Delayed gratification – are you too soft on yourself?

When was the last time you had to wait for something you really, really wanted? Not just your morning coffee, or your favourite tipple at the end of a long day – something seriously important?

Now think, when was the last time you could have had something, but put it off? If you can’t think of an answer to either, you’re not alone. People in general just aren’t that good at waiting for things any more. But it might be time to have a think about why that is; after all, blaming easy credit and same-day delivery only gets you so far.

What the science says

Back in the ‘60s, researchers at Stanford University in the US ran a historical experiment, now nicknamed ‘the marshmallow experiment’.i Psychologists tested the ability of children (aged 4 to 6) to delay gratification. They did this by offering them a treat immediately, but telling them that if they were able to wait 15 minutes, they could have two treats. The findings were revealing: only around a third of the children could wait for the second treat. When the researchers followed up with the parents several years later down the track, they found that the kids who’d managed to hold off had done better in life generally, including getting better grades.

Why waiting is good

Every day we face circumstances where putting off something nice can lead to something even better. Battling to stay on track with healthy eating? That’s just one example. There’s saving up for something instead of putting it on credit, making things from scratch, and studying for a new qualification. Chances are you’ve encountered at least one. Just about everyone can benefit from sharpening up their self discipline.

In the years following that marshmallow experiment, researchers continued to study the finer points of delayed gratification. They tested which techniques were most successful in helping people hold out longer. Perhaps most importantly, they tested whether delayed gratification can be learned and cultivated. Good news – it can.

Master your ‘must-have-it-now’ instincts

The same researchers from the marshmallow experiment theorised that successful exertion of willpower comes down to a kind of internal ‘hot and cool’ system. It’s been likened to the old cartoon devil and angel on your shoulders. The devil/hot side is your emotions and impulses. The angel/cool side is cognitive – it’s all about thinking things through.

A popular technique to help you to master your impulses is to remind yourself why you’re delaying gratification. This could be as simple as a mental picture of what you’re aiming for. If you find that that isn’t strong enough, you might try carrying an actual picture in your wallet to remind you every time you make a spending decision.

Removing yourself from the presence of whatever is tempting you off course is an obvious technique. However, depending on what you’re avoiding, this can be tough; there is a reason why supermarket checkouts are stacked with little treats. This is where it’s important to be self-aware. Recognise when you’re particularly susceptible to make decisions you otherwise wouldn’t, and avoid those circumstances where possible.

Having trouble temporarily letting go of a few little pleasures so you can reach a financial goal? Remember, we’re here to help..

Flex Your Willpower

  1. Remind yourself why.
  2. Reinforce with a mental or physical image of your goal.
  3. Remove yourself from temptation.


i https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5010404

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