How Delayed Gratification Can Change Your Life

We all have a ‘future self’ and we’re very optimistic about its behaviour. Millions of people are in debt because they confidently told themselves that they could borrow now and their future-self would pay it off later. It’s a predictable behaviour that credit card companies rely on.

Have you ever gone to bed thinking that you’ll go to the gym in the morning? You’re convinced that ‘future you’ will be up-and-at-them. Then you wake up and that vision seems utterly ridiculous. Why the hell would you leave bed? Bed is warm. You can go to the gym tomorrow. You’ll definitely go tomorrow…………..

As with most things, we can blame this behaviour on evolution. Instant gratification exists because our cavemen ancestors had to grab resources as soon as they found them, in order to survive. According to research from Princeton University, there are two parts of our brain that are basically fighting each other when it comes to decisions. The emotional part of your brain values what feels good in the moment; the logical part wants to resist impulse in favour of long-term rewards.

I’m writing this on a Sunday. I don’t have to do it; I could go watch some Netflix, or check Instagram or pander to any other piece of technology that has been designed to exploit our instant gratification. I constantly have to battle against this short term pleasure in expectation of the long-term rewards (that aren’t even certain!)

The internet is awash with dead blogs and abandoned YouTube channels. The average podcast lasts just seven episodes before the host gives up. Too many of us expect our projects to be successful overnight. We want a ‘big break’; a sudden influx of followers and attention. We want the rewards without the work. We want instant gratification. Our brains are flooded with dopamine when our social media blows up and 3 retweets or 15 likes just doesn’t cut it after the first few weeks for most people, and so they give up.


So how do you keep on?


There are two things that keep me glued to my laptop, blogging on a Sunday. The first is helping people. I’m not (yet) a quick writer, these posts take me a lot of time and research to put together, and not many people are reading them. However, if one person reads this and changes something that is holding them back then this post is a victory. Helping people feels good, like really, that’s science; our brain rewards us when we help others. It’s incentivised because helping each other is how humans have managed to survive to this point.  The second is the process. Each post is a chance for me to practice my craft, become a better writer and actually work out how I feel about things as I commit them to paper. I’ve discovered, over the years, that my happiness is dependent on my progression. I came a long way as an artist, one painting at a time and incremental improvements are what kept me going. Writing has been the same way for me; the key to success is falling in love with the process. If I expected a book deal, to book a Ted Talk or to get a million downloads of our podcast within the next 6 months then I’d probably quit if it didn’t happen. I’m playing the long game because I expect all of this and more in the future.

It’s easier the second time around because I know what to expect. We built Graffiti Life from nothing and at times it was frustrating. Here’s a tweet I sent in 2010:

At the time I thought “what’s the point?” we had 19 people that cared about what we were doing and most of them were our friends. This is the point where most people give up. Luckily we didn’t (we have 13k followers now). Rome wasn’t built in a day J and even if only 19 people read this, that number will grow if I keep going. My happiness is not tied up in achieving the goal, it’s in enjoying the process to get there.


The Proof is in the Pudding?


In the 1960’s psychologist, Walter Mischel conducted a simple experiment known as ‘the marshmallow test’. Mischel and his team wanted to study children’s ability to delay gratification. They put each kid in a room and after showing them a plate with a marshmallow on it, a researcher told them they could have a second later if they didn’t eat the marshmallow. They would then leave the room for 15 minutes and watch the kids lose their mind trying to not eat the treat. Some ate it straight away, others nibbled the underside in an attempt to hide their crime but some were able to employ self-control and delay their gratification. Decades after the experiments Mischel and co-authors of the study checked in with 100’s of the participants. Mischel and his colleagues found overwhelmingly, that those who hadn’t given in to temptation had higher SAT scores, were less likely to be obese or suffer from substance abuse, responded better to stress and had better social skills and happiness levels. In fact, this group came out on top in all categories they were measured in.


What feels good is seldom what’s best for you. Learning to delay gratification will help you reach your long term goals. If you’re strong and can sacrifice the short-term rewards it’s almost impossible not to find success. On our podcast, Emma Gannon said: “I’m not the best writer, I just kept going”.


Those who keep going are the ones that win.

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