If You Want To Be Successful, You Have To First Master This
In the past, the concept of delayed gratification, self-control, and self-regulation have been used interchangeably or inconsistently. The ability to delay the impulse for an immediate reward to then receive a more favorable reward at a later time is a standard definition of delayed gratification. In fact, studies have shown that the ability to delay reward is present in highly successful people.
One study that supports this theory that you have likely heard about is often referred to as ‘The Marshmallow Test.’ The Marshmallow Test was an experiment led by psychologist Walter Mischel, PhD, and consisted of leaving preschoolers in a room alone with a marshmallow. The preschoolers were then offered a choice: They could either have that one marshmallow now or if they waited until the researcher returned, they could have a second.
The results were spectacular. According to the American Psychological Association, researchers: “found that teenagers who had waited longer for the marshmallows as preschoolers were more likely to score higher on the SAT, and their parents were more likely to rate them as having a greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond to reason, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations and concentrate without becoming distracted.”
And if these results aren’t convincing enough, Mischel then went back to revisit the study with those same participants now in their forties and found that “their willpower differences had largely held up over four decades.”
The initial theories on delayed gratification focused on the construct as a personality trait and a predictor of future success. It wasn’t until further investigations were done that these theories have been questioned and the adaptive nature of the construct has been inquired upon. That being said, researchers have examined whether it is always beneficial to delay gratification, in turn, denying pleasure as well.
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Science has since theorized that the delay of gratification actually improves over a lifespan (Mischel, 2010). Parents will recognize this when a toddler throws a fit over having to wait 5 minutes for a cookie. Our physical bodies recognize pleasure as serving us in survival. Food, sleep, water, and sex all provide the means to survive and pass on our genetic material.
Intuitively, we would have the natural impulse to receive these things as pleasurable.
Through his studies, Mischel formed what he called the ‘hot-and-cool’ system. The cool system is cognitive in nature. It’s essentially a thinking system, incorporating knowledge about sensations, feelings, actions, and goals — reminding yourself for instance, why you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow. So while the cool system is reflective, the hot system is impulsive and emotional. The hot system is the part responsible for quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers, such as popping the marshmallow into your mouth without first considering the long-term implications.
The hot system = the devil on your shoulder
The cool system = the angel on your other shoulder
“When willpower fails, exposure to a ‘hot’ stimulus essentially overrides the cool system, leading to impulsive actions. Some people, it seems, may be more or less susceptible to hot triggers. And that susceptibility to emotional responses may influence their behavior throughout life.”
So how can we use this information to improve our chances of success in our own lives?
Regardless of where your character traits fall on the spectrum of ‘hot vs cold,’ there is always an opportunity to retrain your mind. The hot and cool framework may suggest itself as a dichotomy, but trust me when I say, you can become the other. As someone who, in the past, would rarely engage in rational thought before acting on emotion, I can assure you change is possible.
One of the places where the majority of us fall short is the lack of emphasis we place on the upside that comes from delayed gratification. Ever heard the quote, “good things come to those who wait?” This quote offers an underlying sense of understanding as it relates to our human nature to act impulsively, but our complexity of mind in being able to reshape the way we respond.
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The more you can train yourself to savor even life's simplest pleasures, the more incentivized you will be to delay the gratification that leads to them.
You can either reward yourself every time you lose a pound with a candy bar and wonder why you have now reached a plateau in progress or you can make the thought of the chocolate melting in your mouth and each of the flavor notes be a driving force in reaching your ultimate goal of 20 pounds lost.
You see, for a lot of people, delaying gratification isn’t the problem; it’s their failure to reap the rewards once they’ve done the work. This is what many can refer to as ‘the burnout.’ When you fail to draw attention to the reward at the end of every goal, it never truly feels like an accomplishment.
This is especially true for entrepreneurs and freelancers — someone who works for themselves. These types of working environments can oftentimes grow to be very hard on a person’s mental health, as the normal office environment gives you validation that doesn’t typically exist in the former scenario. It can eventually begin to feel as if you are working hard, yet getting nowhere and achievements start to feel few and far between.
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The practice of delaying gratification is especially important for these types of workers. Are you prone to overwork? Savoring the little wins and rewards along the way is a form of life enrichment that is essentially free, yet can enhance your daily routine tremendously.
Something To Try:
Start telling yourself that your first coffee of the day, the fragrance of your shower gel, the clean sheets you will slip into at the end of the day, and the sound of your children playing gives you immense pleasure.
Here’s the cool(est) part of the above strategy: After a while, your mind will become trained to experience more pleasure on a daily basis.
Think about it: parents are already doing this with their children all the time and we likely had it done to us a time or two growing up. “Eat your dinner and then you can have ice cream” or “Brush your teeth and then you can play a video game.”
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At some point in our lives, we lost the nostalgia and began accepting the absence of that kind of pleasure into our day-to-day. We have to begin telling ourselves that each action is a precursor to the next and eventually, will lead to a reward. This isn’t about turning your whole world upside down, but about finding enjoyment in the things along the way and drawing the attention of each of your senses to the reward at that moment.