What do Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and just about any other “ism” that’s survived more than a few Kool-Aid chugging parties have in common?
No, it’s not that they feature old guys dressed up in togas.
No, it’s not that they all rip off each other’s myths and verses.
No, it’s not that they spent thousands of years slaughtering each other in the name of some ethereal deity.
It is this: They each promote delayed gratification as one of the highest human virtues.
Yes, at some point, each culture discovers, in their own way, that eating, drinking, conquering, and fucking anything and everything at a moment’s notice can kinda backfire.
They also discover at some point that saving their resources and not spontaneously killing each other in a vainglorious blood orgy—you know, that whole “resist temptation” thing—can pay off nicely in the long run.
You could therefore say that delayed gratification is the foundation of civilization. It’s the call to sacrifice a little satisfaction today to greatly increase the quality of life tomorrow.
So, in order to help you all increase your quality of life tomorrow (and do your part for civilization), I’ve taken the liberty of writing this article on exactly what delayed gratification is and included a few life rules to help you delay your own gratification and live a more fulfilling existence.
Also: there are marshmallows.
Table of Contents
Delaying Today for a Better Tomorrow
Delayed gratification works because the benefits compound. When you save food, you aren’t just guaranteeing that you have food in a few months’ time, you are protecting yourself from people dying from famine or drought. You are freeing up people’s time to pursue more useful things than scrounging up food all the time. This leads to further innovations that then make life even better.
The same is true in other areas. We go through the pain of constructing roads or buildings or investing in businesses with the understanding that over the long run, they will produce far more value than we put into them.
We spend years getting educated with the understanding that picking up knowledge while we’re young will pay dividends throughout our lives.
Our entire system of money and trade hinges on the concept of delayed gratification as we assume that people will make prudent decisions now that will pay profits in the future.1
So, if delayed gratification is so great, if it’s the bedrock of civilization and, as I will argue, integral to pretty much every good outcome in life, why is it so fucking hard to practice?
Delaying gratification today for a better future tomorrow is so central to so many of our cultural and religious institutions precisely because it’s so hard to do. We need the constant reminders—not to mention the occasional kick in the ass—in order to overcome our instinctive laziness.
And just like the cultural systems that keep us in check, you can create systems in your own life to practice a little more delayed gratification from time to time. Because delayed gratification didn’t just duct tape human civilization together—it’s arguably one of the most important traits for achieving health and success in any individual’s life. Therefore, it’s on each of us to learn and practice delayed gratification as much as possible.
So, are you ready to get your act together for the good of humanity?
What Is Delayed Gratification?
Imagine you’re four years old. On a plate in front of you is the greatest treasure of all treasures: a white fluffy marshmallow. You’re told you can have that marshmallow when you feel like it, but… there’s a catch. If you can wait a few minutes, you’ll get two marshmallows. Two! Two fluff balls of glory.
What do you do? Do you wait? Or do you say fuck it and YOLO and gobble that shit down with four-year-old glee?
The above is a simplified version of one of the most famous psychological experiments ever conducted—what’s now simply known as “The Marshmallow Study.”2
Hundreds of preschoolers were put to the test in this study.3 The goal of the experiment was to measure their ability to delay gratification. Years later, after the children had grown up, the researchers then went back to see how they were doing in the adult world.
What they found was stunning.
The children who were able to resist the temptation of the marshmallow were doing better in life by almost any metric—they went to better schools, got better grades,4 had better relationships,5 made more money,6 and were happier7 and healthier.8
Delayed gratification is when you skip the cake because you promised yourself to only have a dessert once a week. Delayed gratification is when you stop splurging on kitchenware so you can save up for your dream house. It’s when you deny having just that one cigarette now so you can stay on course to quitting and salvage your lungs.
Delayed gratification is being able to trade your present happiness for a greater amount of future happiness—two marshmallows instead of one—and if you’re anything like the rest of humanity, you’re probably terrible at it. We live in a world with soaring consumer debt,9 rising rates of drug addiction,10 worsening mental health,11 and worrying obesity levels12… all outcomes associated with failures of delayed gratification.
So the question is, how do we develop delayed gratification? How can we get better at it? Because if you’re like me, you’ve tried the whole willpower thing—and let me tell you, it sucks.
There’s got to be a better way…
It’s Not About Self-Control
The inability to delay gratification is most commonly thought of as a self-control problem. And, unfortunately, we tend to morally judge self-control problems. You can’t resist the temptation of that chocolate cake? “Interesting,” people think, “You must definitely suck at life.”
Though self-control certainly plays a part in delaying gratification,13 using it to completely explain why people can’t stop themselves from face-planting into chocolate fun-time is both misguided and unhelpful.
Thankfully, we have dozens of studies from torturing children with offers of marshmallows to help us understand what can help us delay gratification more effectively and more often.
For example, researchers found that if they broke the children’s trust—i.e., promised something and then didn’t follow through—the kids were far less likely to wait for the second marshmallow.14
This makes sense: it’s only rational to delay gratification if and only if you believe you will receive that long-term reward. When you’re unsure of getting the results you’re holding out for, it can be rational to not wait and instead indulge. In these cases, immediate gratification isn’t so much a failure of willpower, it can also be a calculated choice—habituated over years and years of shitty, lying adults.
If you lived in a country with 500% inflation, would you save for your nest egg or go for the tequila fountain instead?15 If you lived in a downtrodden neighborhood with drug peddlers threatening you at every street corner, would it be easier or harder to say “no” to a free hit?
Having self-control helps, but in these situations where your environment threatens you and causes you to feel insecure or uncertain, most of us go YOLO.
But there are other factors that fuck with delayed gratification. Emotions, as you might expect, can do a number on our ability to resist temptation.
Research shows that when in emotional distress, our desire to feel better overrides our decision-making, resulting in immediate gratification and engaging in dumb shit, like calling your ex-girlfriend at 3 AM or buying a Maserati on credit.16 This is why I have long argued that developing strong self-discipline is less a question of willpower and more about developing the ability to manage our own emotions.
Believing the ability to delay gratification is all about self-control is misguided. It ignores the powerful roles of situational context and emotions which are often the ones responsible for our choice.
But worse, ascribing the failure to delay gratification to self-control is unhelpful. It leads us to point the finger and blame the individual for their apparent failure. You have poor self-control. You are at fault. You are bad. Most people will internalize this narrative. Then they will come to believe that they are somehow inherently deficient and fucked up and, oh, what’s the point?
A much better way to frame the issue is to look at the failure to delay gratification as resulting from the interplay of different factors: self-control is one, but also the context—what situation the individual is in, how they’re feeling at that moment, what is their relationship with the action or people around them, what’s their history of issues, etc.17
Empathy, as usual, can go a long way.
How to Delay Gratification
While we are not always at fault for succumbing to immediate gratification, we are still responsible for our actions. Luckily, there are some simple rules we can implement to become better at delaying gratification and save humanity from certain marshmallowy doom.
Rule #1: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
There’s an old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” And it’s true.
Marshmallow research shows that covering the treat helps children resist the temptation of eating it.18 With some creativity, this lesson can be applied to many of the vices you struggle with in your own life.
On a diet? Don’t buy junk. Period. If someone else in your house buys junk, ask them to put it somewhere you cannot see it. The easiest way to resist temptation is to simply not be tempted in the first place.
Rule #2: Remind Yourself of What You’re Giving Up
I smoked cigarettes for much of my teens and early 20s. Like most smokers, I grew to hate it. And like most smokers, I tried to quit dozens of times with no success.
Eventually, I made a list of everything smoking was costing me in my life—everything from my health, to the financial cost, to the social stigma, to the time wasted, to the embarrassment around friends and family, and so on. Then, each time I lit another cigarette, I would quietly remind myself of all of the things I was giving up at that moment.
Along with a few other strategies, it worked, and I quit smoking for good in 2008.
When we crave immediate gratification, we tend to only consider the benefits of the immediate action. But if we stop and remind ourselves of the costs, it can quickly affect how we feel at that moment. Highlighting the losses associated with choosing immediate over delayed gratification can work.19
Rule #3: Have Realistic, Time-Bound Goals
As I mentioned earlier, trust is necessary to delay gratification. We have to believe the bank is going to hold our money to be willing to save. We need to believe the government’s not going to fuck us over to pay our taxes.20
For this reason, when motivating yourself to delay gratification for a future outcome, it’s important to be realistic about that future outcome. Sure, it’s nice to imagine being a billionaire. But how about you start by focusing on getting a raise? Being realistic about what you can achieve will help get you there.21
If you want to lose weight, set a time-bound and realistic goal. Don’t say you’ll fit into those jeans one day or sign up to that gym when you’ve got time. That’s bullshit and will get you nowhere. You won’t trust it. And because you don’t trust it, you won’t do anything.
How much weight do you want to lose? How many months will that take? How will you go about losing that weight? When will you go to the gym?
Write that shit down and stick to it.
This is just basic goal-setting hygiene, but it will work wonders for strengthening your motivation and helping you delay gratification. When you’re committed to a realistic, time-bound goal, it becomes that much easier to not gobble down that leftover cake (which you will have hidden behind a mountain of bananas in the fridge).
Rule #4: Learn to Work With Your Emotions, Not Against Them
If people who succumb to their emotions tend to indulge in the moment, then it makes sense that developing the ability to identify and manage our emotions will help prevent that indulgence. I’ve written at length about this elsewhere. Check it out:
Rule #5: Hang Out With the Right People
If you want to get better at delaying gratification, surround yourself with people who delay gratification. Put yourself in a community where this is the expected behavior, where delaying gratification is common practice. Join a weight loss group. Become an AA member. Seek out fellow marshmallow denouncers.
Social cues can be a powerful tool when it comes to delaying gratification. Two separate studies have found that children delay gratification better when they’ve engaged in ritualistic behavior that primes them to see delaying gratification as “what everyone else does,”22 and when witnessing someone doing similar behaviors.23
Obviously, these five rules are a starting point. They are not a cure-all. You will not magically fix all of your problems and make all the right decisions tomorrow. Or the next day. But they are fundamental principles to delaying gratification consistently and should help you approach the problems in your life with better strategies.
Sure, you’ll fail a bunch of times. But that’s to be expected. Don’t feel bad about it. Here, have a marshmallow… or two.
- This assumption is taken for granted to the point that most banks around the world are only legally required to hold about 5% of all their assets in cash. That is, for every $100 you deposit with them, they loan out and/or invest $95 and keep only $5 on hand in cash. This partially makes up what’s called “fractional reserve banking” and the world wouldn’t exist as we know it today without it. Again, it all hinges on the assumption that people will not go out and blow their whole savings at the same time. It also exposes these banks to risks, because if people withdraw just 5% of their savings, or too many of their loans go bad, well, then they’re screwed. See: 2008.↵
- The Marshmallow Study is in fact a series of studies beginning in the 1960s. See for example: Mischel, W., & Ebbesen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(2), 329–337 and Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204–218. ↵
- 653 of them, to be exact. See: Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159–1177.↵
- Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933–938.↵
- Ayduk, Ö., Zayas, V., Downey, G., Cole, A. B., Shoda, Y., & Mischel, W. (2008). Rejection sensitivity and executive control: Joint predictors of borderline personality features. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(1), 151–168.↵
- Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693–2698.↵
- Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Mischel, W., Downey, G., Peake, P., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). Regulating the Interpersonal Self: Strategic Self-Regulation for Coping With Rejection Sensitivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 776–792.↵
- Schlam, T. R., Wilson, N. L., Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2013). Preschoolers’ Delay of Gratification Predicts Their Body Mass 30 Years Later. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(1), 90–93.↵
- Cox, J. (2021, February 17). Household debt rises to $14.6 trillion due to record-breaking rise in mortgage loans. CNBC.↵
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2019). National Survey on Drug Use and Health.↵
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2019). National Survey on Drug Use and Health.↵
- CDC. (2021). Adult Obesity Facts.↵
- Longitudinal studies show delay task performance in children is consistently associated with a measure of their self-control, and that self-control is responsible for predicting future test scores, health, and risky behavior in adolescence. See: Duckworth, A. L., Tsukayama, E., & Kirby, T. A. (2013). Is It Really Self-Control? Examining the Predictive Power of the Delay of Gratification Task. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(7), 843–855.↵
- See: Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126(1), 109–114.↵
- Burritos. Always go for the burritos.↵
- Tice, D., Bratslavsky, E., & Baumeister, R. (2001). Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1), 53–67.↵
- This thinking is in line with a psychological model of behavior called CAPS (Cognitive-Affective Personality System) proposed by the masterminds behind the Marshmallow studies. See: Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102(2), 246–268.↵
- See: Mischel, W., & Ebbesen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(2), 329–337.↵
- This is true even for children as young as three years old. See: Imuta, K., Hayne, H., & Scarf, D. (2014). I want it all and I want it now: Delay of gratification in preschool children. Developmental Psychobiology, 56(7), 1541–1552.↵
- Research finds that undergraduate students’ decision to delay gratification depends crucially on their belief that delaying it will lead to them achieving their academic goals. See: Bembenutty, H. (2008). Academic delay of gratification and expectancy-value. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(1), 193–202.↵
- Not only “what,” but also “when.” This is important because not knowing the time frame makes us susceptible to immediate gratification. Research shows that the more time elapses when we wait for something, the longer we predict it will take (imagine waiting for someone to reply to your email, for example). This can lead to people abandoning the wait and going for the immediate gratification. See: McGuire, J. T., & Kable, J. W. (2013). Rational temporal predictions can underlie apparent failures to delay gratification. Psychological Review, 120(2), 395–410.↵
- Rybanska, V., McKay, R., Jong, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Rituals Improve Children’s Ability to Delay Gratification. Child Development, 89(2), 349–359.↵
- Bandura, A., & Mischel, W. (1965). Modifications of self-imposed delay of reward through exposure to live and symbolic models. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2(5), 698–705.↵