Delaying Gratification

Kids are taught from a young age to finish their homework first and to play later (or to watch television later). Here’s another example: eat your veggies first, then you can have the ice-cream, or so they are told. In either situation, the reverse (play now, pay later) rarely works as well as this. The same principle continues to apply when you reach adulthood. When we continue doing the reverse in our adulthood (and this happens mostly due to parenting or lack thereof), we become impulsive with our lives and fall into all kinds of trouble. This experience spills into all areas of our life. As a result, we become undisciplined. We don’t value ourselves, and, by extension, we certainly don’t value our time.

M. Scott Peck calls this delaying gratification. He defines it as:

The process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.

Delaying gratification means you address the problems in the here and now — not by hoping that those problems will go away or by worrying about it (as neither of those things would work), but by choosing to deal with it and to do something about it. I know this sounds so obvious, but I bet most of us (myself included) have been ignoring some problem or other in our lives, hoping that it will quietly go away, but it never does.

For instance, when we procrastinate on our work, we’re doing something. By choosing not to work, we resort to ways of pleasure by talking to colleagues, doing something other than work, or just idling time away. In other words, we are unwilling to delay gratification in the present by hoping that if we ignore our problems/challenges long enough, they’ll go away. But problems never go away on their own accord. We are only delaying the inevitable. We know that at some point we have to come back to it. We know very well that living in denial of those problems won’t solve a thing, yet we seldom do something about it.

Delaying gratification doesn’t necessarily have to do only with ignoring big problems. We can even find manifestations of this in our everyday lives. Think of a kid who is riding his bicycle at great speed, but is unwilling to slow down. By choosing not to slow down and to give up the speed for a short while (delay gratification), the kid will likely fail to negotiate the turn and potentially have an accident — the natural consequence of not delaying gratification in this case.

Here are some benefits to delaying gratification. By choosing to delay gratification, we are addressing our problems/challenges first, and by not doing so, they will continue to take up mental space and will likely not go away on their own (while you try to do other things). By doing the difficult/important things first during any given day, we make the rest of the day more enjoyable because it’s downhill (easier) from there. Plus, your mind is more able to do the hard mental work early in the day than later. Once we have done the hard work, spending time playing makes it all the more meaningful. We enjoy our downtime more when we have worked during the day and feel that we deserved it. I discussed this at length in Work and Play.

As Peck suggests:

Choose to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choose to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.

Here are some ideas for delaying gratification in our everyday lives:

Whatever problems/challenges you’re facing in your life today, address them. Do something about them or delegate to your future self, but capture it regardless in your backburner. Seek out resources to find solutions to those challenges. Accept them or do something about them, but never ignore them hoping they will go away. In most cases, our problems don’t go away because we rarely take the time necessary to think about them long enough to come up with effective solutions.

For instance, in your relationships, talk about your challenges with your partner and find ways to overcome them. Not doing so would make it difficult for both of you to function optimally as it would continue to take up mental bandwidth while you are both trying to do other things.

In terms of personal effectiveness, do your most important work first. Schedule leisure/recreation time for later. That means no matter how busy things get, there is always leisure time scheduled at the end of the day, which you enjoy guilt-free. There is light at the end of the tunnel. By the way, one of the reasons that we procrastinate at work is when we don’t plan for leisure/recreation.

Do the most important work first. Save the busy work for later. It’s the only way to work effectively and to get the most out of each day. Schedule your meetings for later in the day (if need be). It will work equally well for you and your team.

Subordinate your impulses/feelings to values. For instance, when you don’t “feel” like working (or doing something that you’re supposed to be doing), assign a value to it. In this case, it could be that you’re a pro, so you know that you need to show up and do the work, regardless of whether you feel like working or not.

When it comes to temperance, don’t give in to your impulses/feelings/cravings. When you feel like having a specific food/drink, choose to recognize it as “emotional hunger” and not have it. Above all, have the self-discipline to do the things you said you would.

Delay gratification. It is the only way to live effectively and maximally. Pay now, play later. Eat the frog. It is easier and enjoyable to do the hard things first followed by leisure rather than the other way round. Only when you tackle your problems/challenges head on can you move on with your life and truly live in the present. Running away from them never helps because the only way out is through.

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