So often self-control is seen as a negative act. Where we are depriving ourselves of something fun or something so good, but oh so bad for us. We are taught from an early age we can’t have ‘bad’ foods all the time, even though we want them. As adults, the list of things that are supposedly ‘bad’ for us grows exponentially. Ironically, these are also the things that a lot of us gain most pleasure from. Takeaways, retail therapy, alcohol, gambling etc.
To deny ourselves these joys, we are denying ourselves pleasure, right? Not necessarily.
In Greek mythology, sailors were regularly lured to their deaths by Sirens, creatures who sang a beautiful and irresistible song. Entranced by the song, these sailors steered toward the call and were dashed to pieces on the rocks.
In order to avoid this fate, Odysseus ordered his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and to tie him firmly to the ship's mast. On hearing the Sirens' song, Odysseus himself could not resist and begged to be untied, but since he had instructed his crew to ignore him, they refused his pleas. Thus, the ship was able to sail safely past danger; but only because Odysseus was smart enough not to underestimate the power of temptation.
The marshmallow study
The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification. In the study, 4 year old children were left alone in a room where they had the choice of one marshmallow to eat immediately, or to wait for up to 20 minutes and get two marshmallows. Double the pleasure.
The video footage, as you can imagine, is quite entertaining. The kids employed a range of techniques to try and pass time – some played piano with their hands, others sung songs, a few would cover their eyes or not stare directly at the marshmallow. Some of these distractions worked, but the majority in the study couldn’t wait and ate the marshmallow, forgoing the reward of two marshmallows.
The interesting part of the study was not so much the marshmallow experiment in itself, but more so the follow up to the experiment, which came years later.
Why should we delay gratification?
The study followed up with the children for a 40-year period, looking at all aspects of their lives. They found the children that delayed their gratification for two marshmallows, ended up with higher education, better responses to stress, reduced obesity and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.
This shows that delayed gratification is a critical element to leading a successful life. We encounter examples of this everyday:
If you delay the gratification of buying KFC, then you will eat healthier at home.
If you delay the gratification of watching television so that you can get your homework done, then you will get better grades.
If you delay the gratification of drinking with friends so you can finish a work project, then you will get better work prospects.
There are many more examples, as we are faced with multiple choices every day.
What success basically comes down to is choosing the pain of discipline, over the ease of instant gratification.
Why is it so hard?
Delaying gratification is so difficult because our minds have two states. An emotional state and a reasoned state. The two states are in a constant battle between satisfaction now or satisfaction later.
The hot system
The emotional state is always prominent in the here and now and heavily biased towards the present. Under this state, we take full account of immediate rewards, but discount rewards that are delayed, such as the majority of the children in the marshmallow study. Emotions tend to be much more heated and harder to ignore.
The cool system
Whereas, the reasoned state is more focused on the long term and what is best for us. This state of mind is much ‘cooler’ and easier to ignore. The cool mind is reasoned and analytical. The cooler mind is the one that we should be listening to, but it is hard to listen when it is so far ahead of us in the future.
We need to psychologically reverse this, so we are cooling the present mind and heating the future mind. This way, more weighting will be given towards future oriented thinking, which is essential for sound financial outcomes.
Financial benefit of delayed gratification
Lets take a look at compound interest. So important it has been coined the eighth wonder of the world by Albert Einstein.
Bill and Ben have both just graduated at the age of 22. They have been very lucky in gaining immediate employment, both earning exactly the same would you believe. $50,000 per annum. We are also assuming their housing costs are identical.
Bill is so excited to be earning more money than he has ever seen and buys an expensive car, brand new cell phone, a new clothes wardrobe of all the brand names and spends all weekend going out for dinner and drinks. He is spending paycheck to paycheck all through his 20’s.
Ben on the other hand has decided to save some money. He may not be having as much fun with his money though. He is investing $500 per month throughout his 20’s, earning 7% on his investments. From the age of 31 Ben never invests another cent. At the age of retirement Ben will have $939,980 from an original investment of just $54,000
Assuming Bill starts saving from age 31 he will need to invest $500 per month for 36 years to have the same amount of money as Ben. Bill will be using $203,500 (36 years) of his own money to get there, whereas Ben just used $54,000 (9 years)!
Just by delaying gratification by 9 years, the financial results are substantial. The question then becomes – do you want time and freedom now at a higher cost or time and freedom later at a lower cost? There is no right or wrong answer. It all depends on what you want out of life. What are your goals and values?
If you are future focused and are wanting to delay gratification here are a few tips to get some control back.
Tips to delaying gratification
Have clear and strong goals. You are then more likely to make decisions that don’t inhibit the achievement of your goals. Your motivation to achieve will be higher.
Think of the positive aspects of not acting.
Think of the negative aspects of acting.
Remove temptations as much as possible: one example could be leaving your credit card at home and having non-spend days.
Form strong habits: Once a habit is formed it becomes so much easier.
Predict when temptations are likely to occur. Then they won’t come all of a sudden. If they are expected, you can rely less on impulse.
Distance yourself from your temptations
Distract yourself with something else to do.
Have a like-minded network of friends that can help pull you into line and support you.
Positive self-talk: encouraging yourself.
Express gratitude: be thankful for what you already have.
Our ‘hot’ emotional decisions give us immediate pleasure. That is why they are so attractive and tempting. Once the pleasure has diminished though, we often feel regret. To combat the regret our mind plays yet another trick on us and rationalises our lack of self-control. “I had a crazy day”. “It was someone else’s fault”. “I work hard, I deserve this”. Our psychological immune system is so good at protecting and defending us that moments of regret are only fleeting. This makes it much more unlikely we will learn to behave any differently in future. That is why it is so easy to repeat the cycle.
To eliminate the self-gratification cycle we need to cool the hot system. We can’t act logically and coolly if the hot system is dominating. We need to employ the tips mentioned above. Effectively placing greater value on our future self than our current self. Just because you are future focused, it doesn’t mean you can’t live in the present. You can be as involved in the present as anyone. Remember that most present day pleasures are only short-lived anyway.
If you are not going to get something better in return for your delay, then don’t delay. In the introductory examples though, there were clear benefits to delaying gratification. Odysseus got to live another day and the kids got double the marshmallows.
I believe the most important way of looking at it as not depriving yourself of something, but instead you are giving yourself something better.
You may just have to wait longer for the benefits.
The information contained on this site is the opinion of the individual author(s) based on their personal opinions, observation, research, and years of experience. The information offered by this website is general education only and is not meant to be taken as individualised financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, or any other kind of advice. You can read more of my disclaimer here
As always we welcome your thoughts below. What tricks do you play on yourself to delay gratification? What vices do you have that you wish you could delay gratification for?