What is delayed gratification, anyway?
“The act of resisting an impulse to take an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more-valued reward in the future. The ability to delay gratification is essential to self-regulation, or self-control.” (source)
Delayed gratification will make or break you, period.
Most people lose the battle and succumb to instant gratification constantly, which usually leaves them broke, unhealthy, and experiencing a life filled with hollow and unsatisfying relationships.
If you think I’m being a bit harsh, take some time to think about the world we live in.
Our attention spans have shortened. We can buy whatever we want and have it at our door within a day or two. Our overly convenient world has trained us to be impatient.
But patience is the key to success.
Here’s how to fight the battle for delayed gratification and win.
You have to master this equation
One of my mentors has a saying:
If you want to be successful, your long-term outcomes have to matter more than your short-term emotions.
Delaying your gratification runs counter to the way you’re wired. Your wiring defaults to focusing on your short-term emotions, so if you let it win, you’ll never get to experience the results that come from sustained periods of work where the rewards don’t come right away.
You’re wired to move toward pleasure and avoid pain. To avoid rejection and embarrassment because you’re a social animal. And, to top it off, your environment doesn’t do you any favors with all of the instant gratification traps of the modern world.
It’s a hell of a battle to overcome, but you have to overcome it if you want to achieve anything of consequence.
So, when it comes to instant gratification vs. delayed gratification, how do you train your brain to focus on the long game instead of letting your short-term emotions win?
Some of my favorite mental models and techniques are:
- Low bar/high reward: At the beginning of trying to form a long-term habit or pursue a major goal, the lower the initial bar for success, the easier it is to build momentum, e.g., it’s easier to go for a 10-minute walk than do Olympic lifts for two hours. Start small and overly congratulate yourself for those small wins.
- Future extrapolation: I think about what my life will look like months, years, and decades down the road based on my behavior today. Focusing on this often, and in a conscious way, can help you avoid letting large chunks of time drift by with no progress.
- Change the context: Your short-term emotions get in the way of your success because you interpret them as negative. You might be afraid to make a move, but making that move can be as simple as understanding that there’s nothing wrong with being afraid.
With this equation in mind, you can start doing the work required to delay your gratification and succeed.
Use this strategy to achieve your goals via delayed gratification
You can’t change your entire life overnight. But you can transform your life over a long enough period of time.
You do that by reverse engineering the life you want to live back to the present moment.
This is where the “one thing” strategy comes in.
It’s simple, just ask yourself this question when it comes to prioritizing tasks:
“What’s the one thing I can do, that by doing it everything else is easier or unnecessary?”
“The One Thing” by Gary Keller teaches you how to reach long-term goals by focusing on one thing at a time. The thing you do today is the tiny domino in a series of dominoes that can topple over a monumental goal.
He uses this analogy in the book:
On its own, a domino isn’t much. It’s about two inches tall and weighs about as much as a small box of matches. But with the domino comes a force. In fact, one domino has the capability of knocking down another one that is 1.5x its size. This seemingly infinitesimal ability compounds to produce incredible outcomes.
Imagine a long string of dominos lined up one after the other, with each one progressively 1.5x larger than the last. If you were to knock down the first two-inch domino, you would set off a chain reaction that would, by the 57th iteration, produce enough force to knock over a domino stretching the distance between the earth and the moon.
Your ideal life is that domino that reaches the moon.
What you do today is that one-inch domino.
I always sort of knew I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I gave it a shot. I had a long-term goal of writing full-time for a living, but I knew that would take years. I got started by toppling the first domino of writing one blog post.
There came larger dominos like building an audience, creating marketing campaigns, publishing books, getting freelance jobs, and creating products—but building a solid writing habit day-in and day-out before I got the results mattered most.
Any long-term goal can be broken down this way:
- What’s the one thing you need to do this year?
- What’s the one thing you need to do this month?
- What’s the one thing you need to do this week?
- What’s the one thing you need to do today?
That last part is crucial. The future doesn’t exist anywhere but in your mind. You need to practice staying focused in the present moment so you can do what it takes to create the future you want.
Focus on your three-foot world
You develop the skill of delayed gratification by staying focused on the present moment as often as possible.
If you want to stay focused on the present moment to build a better future, focus on your three-foot world.
I heard this phrase from a book called “No Hero,” which is about the life of being a Navy Seal. As part of Seal training, they went to a mountain to learn to rock climb. Mark, the author of the book, was afraid of heights. The trainer told him to “focus on his three-foot world” to get over his fear and climb successfully.
If he thought about climbing the entire mountain all at once, he’d lose focus and risk injury, even death. So, instead, he focused on the three-foot radius around his current position on the rock.
Where did he need to move his foot?
Where did he need to move his hand?
What is the optimal next move to make?
Keeping this focus in mind, he’d make his way up the entire mountain without ever looking at or focusing on the entire mountain.
Think about the equivalent of your three-foot world.
Say you’re running a business. Your three-foot world for a day might include something like sending 10 pitches to potential clients, creating a specific aspect of the product/service, or writing email copy for promotion.
This is a layer on top of the “one thing” section, but it’s more dialed into the mindset you must have if you want to delay gratification successfully. Locked in and focused only on what is required of you from moment to moment to achieve your goal.
Practical strategies for delayed gratification
So far, we’ve focused on mindset.
Now let’s talk about some practical strategies to delay your gratification and overcome your short-term emotions.
As quickly as possible, you want to stop relying on motivation and instead use habits formed by discipline.
The more willpower it takes to overcome your short-term emotions, the harder it will be to keep fighting that battle over and over again. So make it less of a battle each day by structuring your life the right way.
This is where rituals and routines come in.
If you ritualize your behavior and make your daily tasks become a part of who you are, the easier it is to keep doing those tasks.
I don’t have to negotiate with myself about going to the gym. I know that I go every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because I’ve gone every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past six months. Since the behavior is part of my ritual, I don’t have to think about doing it.
I tell students in my writing program all the time that they should write at the same time, for the same duration, and preferably in the same exact location every single day. This trains their brains to associate writing with that time and location.
Use this advice from earlier and create an initial low bar for success, but make that time window you spend on important tasks something that is non-negotiable.
- You will go for a 10-minute walk every day
- You will send 3 pitches to new clients every day
- You will spend 30 minutes creating content every day
Not “you want to.” You will.
Set a firm foundation of commitments you are certain you won’t back out of. As you repeatedly keep the promises you’ve made to yourself, you can stretch yourself further and level up your lifestyle.
Find your slight edge
In the beginning, you’re just looking to get momentum and avoid falling prey to your short-term emotions, but after you have a bit of a routine and ritual set up, it’s time to push yourself by finding your slight edge.
“The Slight Edge“ is a book that talks about the process of leveling up your life by gradually increasing your degree of difficulty
You have to find a way to challenge yourself without overwhelming yourself.
I love using weight lifting as a metaphor for life. Right now, in my workout program, I add roughly 2.5-5 lbs to my lifts each week. Doesn’t sound like much, but in the span of a year, you can use that process to build your strength and physique immensely.
Your slight edge is a lot like this process.
Your mindset has a “muscle.” So does your willpower or creativity. The slight edge is the mental equivalent of exercise. Using our examples above, you can go from spending 30 minutes creating content to a full hour. Or you can send 10 pitches per day instead of three.
If you combine all of these concepts I’ve shared, something amazing will happen down the road.
Slug it out inch by inch
In my fifth year of writing, I made more money than in the previous four years combined.
Delayed gratification is the key to success because of exponential growth. You want to think of leveling up your life just like you would an investing account for your money.
At first, you don’t get much of a return on your effort, but eventually, compounding starts to work in your favor, and you get much better results for the same level of effort.
All the benefits in life come from compound interest—relationships, money, habits—anything of importance.
You want to focus on long-term strategies because they let you take advantage of compounding.
Don’t enter a field unless you plan on spending years, or decades, understanding it.
Don’t try to develop skills you won’t dedicate years to practicing.
When it comes to people, use another piece of advice from Naval:
If you can’t see yourself working with someone for life, don’t work with them for a day.
All of these sections boil down to one simple truth.
Above all else, patience is the most valuable skill you can learn in life. That’s why it’s also the most difficult to practice. You want to succeed and win now, but you’ll never get what you want if you’re not diligent and patient.
Avoid the get-rich-quick, fad diet, YOLO mentality. Not because it’s bad. But because it just doesn’t work.