Why Delayed Gratification is a Key to Success

When you walk past a store window and see something you like on sale, do you stop and buy it? Or do you wait to first think about it before making the purchase? Instant gratification seems like the norm in today’s world, where you can access almost everything with one click. But can focusing delayed gratification lead to financial success?

A participant in the marshmallow experiment uses delayed gratification to resist eating a marshmallow. The caption above reads "trying to resist online shopping be like."

Thanks to ecommerce, you can now buy anything you want from various stores across the world and have it on your door steps within hours or a few days. Our overly convenient world with a quick-fix solution for everything has trained us to be impatient. However, instant-gratification-fueled impulsive behaviors that may negatively impact your health and quality of life. It distracts us from meaningful pursuits leading to destructive financial, social, and health outcomes.

For example, constantly making online purchases for whatever piques your interest will leave you broke and with massive credit card debt. Suppose you continuously check social media, even when spending time with family. In that case, you will end up experiencing a life filled with hollow and unsatisfying relationships. Most activities promoting instant gratification are linked to unhealthy behaviors.

In contrast, delayed gratification can add so much value to your life. It is a cognitive skill that can help you achieve personal growth, long-term life success, and overall well-being. Also, studies such as ‘The Marshmallow Experiment’ show a strong relationship between delayed gratification and success.

What is delayed gratification?

It is the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in anticipation of a more valuable future reward. 

For example, saving for retirement instead of spending money now is an excellent example of delayed gratification. Or not eating everything on your plate because you want to save room for dessert. (Not one of my favorite examples because I hate wasting food. Maybe serve or ask for smaller portions to save room for dessert.)

Image of a woman holding a piggy bank about to put a quarter in it. The overlaid text reads Ultimate guide to saving for retirement. The read now button links to the article Saving for Retirement 101.

What does this have to do with financial success? 

An essential life skill is being able to forgo things like impulse purchases to save for a vacation. Or,  skipping dessert to lose weight or taking a job you don’t love that will help your career later is an essential life skill. 

Stanford professor Walter Mischel’s ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ is one of the best-delayed gratification examples. The experiment centered around hundred of young children. It started by placing each child in a private room, accompanied only by a single marshmallow on the table. Researchers then offered each child a deal: If the child refrained from eating the marshmallow when researchers briefly left the room, they would reward them with a second marshmallow. However, if the child ate the first marshmallow, they couldn’t get the second one.  

The experiment’s results highlighted people of any age’s challenge with delayed gratification. A section of the children ate the first marshmallow immediately. Others tried to resist the temptation for a while but eventually gave in. Only a tiny number could hold out to get the second marshmallow. 

The researchers kept up with the experiment participants 40 years into adulthood. They found out that the children who could resist temptation were more successful in almost all areas of life. They scored higher on standardized tests such as SAT, were healthier, and responded better to stress. The kids had fewer issues with addiction and demonstrated better social skills. This delayed gratification example proved that it is pivotal to success in almost every facet of life, including financial success.

Benefits of delayed gratification

Learning how to delay gratification has several benefits, including:

  • Improved mental stability: If you enhance your ability to pursue long-term, you also improve your mental health and well-being. Improved mental stability will keep you n the right track toward achieving your life goals. It will also give you the emotional intelligence needed to meet your needs and refine your decision-making process.
  • Improved performance: Delayed gratification will help you build the necessary capabilities to excel in all areas of your life. When you can sacrifice your current pleasure and work towards your goals, you will achieve long-term financial success. 
  • Improved self-worth: When you delay gratification, you can achieve more long-term goals. As a result, you prove that you are capable, which can help you improve your sense of self-worth.
  • High social competence: You stand to gain a lot in social contexts from delaying rewards rather than seeking them out at every possible moment. The need for instant gratification will lead you always to put your needs above others. However, curbing it allows you to develop and maintain meaningful, lasting relationships.
  • Reduced engagement in harmful behaviors: The successful delay of gratification can reduce dangerous and addictive behaviors. Addiction is instant gratification taken to the nth degree, and it can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. Delayed gratification enables you to find more positive and durable coping mechanisms.

How to become better at delaying gratification

In a time where distractions are ever so present, delaying gratification is a challenging habit to build. However, you can do some delayed gratification exercises to improve. These include:  

  • Set goals: Success looks different for everyone. You improve your chances when you know what you value and the direction you want to go. Setting goals will give you purpose, and the ability to measure progress will keep you committed to their achievement. Start with small, easily achievable goals, then introduce long-term ones as you build your resistant muscle.
  • Create a system: It’s easy to set goals but challenging to implement plans. Although goal setting is essential, problems arise when you spend too much time pondering about your success and not enough time designing your systems. Your system is how you break down your actions and how often you practice. Divide your goal into manageable chunks and clarify what it takes to progress. Know what you want to accomplish daily, and you will see results.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is the human ability to be fully present. It involves being aware of where you are and what you are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s happening around you. You can cultivate mindfulness through various techniques, including meditation or taking breaks throughout the day to refocus and recenter.
  • Reward yourself well: Celebrate all wins, no matter how small. Pat yourself on the back when you manage to resist impulse buying. Suppose you set savings goals and actually make the conscious decision to automate the process. In that case, it’s a step in the right direction. However, to err is human. If you find yourself falling back to your old ways of instant gratification, quickly take corrective actions and learn from your mistakes. 

Final Thoughts

Delayed gratification is one of successful people’s most prominent traits. A life of purpose, aligned with seeking true happiness, creates absolute joy. People who learn how to manage their need for instant gratification live a life of meaning and thrive more in their careers, relationships, health, and finances than people who give in to it. If you’re focused on financial success, you’ll want to work on your ability to delay gratification

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