I was talking a walk back home after I had finished my workout for the day. On the way, I walked past an ice-cream store. As I glanced at the menu, the picture of Death By Chocolate and all its chocolate sauces caught my eye.
I stopped on my tracks. “Maybe I should get one. But isn’t that way too many calories?”, my mind fought the internal battle. In no time, I swiped my card and walked away with a bowl of over 500 calories.
What just happened? Why did I give in when I knew very well that eating so many calories of sugar was a terrible idea?
I fell victim to the phenomenon of Instant Gratification.
What is Instant Gratification?
As per psychology, the definition of instant gratification is opting for immediate pleasure now instead of a better return in the future. You feel like you want something and you want it now. Right now!
For the same reason, it is also called immediate gratification.
Even though you know patience and discipline will yield a better reward, you cannot resist the urge of indulging in immediate bliss. “Damn it”, you say soon after. The most common examples of instant gratification occur with food, shopping, sex, and entertainment.
The opposite effect is called delayed gratification where you put off a reward for a greater benefit in the future. You know what the better reward usually is, so if you manage to hold yourself back, you have delayed your gratification.
Almost always, delayed gratification is a wiser choice.
Experiments and Research Conducted
Around the year 1970, Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University conducted a Marshmallow test. He chose children between the age of 3.5 and 5.5 years, gathered them in a room and put them through a test.
The child was given one marshmallow in his hand. If he could resist the urge for 15 minutes without eating it, he would get another one. If the child ate the marshmallow within 15 minutes, he would not receive the second reward. After explaining the rule, the researcher would then leave the child alone in a room.
The children displayed frustration as they waited clenching their jaws. They made up songs, hit their heads against the table, pounded the floor with their feet, played with the bell, prayed to the ceiling and more. Many gave up and ate the marshmallow.
Experimenters have performed other variations of the test using a different reward system.
About 10 years later, in the follow-up studies conducted in 1980, some amazing results appeared. There was a correlation between the children who delayed their gratification by waiting 15 minutes and their academic competence. Further studies in 1990 showed the same children correlated with higher SAT scores.
Why do we go for the immediate reward?
Instant gratification syndrome stems from multiple reasons. You will exhibit such behavior due to one or a combination of those reasons.
1. Part of human evolution
During the early human period, survival was the primary area of focus. If one could not protect himself from predators, hunt food to eat or find shelter from the weather, the chances of death would increase.
Surviving back then was all about immediate rewards. Today, that equation has changed. You have all your basic needs for survival but your brain still has some leftovers from the primitive lifestyle.
2. Greed and desire
As human beings, we want more. When you earn a promotion to the role of a manager, you aim to become a director. Once you make a million, you dream about making 10 million. After you lose weight from a state of obesity, you strive for six-pack abs.
Your goals keep getting tougher and tougher as you achieve them.
While you chase these goals, the delay in receiving the reward seems boring. You want to reach your next milestone as soon as possible, so you try taking a shortcut.
When you have to wait to receive a reward, an element of doubt creeps into your brain. “Will my efforts pay off or is this all for nothing?”
If you work at a job you hate, the uncertainty around starting your own venture brings a thousand questions to your mind. “What if my idea fails?”, “What if I go bankrupt?”, “Isn’t it a better idea to stick to the safe salary I already have?”
Since a delayed reward seems distant and uncertain, you make a choice of sticking to a smaller reward which is certain.
4. State of mind
Your state of mind has a huge influence on the little decisions you make.
In a state of anger, you might give in and light up a cigarette. Late evening, after a tough workout, your willpower would have grown thin. You might succumb to the temptation of chocolate brownie topped with the crunchy nuts and the mouthwatering sauce. In a joyous mood, you feel like spending some extra money to celebrate instead of saving.
Your emotions can alter your thought patterns causing you to give in to instant gratification.
5. Dopamine rush
Your body secretes dopamine to invoke a feeling of pleasure during certain activities. When you check the notification on your phone, you get a hit of dopamine. When you sip on a glass of scotch or snort a line of cocaine, you get another. When you indulge in sex, you get some more.
Dopamine is mostly triggered by your little actions which give you an instant reward. You succumb to the bait of dopamine and give in.
you, it’s your hormones.
10 Examples of Instant Gratification in daily life
You give in to instant gratification bias in daily life whether you realize it or not. Here are examples to help introspect yourself.
1. Wasting time on social media
Browsing through the news feed of Instagram, checking out pictures of what you’re friends are up to, liking beautiful pictures and posting stories on what you had for lunch seems fun at the moment. But you know that you are only wasting time by using social media unless you intend to become an influencer.
The effect is more prominent in Millenials who have grown up in a culture of social media.
You are well aware that you can instead use the time for something more productive. Yet, the current happy feeling urges you to keep scrolling.
Each morning you plan to wake up early and do the task which you have forever postponed. But when the alarm rings in the morning, you hit the snooze button without any further thought. All plans go out the window.
The comfort of extra sleep right now outweighs the plan that gives you joy in the future.
3. Eating junk
You know you have to lose weight. You would feel more energetic, clothes would look more appealing and you would appear more desirable to the opposite sex.
Yet, when you go to a restaurant, the juicy burger with a thick patty and melting cheese, sways your mind in the opposite direction. You give in and postpone your weight loss plans for the day.
4. Skipping workout
When the clock shows 7 AM and you know you must get ready to head to the gym, a thought creeps in. “What difference does it make if I skip one day? I will workout tomorrow without fail.”
Boom, your plans for a healthy lifestyle took a U-turn. The comfort of laziness today overpowers the future benefits of a lean body.
5. Working on urgent tasks
When you are at work, the email that popped up catches your attention. You were working on improving your skills in your field of expertise, but the mail screams, “Open me, open me. I have some work for you which isn’t urgent. But I know you want to check it now.”
The daily tasks take precedence over the long term goals you plan to achieve.
6. Spending time on entertainment
You have to clean your cupboard and stock up groceries for the week. If you do not, you will spend the whole next week with a dirty cupboard and food from restaurants.
But what do you choose? You decide to open Netflix and watch one episode of the series. When the episode ends, one part of your brain says, “ok let’s wind up.” The other part says, “Wait, hold on. We still have time.” In the meantime, 10 seconds have elapsed and Netflix has already started playing the other video.
7. Spending money instead of saving
You plan to save more money each month instead of blowing all your income on buying things you want. When your money hits your bank account each month, you vow to not spend it all.
But somehow, you face an expected expenditure which derails your plan. At least that is what you convince yourself. What’s funny is it happens every month.
If you make up your mind, you can reduce the number of times you dine at restaurants or refrain from hitting the buy button on an item you peeked through on Amazon. But no, you don’t feel like doing that, do you?
8. Paying a loan to buy a fancy item
You often apply for a loan to buy an expensive asset which you cannot afford. Most of those aren’t appreciating assets. Buying a house on a mortgage isn’t a bad idea because the value of the establishment shoots up over time.
But what about buying a brand new Ford on loan, when you could have opted for a cheaper car? You justify your decision saying a reasonable car is a necessity. But if your income increased by 30%, you would buy a car which is at least 30% more expensive.
Your income increases but your saving doesn’t.
9. Discount sales
When Amazon announces a big billion sale, you stand on your toes, waiting for the day to arrive. When it does, you scroll through the deals and add one item after another to your cart. You hit the buy button and rest back on your chair smirking about saving a hundred dollars due to the discount.
If you check your orders, you will notice that you don’t need most of the items there. You will glance at some of those for a few days and toss them into a cupboard. The pleasure of buying something for yourself on sale gives you the instant gratification over saving the money.
Addictions trigger a dopamine rush within your body. These are hormones secreted by your brain which makes you feel good. For the same reason, a drag off a cigarette seems like a stress buster. You find yourself in a happy zone after a glass of wine.
While all the addictions alter your state of mind in some way, the dopamine creates the craving to indulge in them again.
How to overcome instant gratification
You do not have to prevent every single case of instant gratification bias. Sometimes you need the pleasure which comes out of it. The key here is to find a balance where you do not let instant gratification win in every decision you make.
Here are some tips to avoid the effects of instant gratification addiction:
1. Eliminate the source of distraction
For example, if you set your phone on silent and shut it close inside a drawer, you will go through your day without any distraction. Compare that with resisting the urge when you hear your phone beep.
If the smell of donuts on your way back from the gym causes your belly to rumble and your willpower to give in, take a different route to your house.
You will find it easy to resist the urge if you do not face the temptation at all. Trying to fight the urge is no easy feat.
2. Identify your triggers
Each one of us has a different urge and behavioral pattern.
You might buy all the good looking clothes during your visit to the shopping mall and walk right past the ice-cream store without a second glance. I might scan the whole costume section without buying a thing only to grab a large bowl of a chocolate ice-cream on the way back.
Identify the areas where you give in to instant gratification. The most common ones are:
- Addiction to substances like alcohol/smoking/drugs
- Wasting time
- Social Media
Once you know where you fall victim to instant gratification, use the first tip to avoid the temptation itself.
3. Use the 2-second rule
Whenever you are about to indulge in bad behavior or stray away from the good, pause for a moment to apply the 2-second rule. The small break of just 1 or 2 seconds can cut your current line of thought.
Ask yourself if you justify what you’re doing is a one-time exception or if it is an excuse for routine bad habits. For example, if you have a lifestyle of healthy eating, picking a jelly-filled chocolate donut once in a while does no harm. However, if you were a chain smoker who quit smoking a few months back, lighting up one cigarette can trigger your old habit.
Use your best judgment based on the scenario. Your intuition will tell you the right answer.
4. Make your decisions more thoughtful
You go through a major part of your day, letting your thoughts flow on autopilot.
A coworker brought chocolates? Great, let me grab one. Your partner said something offensive? Hold on, let me give it back. 10 more minutes to go? Let me watch a video on Youtube.
When you pay more attention to the little decisions you make, your choices become more conscious. When you apply a little rational thought, you will overcome the damage caused by instant gratification with ease.
5. Set some rules for yourself
I am sure you have a list of things to stop doing or start doing. You need to make up your mind to follow them with discipline.
Sometimes all it takes is setting a few simple but well-defined rules for yourself.
- I will eat outside only once a week
- I will not spend more than X on the discount sale
- I will put my phone on DND every day from 9 AM – 11 AM
As simple as these rules sound, setting them makes all the difference. If you want to engrave the rules even further in your brain, write them down.
What the consequences of instant gratification?
On the surface, instant gratification seems like a good exchange of momentary happiness for a small delay. But if you look deeper, you will realize that the impact is tremendous when it adds up.
The problem with instant gratification is you settle down for smaller rewards now instead of a better reward later.
Here are the effects of instant gratification that you do not realize:
Succumbing to momentary pleasure leads to regret which sometimes persists for days, weeks or forever.
The regret of gulping down two extra tequila shots lasts the whole next day. The aftermath of buying those expensive sunglasses pricks you for the whole month. The guilt of giving in to the pleasure of cheating via an extramarital affair can last an entire lifetime.
When you give in to instant gratification, you will regret it sooner or later. Sometimes the impact seems minuscule while sometimes it can end up catastrophic.
2. Impact on long term goals
Spending a few minutes browsing your phone seems like nothing. Try this for math.
If you cut down your usage by 1 hour each day, you would roughly have 4 extra days in a month. If you tally that up for a year, you have a month and a half extra in comparison.
In addition, attention residue, the part where the thought lingers on in your head, consumes more time than you think. Over a period of 5 years, these are the minor areas, high achievers use to gain an advantage.
3. Impact on health
Eating unhealthy calories seems like a minor aberration from your usual routine. But have you tried calculating the calories?
Let us assume you and your friend have the same eating habits. The only difference is, you eat an extra finger of kit-kat every day. What do you think will the difference be after 1 year?
You would weigh 10 pounds heavier than your friend just by that minor a change. Of course, genetics, metabolism and overall calorific need by weight will make a difference, but the math still holds.
You might feel lazy to work out for 15 minutes a day but 10 years later, it might prevent a heart attack.
4. Impact on relationships
Your habit of drinking a few glasses of alcohol before dinner seems to create no impact on your relationships. But when your partner has to deal with your tantrums, rude words and the daily need to open a bottle, things escalate over time. What starts as a fight over a drink, ends up with more serious consequences.
As another example, spending in excess when your partner does not feel right about it can even lead to a break up in the future. You do not have to bow down to your partner every time. At the same time, you need to reach a middle ground involving compromise from both sides.
Do not expect the other person in the relationship to compromise every single time. The frustration builds up to a point where calling the relationship off seems like the only option left.
5. Impact of financial matters:
Postponing your plan of saving for retirement for a new pair of designer shoes does not seem too bad. How much can one month matter on a grand scale of 30 years, you wonder?
The joy of the new shoes leads to new trousers next month, followed by the trendy bag and whatnot. Your plans for saving get pushed on and on.
5 years later when you check your bank account, you see the consequences of your little habits. You had the opportunity to have an extra zero at the end, but you blew the chance.
The instant gratification syndrome is a simple way of procrastination every day. It is your style of preventing yourself from doing what you know should.
Overcoming instant gratification is easy but so is giving in to it. What is simple to do is also simple to not do.
So whether you choose to overcome the negative effects of instant gratification or succumb to the urge is your choice.
Leave a comment of one personal experience where you gave in to Instant gratification.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed