An Exercise to Become Aware of Delayed Gratification

By Marshall Goldsmith

Delayed gratification is supposed to lead to greater rewards. Sometimes. 

A famous study in the late 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel involved preschool children at Stanford’s nursery school. 

Children were shown one marshmallow and told they could choose to eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted. If they waited up to 20 minutes, they would get a second. Follow-up research on the children years later led Mischel to conclude that the subjects who waited for the two marshmallows had higher SAT scores, better educational achievement, and lower body mass index. These studies eventually led to Mischel’s 1994 book, “The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success,” establishing the test as one of the rare laboratory studies about human behavior that has become a cultural touchstone.

Later studies questioned the soundness of the original test. But delayed gratification is still a touchstone — it is good, and it’s worth exploring (though sometimes you should eat the marshmallow — and not wait ridiculously long to enjoy yourself). 

Here is an exercise to become more aware about the role delayed gratification plays in our lives. 

DO THIS: 

For one full day, filter every dilemma you face through the dichotomy of delayed gratification (not eating the marshmallow) versus instant gratification (eating it). 

Facing any either/or decision, pause for seven seconds (a brief delay anyone can handle) and then ask yourself, ‘Can I delay gratification at this moment for the sake of a higher reward in the future, or am I taking the easy way out and settling for instant gratification?’ 

Put another way: Am I paying the price in this situation, or am I cashing in? 

If you find that the exercise makes you more alert to delayed gratification’s rewards and your capacity to meet the challenge—at least more than if you mindlessly surrendered to instant gratification—try to stick with it as long as you can. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of self-monitoring, considering all the temptations we face each day. 

But like sticking with a diet or a fitness routine, if you can make it through the first four or five days without quitting, you’ve improved the odds that delayed gratification can become your default rather than a remarkable event. Do that and you’re ready for an advanced exercise.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

NOW DO THIS: 

All of us create hierarchies in our minds for our goals. We give some of them a high priority and others a low one. Some are hard to achieve, some are easy. In my experience, the hard goals tend to be the high-priority items, the easy ones the low-priority. 

Conventional wisdom says we should start each day getting the easy, low-priority goals out of the way, because it’s nice to begin the day with some victories. And because we’re human, naturally drawn to the low-hanging fruit of easy goals, we follow the conventional wisdom, all the while delaying the gratification of tackling our high- priority goals. 

For one day, be unconventional. Tackle the high-priority goal first. 

Like any suggestion that defies convention, this one-time task (it’s only for one day) can be a challenge for most of us—precisely because our high-priority goals tend to be high in difficulty. 

For example, I try to answer every piece of correspondence I get— requests, invitations, suggestions, positive or negative comments, either analog or digital—within two days of receipt. I don’t like to ignore people who take the time to write to me; they deserve a response. 

It’s not particularly urgent and rarely consequential, nor do I relish spending three hours every other day sending notes and emails to people I’ve never met. But answering correspondence is nowhere near as challenging as writing a chapter of a book. So when I feel the need to continue working into the evening rather than call it a day, I’ll turn to the letters and emails rather than what I tell myself is a higher-priority goal, such as writing for two hours. 

In my hierarchy of things to do, answering mail is easy, a medium priority; writing is a heavy lift and a very high priority. In choosing the easy task before I call it a day, I cannot honestly say I’m experiencing or earning any delayed gratification, because answering correspondence is nowhere near as gratifying as finishing the next chapter. (There’s no delayed gratification if I’m not gratified.) So how much of a price am I really paying? 

Were writing really as high a priority as I claim it is, I would adopt the strategy of many successful writers with greater self-control than I possess. They do their writing first thing in the morning, when their mind is rested and before anything else can distract them. Whether their plan is to stay at their desk for five uninterrupted hours or hit a specific word count, if they stick to the plan, they get the extreme gratification of starting each day with their biggest accomplishment. Their first thing is the earned thing. Everything that follows is a bonus. 

This is such an appealing benefit it’s stunning that most of us (including me) don’t copy the practice. Through the rinse-and-repeat regularity of showing up at their desk to write first thing in the morning, these writers have taken the delay out of delayed gratification. 

They have their marshmallow, and eat it too — right after they finish for the day. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

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