As it’s Lent, you may well be considering giving something up, be it an unhealthy habit such as smoking or perhaps just cutting out sugary foods. But despite starting out with the very best intentions, the reality is it’s so easy to fall off the wagon.
So, why is it so hard to give up something up, even if it’s only temporary? Why can’t we just put off that cigarette or piece of cake… at least until a bit later?
What we really need to draw upon is something called delayed gratification. This term, guaranteed to send a knowing shiver down any addictive person’s spine, literally means to delay pleasure or enjoyment. It might relate to a person, place, substance or item.
When we’re talking about obesity, delayed gratification is obviously an invaluable tool to have in our kit. Many a dieter has fallen by the wayside, a hostage of delayed gratification’s far more unhelpful cousin instant gratification.
The trouble is that the more we try not to focus on something we crave, the more we are likely to obsess about it. But now it’s time to put down those crisps, because we have a few handy insights that could help you master the art of delayed gratification.
The cookie crumbles
Before we break this equation down further, cue a little background.
In 1970 psychologist Walter Mischel did a famous experiment on delayed gratification that led to many more. He placed a cookie in front of a group of children and gave them a choice – they could eat the cookie immediately, or resist and wait until he returned from a brief period of absence and be rewarded with a second.
Not surprisingly, once he left the room, the majority of children ate the cookie. But the minority who exercised delayed gratification and managed to delay eating the first cookie were duly rewarded with a second.
Mischel termed these youngsters high-delay children and years later, further investigation revealed that they got better grades in school and had fewer behavioural problems. As adults, they were more likely to get college degrees and earn higher salaries.
Conversely this and other studies repeatedly demonstrated that children who were not able to employ delayed gratification were more likely to battle drug and alcohol addiction and spend time in prison.
Mischel’s work crucially suggests that delayed gratification can result in a much more rewarding life. Plus, the good news is we can learn some very useful techniques from Mischel’s high-delay children.
The strategies they typically used to avoid eating the first cookie did not equate to ‘willpower’, which we believe to be a flimsy concept at best. Instead of battling with temptation, they simply kept busy, playing with toys in the room, singing to themselves and generally looking everywhere but in the direction of the cookie. Simple but effective.
Five ways delayed gratification can have a positive effect on your life
Those of us who are prone to rushing into romantic relationships, perhaps moving in together or even marrying a partner in a heartbeat, will testify that this kind of impulsive behaviour can be very expensive and heartbreaking. Before you know it, you’re in deep with someone you really don’t know that well, and in some cases, you’re not even sure you like. Let’s not forget that lust, though exciting, can also blind us to other people’s potential flaws and/or incompatibility. So our advice is slow down with the hot stuff. If it’s mean to be, it will be. Plus, there is much to be said for getting to know someone slowly and steadily. It can build much more excitement and anticipation along the way.
While we’re on the topic of lust, our own tireless research would suggest that the slow build to, erm, satisfaction is usually far more intoxicating than a quick dance between the sheets. Women in particular tend to have stronger, deeper enjoyment (yes, OK, we mean orgasms) if they are given time to build to climax. This slow, steady approach also applies to solo sex.
Those of of us who splurge now and suffer later, will know all about the perils of instant spending. Delayed gratification can certainly boost finances longer term. It could be a question of saving up for better quality clothes, furniture, holidays or setting aside money each month to put down a deposit on a lovely new home which also serves as a future investment.
Yes, it’s much easier to put off that brisk walk or yoga session until the weekend and go straight home after work, perhaps vegging out in front of the TV. And who wouldn’t prefer a lie in on a Saturday? But the downside of instant gratification is that if often leaves us feeling guilty. Plus, we might not meet our goals at all as we constantly opt to just ‘do it later’. So come on, stretch those legs. You’ll certainly feel better once the exercise endorphins kick in.
Let’s be frank. If we could, most of us would eat what we want, when we want, without guilt. But the fact is that when it comes to weight management, delayed gratification is a must. So often we fail to create a space between thinking and doing something and before we know it we’ve impulsively polished off that packet of biscuits. Mischel’s studies into delayed gratification suggest that rather than thinking about the food we crave, we’re far better off distracting ourselves with other activities. This could mean making a phone call, running an errand, going online, clearing out a cupboard, making a cuppa… go on, you’ll feel much better for it and in the long run and your waistline will thank you.