You walk into a room to find a cookie waiting for you. It’s perfectly made, just the right balance of crumbly and chewy, and bursting with flavorful chocolate chips. Even better, you’re told that you may eat this exceptionally tasty cookie right now. Or, if you wait 15 minutes, you may have two.
How would you react? Could you be patient and hold out for the greater reward? Or do you think your neurochemistry would take over and your inner caveman would hungrily seize this fortunate opportunity, lest a rival swoop in, and steal it.
Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel tried a similar test using marshmallows with 4-year-olds in the 1960s and ‘70s. Tracking the results of his marshmallow test across the decades, he made some startling discoveries. Children who were persuaded to be patient, using various “cooling” strategies to keep them from grabbing the marshmallow, were said to have delay abilities; they had the resources and skills to plan ahead, to conceive of the greater (doubled) reward, and to offset the brain’s greedy demands for instant gratification.
This group of children exhibited positive traits later in life, including higher self-esteem and self-worth as well as lower rates of obesity, drug use, divorce, and depression. The ability to delay gratification and demonstrate patience when faced with a choice can impact your diet, mental health, and career achievement.
Those who lack this ability tend to adopt a range of pleasure-oriented habits, known as impulsiveness. People who have poor impulse control tend to overeat, drink too much alcohol, gamble excessively, or take drugs. Many of these people probably don’t understand the root of their problem: They lack the ability to delay gratification, and instead prefer to seize upon it immediately in a habituated, almost automatic response, which stops them from reaching their full potential.
Short-Term Versus Long-Term Thinking
Our caveman ancestry—never far from the surface when it comes to behavior and the brain—prioritizes short-term needs over longer-term plans. This isn’t a conscious choice; the brain responds to the satisfaction of short-term desire by releasing a thrilling shot of dopamine. The prevailing levels of this potent pleasure hormone are a factor in many mental health issues, including manic-depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, and behavioral problems such as pyromania, gambling addiction, and sexual compulsion. We are, to some extent, at the mercy of this powerful brain-drug.
And its powers are set only to grow. Our modern consumer-driven society puts value on instant reward. Consider the rise of overnight shipping, instant downloads, and one-click ordering. We take a pill if we’re sleepless, exhausted, sad, or need to concentrate. Delays, uncertainty, suffering, and discomfort are all unwelcome impositions.
This shift is wreaking havoc on our personal lives.
Americans save less money—as a percentage of income—than ever before. Many have nothing set aside for retirement. Meanwhile, credit card debt, student loans, and mortgage responsibilities are rising. We don’t want to wait. We want it now.
So what can we, as tiny cogs in this giant habit-forming machine, do about it?
Understanding your brain chemistry is a good first step. Observe your own behavior to recognize those moments of impulsivity.
I spent a week carrying around a notebook in which I made checkmarks every time I had an impulse in the categories of sugar, sex, alcohol, and video games. The results were enlightening—and a little shocking. This valuable exercise can help you make some important life decisions.
Learning How to Delay
The next step is to learn to delay, rather than instantly respond to our desires. You can reach for that third slice of pizza, or you can keep your hands still, breathe in and out five times, and see if, upon reflection, you truly want it.
1. Be Deliberate and Mindful
People dealing with obesity and compulsive eating (especially as a result of stress) have found that mindful eating can yield incredible results. Put your knife and fork down between bites and chew everything three times longer than you normally would; focus entirely on the act of chewing and swallowing. Turn off the TV, too; research has found that eating dinner in front of a screen results in a greater caloric intake, more tendency to reach for a second helping, and an unsatisfying, stripped-down eating experience.
2. Relive Your Bad Moments
Consider what happened the last time you faced this kind of choice. Do you remember the guilt after that late night of binge TV watching? Can you recall the bloated, unpleasant feeling after you ate that entire package of cookies? Reach back to that time and relive the sensations and emotions. Immerse yourself in how horrible you felt, and wonder aloud, “Do you really want to feel that way again?”
3. Supply Yourself With an Alternative
If you’re a snacker, set out a bowl of spiced almonds or berries, and each time you feel the urge, grab a small handful, and eat them with slow, focused enjoyment. If you’re a gamer, uninstall them and buy a chess board, book of crosswords, or other puzzles. Smokers who are quitting will tell you that a cold glass of water eases their cravings.
These small, personal acts strengthen our resolve against the vast changes occurring to our society.
Begin by saying “no, not yet” when the urge for another glass of wine, TV episode, or gaming session arises. Save a few dollars a week, open a retirement account, and make some longer-term goals.
Remember, you can, in fact, enjoy both cookies—eventually. The anticipation will only make them twice as sweet.