Are you familiar with the marshmallow experiment?
This is the one where researchers bring children into a private room, one by one, sit them down, and put a marshmallow on the table in front of them.
The researcher then offers a deal to the child. He tells the child that he is leaving the room, and if the child doesn't touch the marshmallow while he's gone, then the child will get a second marshmallow.
However, if the child eats the first marshmallow while the researcher is gone, he or she will not get another marshmallow.
Essentially, the child has the choice of having one treat immediately or two treats in the future.
The interesting part of this popular study came years later when researchers did some follow-up experiments on their subjects.
The researchers tracked each child's progress in a number of areas as they grew up.
They found that the children who were able to delay their gratification by waiting to receive their second marshmallow ended up with lower levels of substance abuse, higher SAT scores, better physical health, better social skills, and better stress management skills.
This experiment that spanned forty years proved that one's ability to delay gratification was a critical trait for success.
The creator of the study, psychologist Walter Mischel, said that the ability to delay gratification provided “a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life.”
What does delayed gratification have to do with success?
Willpower and self-control are essential strengths helping you reach your goals.
Whether it means saving money now to spend later, choosing healthy foods today to work to your ideal weight, or dealing with a less-than-satisfying job that helps you reach your career goals, delaying gratification affords tremendous returns while helping you strengthen your willpower muscle.
In order to be successful in the long run, you often have to give up some things that are tempting to you in the moment. But this can be difficult.
Most of us crave the immediate rewards of instant gratification. When that tantalizing piece of chocolate cake is in front of you, it's hard to override your sweet tooth even when you're fully committed to your diet.
Of course, the satisfaction you experience now can prevent you from enjoying a bigger reward in the future.
So what do you do when you are in those “chocolate cake” moments and every fiber of your being is screaming, “Eat the cake”?
You need some strategies to help strengthen your willpower in those tempting moments so you can stay true to your personal goals and commitments.
Here's how to harness delayed gratification to catapult your success and reach your goals:
1. Understand Your Values
Once you can pinpoint what is most important to you in the long run, you'll be able to keep your eye on the prize and make positive choices that lead you to success.
Pinpointing what's most important involves defining your core values — the guiding principles of your life. When you aren't living in alignment with your values, you simply won't be happy and content in life.
Knowing your values allows you to weigh your options (of a small reward now versus a larger reward later), and realize which choice is more in line with your values.
If one of your core values is good health and fitness, and you know how important that value is to you, then turning down the chocolate cake becomes less difficult.
When you are in those tempting moments, it's important to take a deep breath and remind yourself of your values. If you choose to dishonor your values, you know you'll feel bad about yourself later.
Need help determining your core values? You can find an extensive list of values here.
2. Know Your Goal
You need to clearly define a goal in order to achieve it.
What exactly are you aiming to do or accomplish?
Having this clear understanding of your long-term goal can motivate you to have the willpower to delay gratification in in the moment.
Sure, you may be frustrated starting at the bottom in your career when you see your friends working in more interesting jobs. But are their jobs a stepping stone to an important goal or just a short-term endeavor without a clear plan?
If you haven't set any goals for your life or career, today is a great day to begin. Think about what you want to achieve in life, and put the goals in writing where you can see them every day.
3. Create a Plan
Making a plan to reach your goals can help you make the right choices along the way to get there.
Remember the acronym about S.M.A.R.T. goals? You want your goals to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. And of course, your goals should align with your values.
Start with one goal at a time, and determine all of the steps required to reach it. Break down the steps into the smallest manageable actions so you are clear on exactly what's involved.
Then make a schedule with the specific actions you need to take every day — and actions you need to avoid in order to reach your goals.
Plot those actions on your calendar and carve out time for them every day.
It helps to list any behaviors, mindsets, or temptations that might get in the way of reaching your goal. Awareness of these potential roadblocks can help you better manage them when they present themselves — which they are bound to do.
4. Practice Delaying Gratification with Small Things
Willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.
If you want to learn to delay gratification, but your willpower muscle is weak, begin training yourself with small tests.
For example, rather than checking your email every five minutes, allow yourself to check it just a few times a day.
If you are tempted to eat something bad for you, force yourself to wait fifteen minutes before you can eat it. You may find this short delay curbs your temptation.
If you are trying to save money for a big goal, try giving up a small spending habit, like buying an expensive coffee drink at Starbucks.
As you get more practiced at delaying gratification with the small things, it will become easier and easier to delay with the big things.
5. Don't Be Afraid to Give Yourself Rewards
Constantly delaying any gratification is a difficult thing to do.
Depending on your goals, it can take a lot of sacrifice and forbearance over a long period of time in order to reach success.
Related Post: Keystone Habits: 7 Small Changes That Create Big Results
No one said delayed gratification was fun. You may feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, but in the moment, it stinks to be the one giving something up when everyone else is giving in.
To make it more bearable, try breaking down the steps of your goals into sections, and then give yourself rewards along the way.
Choose rewards that feel indulgent, fun, and satisfying — but not any that sabotage your goal. Get a massage, buy yourself a treat, take a mini-vacation. Do something to celebrate your hard work.
Rewards not only remind you of your commitment and perseverance, but also they motivate you to keep going to reach the finish line.
Success in any endeavor typically comes down to choosing to be disciplined rather than making the easy choice of immediate satisfaction
This is precisely what delayed gratification is all about– disciplining yourself to think about what you want in the future more than what you want right now and actually doing what you have to do to reach those goals.
If you backslide and give into temptation, don't beat yourself up. Everyone does, especially when first training yourself to delay gratification.
Just remind yourself of your values, review your goals, and get back on track. The day will come when you enjoy the profound rewards of your hard work and willpower.