We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we do in a year.  This is because we are creatures of instant gratification.  That is to say, when we do something, we want to see the result shortly after.  The problem is that many things in life don’t have quick results, so we need to driven by enjoying the process or trusting the process is working.  In fact, most of the good things in life don’t have quick results – being healthy is a lifestyle over longer periods of time, saving money to retire happens over a lifetime, and building good relationships take experiences over time.  Delayed gratification, or delayed results from current action, is an important piece of life worth recognizing.

As defined, “”Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, describes the process that the subject undergoes when the subject resists the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.”

Delayed gratification, that is putting time and effort into something where the results won’t show for a period of time, is a positive trait of the human condition.  It means foregoing the instant gratification for a more longer term satisfaction.  It means passing on the donut and its instant gratification to live a longer, more healthy life.  It means saving more money now than buying a new car today.  It means being physically active today even if you don’t feel like it. Some more examples…

  • Going to to the gym once may make you feel great that day, but if you only go once the results are minute.  However, going daily for 2 months adds up to a lot.  20 pullups a day isn’t much, but in a month that is 600 pullups which is a lot and has an effect.  Going to the gym daily for the delayed gratification of a lifetime of good health is a huge benefit.
  • Writing 1 paragraph a day isn’t much, but consistently writing a paragraph each day for a month adds up to a 30 paragraph piece.  The delayed gratification of writing daily but after months seeing all your work and improvement in writing is gratifying.
  • Reading 30 minutes a day isn’t much, be amounts to between 20-40 books a year, which can have a drastic impact on your understanding, and therefore the outcome of your life.

Putting in the daily repetition is arguably one of the most life changing things you can do, because you are what you repeat (you are your habits), and a lifetime of repetition of anything will greatly change the outcome.

In the infamous “Marshmallow Experiment” in the late 1960’s, psychologists at Stanford performed various studies on delayed gratification…

In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores,[2] educational attainment,[3] body mass index (BMI),[4] and other life measures.[5]

Source: Wikipedia

James Clear wrote an excellent article “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed“, which goes into more detail on delayed gratification and the Marshmallow Experiment.

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

In his article he further says…

The studies above do make one thing clear: if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what’s easy. Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing something easier (delaying gratification) in favor of doing something harder (doing the work and putting in your reps).

But the key takeaway here is that even if you don’t feel like you’re good at delaying gratification now, you can train yourself to become better simply by making a few small improvements. In the case of the children in the study, this meant being exposed to a reliable environment where the researcher promised something and then delivered it.

You and I can do the same thing. We can train our ability to delay gratification, just like we can train our muscles in the gym. And you can do it in the same way as the child and the researcher: by promising something small and then delivering. Over and over again until your brain says, 1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and 2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

Over the years I’ve come to realize one of the best skills in life is time management. Managing time enables you to consistently make small gains, daily.  Small improvements make huge gains.  Time passes whether we make small improvements or not, hence why it’s important to manage time now and continuously.  Building habits enables us to spend our time more effectively, and live better lives.

Because we can’t predict the future or change the past, all we can do is focus on the moment and the day to day activities that makeup our lives.  Striving to be better than yesterday adds up to many small improvements each day which compound day after day, month after month, years after year.  We didn’t evolve to understand compound interest, but we can use reason to know it is incredibly powerful.  As James Clear says, “habits are the compound interest of self improvement.” The aggregation of marginal gains – small improvements add up to dramatic changes.  On the same token, small bad habits can add up to a massive decline in well being.

Aristotle once said “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Let’s make each day a better day than the last.

If you liked this post, I’d recommend checking out Jame Clear’s new book “Atomic Habits“, and watching his talk, 1% Better Each Day.  You may also enjoy reading “The Power of Habit“.