The Virtue of Delayed Gratification

While we are not always at fault for succumbing to immediate gratification, we are still responsible for our actions. Luckily, there are some simple rules we can implement to become better at delaying gratification and save humanity from certain marshmallowy doom.

Ghostbusters StayPuft Marshmallow man walking

Rule #1: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

There’s an old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” And it’s true.

Marshmallow research shows that covering the treat helps children resist the temptation of eating it.18 With some creativity, this lesson can be applied to many of the vices you struggle with in your own life.

On a diet? Don’t buy junk. Period. If someone else in your house buys junk, ask them to put it somewhere you cannot see it. The easiest way to resist temptation is to simply not be tempted in the first place.

Rule #2: Remind Yourself of What You’re Giving Up

I smoked cigarettes for much of my teens and early 20s. Like most smokers, I grew to hate it. And like most smokers, I tried to quit dozens of times with no success.

Eventually, I made a list of everything smoking was costing me in my life—everything from my health, to the financial cost, to the social stigma, to the time wasted, to the embarrassment around friends and family, and so on. Then, each time I lit another cigarette, I would quietly remind myself of all of the things I was giving up at that moment.

Along with a few other strategies, it worked, and I quit smoking for good in 2008.

When we crave immediate gratification, we tend to only consider the benefits of the immediate action. But if we stop and remind ourselves of the costs, it can quickly affect how we feel at that moment. Highlighting the losses associated with choosing immediate over delayed gratification can work.19

Rule #3: Have Realistic, Time-Bound Goals

As I mentioned earlier, trust is necessary to delay gratification. We have to believe the bank is going to hold our money to be willing to save. We need to believe the government’s not going to fuck us over to pay our taxes.20

For this reason, when motivating yourself to delay gratification for a future outcome, it’s important to be realistic about that future outcome. Sure, it’s nice to imagine being a billionaire. But how about you start by focusing on getting a raise? Being realistic about what you can achieve will help get you there.21

If you want to lose weight, set a time-bound and realistic goal. Don’t say you’ll fit into those jeans one day or sign up to that gym when you’ve got time. That’s bullshit and will get you nowhere. You won’t trust it. And because you don’t trust it, you won’t do anything.

How much weight do you want to lose? How many months will that take? How will you go about losing that weight? When will you go to the gym?

Write that shit down and stick to it.

This is just basic goal-setting hygiene, but it will work wonders for strengthening your motivation and helping you delay gratification. When you’re committed to a realistic, time-bound goal, it becomes that much easier to not gobble down that leftover cake (which you will have hidden behind a mountain of bananas in the fridge).

Rule #4: Learn to Work With Your Emotions, Not Against Them

If people who succumb to their emotions tend to indulge in the moment, then it makes sense that developing the ability to identify and manage our emotions will help prevent that indulgence. I’ve written at length about this elsewhere. Check it out:

Read: If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing It Wrong

Rule #5: Hang Out With the Right People

If you want to get better at delaying gratification, surround yourself with people who delay gratification. Put yourself in a community where this is the expected behavior, where delaying gratification is common practice. Join a weight loss group. Become an AA member. Seek out fellow marshmallow denouncers.

Social cues can be a powerful tool when it comes to delaying gratification. Two separate studies have found that children delay gratification better when they’ve engaged in ritualistic behavior that primes them to see delaying gratification as “what everyone else does,”22 and when witnessing someone doing similar behaviors.23

Obviously, these five rules are a starting point. They are not a cure-all. You will not magically fix all of your problems and make all the right decisions tomorrow. Or the next day. But they are fundamental principles to delaying gratification consistently and should help you approach the problems in your life with better strategies.

Sure, you’ll fail a bunch of times. But that’s to be expected. Don’t feel bad about it. Here, have a marshmallow… or two.