The Power of Delaying Gratification – How to Develop Impulse Control
You are at the grocery store for your weekly shopping. From one aisle to another, you pick the items as you check them off your list.
You get to the fruits and vegetables section. You check your list then pick some broccoli, spinach, apples…you smell the cookies from the bakery section just next to where you’re standing.
For a minute, you forget what you were to pick next as your mind drifts away. You muster enough concentration and continue shopping but your mind just can’t keep off the idea of getting some cookies.
Ever had such an experience? If you love cookies, the answer is ‘Yes.’
It may not be cookies for you. But there is something you love, even crave despite rarely getting satisfied after having it. This is the thing which seems to stop your mind from working, until when satisfied.
Any time you come across your desire, an argument kicks off in your mind. Do you indulge or not? Deep inside you, you know the right answer. But more often than not, you act contrary to it. Why?
Because desires demand to be satisfied immediately.
There are two principles at work here:
Pleasure principle – this is when your instincts drive you to seek pleasure by satisfying your desires instantly. When this principle is at work in your life, you prioritize the satisfaction of your desires. Usually, this is with complete disregard of the long-term effects.
Reality principle – this is when your mind considers the reality of circumstances as the determining factor as to whether your desires will be satisfied immediately they show up. When this principle is at work in your life, you will most likely reason out the situation before acting to satisfy your desires.
This is how the reality principle would work out in the above shopping situation: You would first check your budget for any extra money. If there was none, you postpone the cookie purchase.
If there was some, the reasoning continues: ‘Did you forget to include in your list anything you need for the week?’ If yes, then that’s what you will buy. If no, then you can buy some cookies.
Notice that the purchase had to await your reasoning’s approval. This principle does not reject the desire’s demand for satisfaction. It only seeks to satisfy it under reasonable terms.
At the end of the day, it is your supplies that matter most. As much as the cookies smell good and obviously taste great, you are able to prioritize what’s truly important.
So, which principle rules your life?
If the reality principle runs your life, you are on the right path. Keep it up.
If the pleasure principle runs your life, then you have some work to do. If you don’t act, the success you want in life will forever be elusive.
Furthermore, you’ll be seeing other people succeed and fail to understand how they are doing it. As much as following the pleasure principle is fun, the fun is only short-term.
In the late 60s, a Stanford University professor, Walter Mischel, started studying self-control.
He used pre-school children (4-6 years) as his subjects.
His goal was to find out how self-control plays out and the effects of having versus not having it.
He engaged more than 600 children for the experiment.
Each of the children was led into a room in which was nothing but a table and chair. The emptiness of the room was to ensure there were no distractions.
Therefore, the children would concentrate on nothing but the situation at hand. In front of them was then laid a small plate with a marshmallow.
The instructions were simple: “You are free to eat the marshmallow now. But if you wait till I come back, I will give you another marshmallow and you will have two.”
Now, if you have ever been amazed at how children think and reason, you know that this was going to be an interesting test.
Below is a video showing the marshmallow experiment. You may find it funny and even laugh at some of the kids’ actions. Some of them instinctively picked the marshmallow and ate it.
Some visibly struggled keeping it from their mouths. Others even tried ignoring its presence. Enjoy the video then continue reading for the lessons.
As an adult, you have experienced your own share of such situations. Unfortunately for you, you will not be forgiven if you act like the kids who could not hold themselves back.
No-one expects that of you. Indeed, life itself does not expect that of you.
Actually, if you continually allow your instincts to control you, you can bet on achieving very little in life.
It has been said that good things come to those who wait. Whereas this statement is true, it only describes an outcome. For those who love understanding the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of things, this statement falls short.
What happens is that there is always an opportunity for good things in the future. Attaining that good thing is however dependent on you.
The future time enables you to make appropriate plans and execute them today. When you do this, you set yourself up for achievement. On the other hand, if you just sit and wait, doing nothing, you will get nothing.
“You can’t outwit fate by standing on the sidelines placing little side bets about the outcome of life… if you don’t play you can’t win.” – Judith McNaught
This article discusses 5 strategies you can implement to develop impulse control. Impulse control is important as it helps you stick to your plans for the future.
It is the future that holds good things.
If you think the present has something good, then the future has better. Just put in the right efforts and you will attain it. Having a plan as a guide to your goals helps you keep distractions at bay.
If you don’t have any plans, this would be a good time to plan for your life.
After some practice, you will realize that what was once a strong urge, has lost its grip on you.
It will then be easy to say ‘No’ when you should.
THE FOLLOW UP STUDY
A follow up study was done on the kids who were involved in the test and the results were surprising.
When you look at that, you can easily imagine what happens when those kids become adults. At the same time, you can imagine what becomes of those who were not able to wait.
That experiment was about self-control. Having or lacking self-control has real effects on life in general. When you cannot practice self-control, you open yourself up to negative effects. Three big ones are:
- Inability to control your anger – may lead to violence, arrests and serving jail terms
- Inability to control your desires for good things – may lead to theft, excessive impulse buying which may further lead to debts and financial instability.
- Inability to control peer pressure – may lead to alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, early and unwanted pregnancies, abortions etc.
The essence of practicing self-control is to prevent you from acting on impulse.
What is an impulse?
The Oxford Dictionary defines impulse as a sudden strong and unreflective urge or desire to act. This is what you need to control. You may think that it is easier said than done.
Doing it is actually easier than you may think. If you want success, then learning to control your impulses is key.
This is what is referred to as Delaying Gratification. You postpone the satisfying of your desires until a more convenient time. As we have seen above, the convenient time is determined by the current circumstances.
So, how do you control your impulses?
As we answer this question, we will use the above example of a temptation coming up while you’re shopping. This will enable you see how the strategies discussed below can apply in the real world.
STRATEGIES FOR IMPULSE CONTROL
Believe it or not, there’s so much that adults can learn from children.
And the learning is not how to play certain games, but serious things like how to avoid temptations.
Did you notice what some of the children in the experiment did so as to avoid eating the marshmallows?
Some closed their eyes so as not to see it, others started playing and singing.
Still, others were strong enough to play with it without actually eating it.
Can you beat that?
It is from these kids that we derive our first two strategies.
Distract Yourself with Other Things Which You Like
The truth is that you can never face temptations from things you don’t like. Ever wondered why?
Every temptation which comes your way will appeal to one of your many desires. This is the key to applying this strategy.
Always remember that you have many desires and the temptation before you is drawing attention to only one of them. This then means that if you fail to satisfy that desire, it’s not a big deal.
Giving in to temptations always brings satisfaction. Doing something you like always brings satisfaction. So, distracting yourself from the temptation and doing something else which you like, will still give you satisfaction.
In our grocery store example, after smelling the cookies, you can use this strategy to successfully steer away. Just take yourself through a short monologue like the one below.
Why are you here? You are shopping for the supplies needed at home. What do you do with the cereals, fruits and everything else you are buying?
You prepare great meals and snacks like sandwiches, desserts, milk shakes etc.
Do you enjoy having the kind of meals and snacks you prepare? Yes, you love home-made snacks because you are in charge of the ingredients and cooking processes.
More than that, you love cooking. The whole process for you is just fun.
The moment you start taking your mind through such a monologue, its focus will shift from the cookies to this conversation. Your nose will not stop working, neither will your brain’s interpretation of smell come to a halt.
What will happen is simply a diversion of interests. Your mind had previously allowed your pleasure urges to express themselves in a way that quickly captured your attention. Now, it is taking back the control.
Your desire for cookies came out strongly because there is a favorable ingredient that catalyzed the process. Since you love cookies, they are definitely high in the list of things you value.
If you never valued them, they would not be a challenge at all. In fact, you would probably wonder why the store had a bakery section in the first place. This is why you pass many other things because not everything is for you.
This is therefore all about what you value. Whenever you get what you value, you get satisfaction.
The question then becomes, ‘Apart from cookies, what else do you value?’
When you get the answer to this question, immediately focus on it. Make sure you pick on something you can do at the place you are. It should also not require you to look for something or someone else to facilitate it.
The kids who started singing or playing with their fingers seemed to understand this pretty well.
Some played with the marshmallow itself.
Notice that they did not need to leave the room to access their fingers for playing or to start singing.
For the successful use of this strategy, you have to use what is readily available. In our example of thinking about your cooking and how you enjoy it, you are using your memory.
You will always have your memory wherever you go. What you need to do is teach your mind that it should be retrieving certain information when temptations strike.
It may be a challenge at first but after doing it twice or thrice, your mind will be able to take it from there. Your mind is a fast learner.
Tip: when you decide to use this strategy, tell your mind that you have gotten a solution. Go through this strategy in your mind and picture yourself overcoming the temptation. Your mind will take the cue from you. Knowing that it has the solution, it will be ready to tackle the problem when it appears. All you will need to do at this point is affirm it’s actions and guide it through.
Remember: you need to train your mind on how to act. After that, it will automatically act as expected.
Everyone loves being rewarded. When you get rewarded for a job well done, you love the reward even more.
This is because you can spot the relationship between your efforts and the reward. Rewards are an appreciation and there is nothing as good as being appreciated.
You have trained your mind and it has performed well. Why not reward it?
Obviously, rewarding your mind is rewarding yourself and you can only reward yourself with something you like.
Depending on your situation, get yourself something which you will enjoy while taking care not to endanger your impulse control progress.
Essentially, what you will be doing is avoiding one desire and indulging another. The trick here is that the desire which you will indulge has not demanded satisfaction.
You are therefore the one initiating it, meaning you are in control. Also, this reward should not be something you can do immediately. In our grocery store example, you should not resist buying the cookies, only to buy some ice-cream.
Rewards come because you have achieved something.
For our example, the reward would be for successfully avoiding to buy cookies.
When you reward yourself like this, your mind then knows that it is a good thing to avoid temptation.
There is always a reward for that. For our case, the reward can be making yourself one of your favorite snacks once you get home.
This way, you have avoided the cookie temptation and have taken a healthy alternative. Now, the next time you go shopping and pass by the bakery section, use the same strategy.
This time however, once you get home, do not make yourself the snack. Postpone it.
You can decide to make it the following day or after an hour. The idea is to lengthen the time taken to reward yourself. Still, the reward will be given, though later.
This teaches your mind that the reward is available but may not always come immediately the time is right. If you decide to do it in an hour’s time, you will probably get busy and either forget it or not have time for it.
Either way, you win. Remember that you avoided one desire (the cookie) and now have avoided another one (the snack). Continue doing this and your impulse control objectives will be realized.
In case you feel you cannot be in control of your desires, just tell yourself that you can. You can even use the evidence of those you know have self-control.
Tell yourself that if they could do it, then you also can. Every time you say you can’t, you actually strengthen the urges and make them stronger. Avoid doing that at all cost.
Consider Temptations as Challenges to Be Overcome
When you think of overcoming temptations, you will realize there is a lot of effort required.
This is especially true if you are struggling with it. The goal of this strategy is to guide you into a change of attitude towards those temptations.
Stop looking at temptations as a problem, consider them a challenge to be overcome.
Did you know that you can overcome any challenge?
The biggest challenge you may have is to overcome the belief that you cannot overcome some challenges. If there is a bad belief you can ever pick, then this is it.
Believe in your inability to overcome challenges and you will always wonder how others succeed while you don’t.
When you look at temptations as challenges to be overcome, two things happen.
You are able to identify the desire behind the urge – this is important because it enables you deal with the issue from the core.
Temptations are merely situations which provide an opportunity for you to indulge your desires and passions.
Whenever they show up, you are instinctively drawn to respond positively towards them. This however, is the pleasure principle which you are fighting.
From our grocery store example, whenever you go shopping, this tempting situation comes up. What’s the cause? Your love for cookies.
Once you have known this, then you can either decide to drop that desire or control it. The latter is the easiest option. If controlled effectively, the desire eventually disappears.
You get an opportunity to grow – progress takes place when you overcome challenges.
You can never grow without going through a challenge. Since you want to grow, then it is only logical that you expect some challenges to come your way.
The reason why some people are always taking risks is because they know the outcome—growth. Looking at their lives you will see the evidence of the growth.
These are the same people you admire for their confidence and success. Remember what the follow up on the marshmallow kids showed?
Basically, higher self-control guarantees higher success.
The reason is simple: when you have—and practice—self-control, you are able to make better decisions. Better decisions are at the heart of success.
With the temptation at hand, just remember that this is a great opportunity to grow. Shift from failure mode to the conqueror mode and fight through the challenge.
Have nothing else in mind but the thought of growth. Remind yourself that going past this challenge means you will be one level higher than where you currently are. With your mind in it, you can be assured of success.
Extra Benefit: After overcoming the challenge, you will notice an increase in your self- confidence.
Have a Plan for Your Life and Focus on it
The greatest success you can ever have is success in life. Though many people define this differently, you know you have success when you are fully satisfied with all your efforts.
For your efforts to pay off, they need to be targeted at something. If you are not working towards any goal, then you are very likely going to be distracted and end up doing nothing. Definitely, you will achieve nothing.
Doing nothing does not necessarily mean you are seated idle. You could be involved in many physical activities and sweating it out.
Nevertheless, those activities may not be contributing towards a tangible goal. If this is the case, then your efforts count for nothing.
For success in life, you need to have a goal. From the goal, create a plan for achieving it then stick to the plan.
Plans can be changed depending on circumstances.
The changes implemented should make it easier for you to get to your goals. In everything you do, your focus should be on your goals. Your plan is your guide.
When you have a plan and are sticking to it, your value system changes. You no longer value some of the things you used to hold on to. Some of your currently-favorite hobbies will change.
If you used to go to the movies every weekend, the frequency will reduce.
Soon, the temptations you used to fall for, or at least struggle with, will no longer be an issue for you. This is all as a result of focusing on your goals and plans.
For our grocery store example, your focus on your plan may work in at least two ways.
- Better time management – going shopping will not necessarily take you 2 hours. Since you planned beforehand, your list will be your trusted guide. You know which aisles to visit and even when you pass by the bakery area, your focus is simply not on that. This way, you may take up to 30 minutes less. This is time which you can invest in something else.
- Better financial management – if you were to have the cookies, you can be sure you won’t have them for free. They cost money. Buying them sets you back some amount while not buying ‘saves’ you the same. Saves is in quotes because if you had not budgeted for the cookies, you are not literally saving anything. Still, think of what could have happened were you not focused on shopping and going home. You would have bought some cookies. Now that you didn’t, this is some sort of saving.
Priorities are important in life. If you are to achieve anything in life, you have to set your priorities right.
Priorities tell you what is important and needs to be done. If you are totally honest with yourself, you will admit that you have overvalued some things in your life.
You may have emotional connections to them but they are not truly important. These only serve to draw attention and energy from you yet other things are more deserving.
Below is a short video showing the importance of prioritizing the important things.
For you to properly prioritize, you need to take some time off your schedule. Write down the things you are working on or pursuing then number them.
Number 1 should be for the most important thing on that list.
The more the items, the more time you will need. If you find yourself struggling to number them, just ask yourself, “Why am I doing this thing?” or “What benefit will I get when I do this thing?” The answers will help you rate their importance.
After that, re-write the list with the most important thing on top. Take a look at the items at the bottom of the list and critically think about their importance.
Keep in mind that having a long To-Do list makes you lose focus and cuts out motivation. When you look at a long list of undone things, you easily feel powerless to succeed. This is especially true when you are trying to make changes.
If you find it hard to shorten your list by slashing some items off, then consider other strategies of achieving them.
For example, if it is work-related, you could ask a colleague to help you out. You will then be able to remove that item or achieve it in a shorter time frame.
With your priorities in place, it’s just a matter of sticking with them. Set time for the tasks and during that time, focus on nothing but the specific task allocated the time.
For our shopping example, your priorities will simply be the items on your shopping list. Anything else is not a priority thus should not be considered.
All in all, developing impulse control is possible and beneficial. To prepare yourself for it, just think about the possible benefits and decide that you want them.
From there, start implementing these strategies. Do not be hard on yourself if you find yourself struggling. And even more importantly, do not feel guilty about it. Learning is a process and being a process is what makes it fun.
Believe that you have the ability and do not talk yourself out of the benefits through negative thinking.
Do you have other strategies of developing impulse control? Please share them in the comments area.