How To Delay Gratification

I’ve been wanting to buy a Fitbit for a few weeks now.

I recently joined a behavioral rewards program (called Vitality) through my health insurance in South Africa, and I’m very eager to gain all of the benefits that an activity tracker will afford me.

I went to the store this morning, and I was disappointed to learn that they were out of stock, only to have received a call an hour later informing me that they just got a new shipment in after I left.

Now I’m excited again — I want to go to the store and pick up the watch right fucking now. But I also have more important things to do.

This is a problem of mine — my deep desire for immediate gratification.

I’ve been primed by instantcustomer service chats, an overly attentive (and loving) mother, and countless bad habits.

In fact, marketers overtly play to our innate desire for instant gratification when marketing their products.

Lose weight instantly! Buy now, pay later!

On the one hand, I am appreciative that technology facilitates immediacy (and that my mom always answers my phone calls). I believe that efficiency is important, and it would be foolish to not take advantages of readily available resources.

On the other hand, the prevalence with which I can be gratified immediately is ruining my life.

In theory, I want to delay my gratification, make better decisions and develop better habits. I know that I’m moving myself in the right direction, but it’s veryyyy hard.

So, what are we up against?

We are hardwired, through evolution, to favor the immediate, relatable reward over what is delayed and in the distance.

Neurological evidence shows that our brains are hardwired “to maximize the rate of reward”.

It’s pretty intuitive when you think about it. Prior to stores having robust inventory management systems, if a person 2500 years ago found a small but ripe fruit on a tree, they were picking and eating that fruit immediately.

There was no guarantee that the fruit would be there tomorrow, or that this person would find a bigger fruit tomorrow, so it’s a no brainer that it be eaten today.

We take that mindset with us to modern times, however, this requirement for immediacy is not as self-serving anymore.

Yet here I am, wanting to jump out of my seat in the middle of writing this article, to race back to the store and pick my prized fruit (Fitbit) off the tree (behind the counter where they’re holding it for me).

So, why do we suck at delaying gratification?

Humans suffer from cognitive biases — which impair our thinking and cause us to make irrational decisions.

There’s one cognitive bias called Hyperbolic Discounting — where people choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger rewards down the line. People view the immediacy of time over the higher value of the reward.

In spite of our brain’s hardwire, it’s irrational to accept $100 today over $120 tomorrow — yet that’s exactly what research shows that humans do.

If you recall the infamous Marshmallow Test, hyperbolic discounting is the major force at play during the experiment.

In this study, the kids are discounting the value of the future reward for the short-term, smaller reward.

The discounting is considered hyperbolic, because as the length of time needed to wait for the reward increases, the reward is discounted at a gradual rate.

So, if the kids in the study had to wait 30 minutes for the second marshmallow, rather than 15 minutes, the value of the second marshmallow would be discounted even further, and presumably even less kids would wait for the second one.

So, what about this tricky Fitbit situation?

Right now, I have two decisions:

  1. To drop everything and get the Fitbit right fucking now, or
  2. To finish this blog post first and then get my Fitbit.

With the second option, I’m forced to make a choice between immediate gratification, and doing something that will be gratifying far in the future.

The reward in writing this blog post is not finishing the blog post, but rather in the unforeseen benefits of the sum of all my blog posts from my 30-day blogging challenge.

I’m really discounting the value of finishing this blog post right fucking now — given how far in the distance my rewards are — while a brand new shiny Fitbit is calling out to me from the store.

But what if I couldn’t get my Fitbit for a few days?

This is again where hyperbolic comes into play.

When the length of time needed to wait for the reward increases, the reward is discounted at a gradual rate.

So, I’m valuing the reward of getting a Fitbit right fucking now as higher than I would if I had to wait 2 days.

Because the rewards I expect to receive from blogging, over time, are greater than the reward of the Fitbit itself, it becomes much easier for me to choose to blog today when I’m valuing the reward of getting a Fitbit less.

So, what can I do about it?

Conventional wisdom says that we can overcome our desire for instant gratification by emphasizing with our future selves; hiding the temptations; knowing our goals and values, and creating a plan; setting pre-commitments to tasks that lack instant gratification; breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks; prioritizing.

To be honest, I hate most of that advice.

All that advise says is, “just don’t do the things you’re neurologically hardwired to do through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution”.

If it were that easy I would do it!

Fortunately, delayed gratification in and of itself is a habit that can be formed and hardwired.

For that, we turn to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

…MIT researchers… discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.

To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.

In my case, my routine is seeking a distraction that is instant gratification (in this instance buying a Fitbit), which feels better than working on things (this Medium blog post) that have delayed gratification.

Now the question is, what is the cue for this routine?

And what’s the reward? Is the Fitbit itself the reward? Or buying something in general? Is the points I will earn in the Vitality program the reward? Is the distraction the reward?

When faced with these challenges, Duhigg recommends experimenting with rewards.

I don’t believe the Fitbit itself is the reward, because my issues with seeking instant gratification have existed long before Fitbit even existed.

However, I can experiment with rewards — taking a break, exercising and earning more points, buying something — to see what’s driving the instant gratification cravings (apart from the fact that it’s hardwired in my brain).

Through experimentation, I can determine a better way to satisfy these cravings, and come up with a better reward — one that may still fulfill my instant gratification needs, but goes further to support my goal of delayed gratification and the prioritization of the things that will benefit my future self.

It’s hard, and a perpetual work in progress. If I want delayed gratification to become habitual, I need to plan for success by still allowing for short-term rewards upon doing the long-term work.

Well, I’m done with this blog post. I’m going to reward myself with a Fitbit 😁.


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