it. Where instant gratification assaults our self esteem, delayed gratification does the opposite; we feel in control, strong and most importantly, we achieve the things we set out to achieve. The amount of discipline and self-control required to stick to our plan is directly proportional to the level of pleasure we feel when the plan is achieved, therefore the sense of satisfaction will be worth the delay.
So how can we resist all of those instantly gratifying temptations and stick to our more rewarding, long term goals? The reasons for choosing instant gratification are numerous. Besides the obvious temptation which is the immediate pleasure involved, there are other reasons why we chose this unwise path. It might be that:
You have lost sight of your values: How often do you question your values or think about what they are? If you don’t know your values then it is easier to overstep them. You may have been brought up to have a very strong work ethic but you procrastinate daily and then do not understand why your self-esteem is so low. By becoming aware of your values you can test how your actions match up to them. Noticing a disjoin between actions and values can be enough to initiate change.
Your long term goals seem unachievable: It is understandable that if we do not believe we will reach our goals in the first place, then it would matter little if we take the easy road. If a goal seems unachievable it is important to break it down into manageable parts. If you are saving for a mortgage and you have given yourself 2 years to build up a deposit, rather than focus on the amount you require at the end of the two years, think about what you need to save each week or each month and watch the saving grow over time.
You need to reassess your strategy: If you have noticed one of your gratification weak spots and have tried to change without success, then it might be the approach that is not working. If your inner voice to is too harsh or too ‘parent-like’ it might lead to an unconscious rebellion. Your inner child (“but I want to!”) gets into a row with your inner parent (“don’t do that!”). Practice self compassion. Be Kind to yourself around your struggle. Take small steps and go easy on yourself if you slip up. Focus on the long term rewards rather than on what you are giving up in the short time.
The temptations are too accessible: what is your weak spot? It might be buying things you don’t need, maybe one glass of wine in the evening has turned into two or three or perhaps you have a habit of eating junk food in the evening. It is much harder to indulge in your bad habits if the temptation is not so easily reached. Keep the snacks out of the house. Buy only one bottle of wine per week, or none if it’s too tempting. Keep laptops, phones etc. out of your hands when you have a lot of free time.
Take some time to think about how you deal with gratification. Maybe there are some areas where you are very good at delaying gratification but some others where you go for an instant fix. Think about why it might be that you chose immediate gratification in that instance? Is it for any of the reasons above? If so think about what you can do now to make a change. Think about what you'd like to achieve in the long term. Make an achievable plan that will help you reach your goals.