One of the biggest downfalls across the globe is humanity’s inability to self-regulate.
The accessibility of having whatever we want in an instant weakens our self-regulation muscles.
Most goals can be reached, but they don’t happen by accident. They also don’t get realized in an instant.
Goal achievement requires self-awareness, along with the attainment of the ability to delay gratification in favor of more desirable rewards at a later time. While self-regulation may not be at the top of most of our VIA character strengths lists, this strength is within all of us. It can grow, like all other strengths.
Come along and read how you too, can learn to delay gratification and, in turn, open yourself up for improved self-regulation and higher goal achievement.
This article contains:
Delayed Gratification Exercises
One of the easiest ways to begin exercising your delay muscles is by practicing mindfulness to undo “autopilot” thinking.
The more aware one becomes of their automatic behavioral reactions to impulses, the better prepared they will be to delay those impulses. Interrupting the default mode network does require more energy and can at first become uncomfortable. It does, however, enable rewiring of behavioral impulse reaction.
Another way to exercise delayed gratification is through the use of strengths. A great way to bring forward a lower strength is by using a core strength (Niemiec, 2018). If self-regulation is on the lower portion of your strengths list, a core strength can pull it forward.
For instance, someone who has ‘Love’ in their top 3 VIA character strengths can use that strength to tow self-regulation forward. An example might be saying to yourself, “I love you too much to eat that cookie right now.”
Another way to bolster a lower strength is by using it in a new way daily. This will likely feel inauthentic and difficult at first, but it has returns that are long term rewards. Here are some steps to build a lower strength, like self-regulation:
- Choose the strength you’d like to build.
- Create a visual cue.
- Make the strength’s use part of daily routine.
- Give yourself a reward when successfully used.
Here are some specific actions you can take to help build your delay muscles.
- Monitor your distractions first. Phone, TV, and the internet are significant areas of gratification delay that need to be fostered in all generations, but especially in younger people. There are apps to self-monitor usage. Install these and realize how much our dopamine surges are influencing your behavior.
- Eliminate objects of temptation. It’s much easier to avoid junk food when it isn’t in our homes.
- The next time something upsets you, try to control your emotions. Focus on the choices that you have in handling the situation. When emotions are more easily digestible, decisions are more logical in real-time.
5 Useful Delayed Gratification Worksheets
The Avoidance Plan Worksheet can help you plan avoidance strategies.
The Reward Replacement Worksheet can help you switch up rewards.
The Abstraction Worksheet can help you tap into the capabilities of abstraction.
This worksheet will help you tune into Self-directed Speech.
Your If-then Worksheet is an “if-then” plan for hiccups.
Activities for Adults & Kids
We know from research that the initial practice of self-regulation results in short term ego depletion (Muraven et al., 1999).
However, the long-term benefits of effortful practice of self-regulation strengthen the “muscle” overall.
The more opportunities one has to practice, the more one will be able to exert their power over impulse.
Here are a few activities that can serve as practice for adults and children:
Tracking and Journaling is a reliable way to improve overall capacity to delay gratification. If someone has the goal of weight loss, logging food intake is a great way to begin the journey toward that goal. The activity welcomes self-awareness and mindfulness in impulse control.
Goal Setting is an important piece when attempting to delay gratification. Creating a “keep your eye on the prize” situation can enable someone to envision a positive future that can manifest in the real world through real-time habit change. A specific, attainable, and measurable goal needs to be set in place before delay activities can be fully experienced.
Children need to see their parents modeling the type of behavior that they are asked to exhibit. Parents who act impulsively concerning food and other delay requiring practices will have children who will do the same. Parents who frequently show restraint in consumption and spending will likely have offspring who can do the same.
Wish lists are great ways to help children delay their impulses for the “must-have” toys they are eager to possess. These lists help kids re-evaluate their impulses at a later time and reduce parent-child stress in real-time situations. It isn’t hard to imagine the little monsters we could create through buying kids something every time they visit the store. This is a fun and powerful “not right now” lesson.
Achieving improvement in health, wealth, and overall wellbeing is possible through alterations in goal setting behaviors. Setting If-Then parameters for delaying gratification can be helpful along the way. When pursuing a goal, creating scenarios ahead of time allow for easier real-time decision making when pitfalls might present themselves.
For instance, when pursuing a health goal, setting up a precise way to respond if a temptation pops up, allows a response that will delay gratification. Here’s an example:
If I want an extra snack, then I will do 20 squats and drink a glass of water first.
We all have vices, and our impulse to give in to those vices can be countered with positive replacement behavior. Habits become automated after approximately 66 days of continuous use (vanSonnenberg, 2015). If someone wished to overcome a vice, replacing that vice with an alternative positive behavior can aid in delaying the impulse for that vice.
For instance, replacing an unhealthy choice with a healthy one instead provides a positive aim for habit change. Here is an example:
Instead of going to bed watching Netflix, I will read for 30-45 minutes instead.
Positive self-talk is a skill that many people are unaware they can build. Human negativity bias gives significantly more weight to negative experience than to positive experience. We continually punish ourselves by allowing the negativity bias to outweigh a positive voice. With practiced self-compassion, positive self-talk can rewire our brain toward solution-focused inner dialogue.
How to Practice Delayed Gratification in Daily Life?
Avoidance is a practice that successful gratification delayers employ.
When you have a health goal, creating an environment where healthy choices are easily accessible is essential. Delaying gratification is an energy-depleting activity.
When we avoid the necessity of overriding our impulses, the instances that we have to delay gratification and, in turn, deplete ourselves are lessened. It is so much easier to avoid fast food when you’ve already planned ahead with healthy choices for the hunger that inevitably erupts.
De-emphasis of Rewards is another area to grow a daily life delayed gratification practice. Rewards aren’t defined by physical properties, but rather by the behaviorally induced responses attributed to those rewards (Schultz, 2015). Fully recognizing what behaviors lead to perceived rewards gives one a driver’s seat to delaying gratification.
The warm, comfortable feeling an alcoholic beverage may bring to someone struggling with excessive alcohol consumption can be de-emphasized. Behaviors that bring that warm, comfortable feeling in a healthy way can “put-off” the need for that drink — replacing behaviors that are harmful with healthful rewards, delays the gratification experienced for that original behavior.
It takes hard work to delay the feeling of physical need, but the rewards of longer life and better overall health can begin to outweigh the need over time.
Rewards can produce learning opportunities. Through new positive neural pathways, behavior shifts result in new ways to experience pleasurable rewards. Emphasizing rewards that are healthful shifts behaviors when intrinsically motivated.
Positive distraction is another way to practice delaying gratification. Creating opportunities for play where positive distraction pulls someone away from the urge to act on impulse is helpful. Studies have shown that certain games can help people move forward when they’re no longer focused on the pain of the current experience.
For instance, children singing songs and creating play during the famous marshmallow test were better able to delay the impulse to consume their marshmallows.
Other animals use self-distraction as a technique to delay gratification as well as humans (Evans & Beran, 2007). It is interesting to know that with proper motivation for behavior change, improving self-regulation is possible across species. The only problem with distraction is when it becomes a new unhealthy habit instead of a tool to change a habit. Be mindful of the social media rabbit hole.
Abstraction is another pathway to delayed gratification practice in daily life. The ability to cognitively isolate common characteristics is essential for higher-level information processing. For learning from experience to take place, one must have the capability of fully understanding behavior and consequence connection through this higher-level cognitive processing.
Self-Directed speech is considered a developmental milestone for children and is yet another way to practice delayed gratification in daily life. Historically thought and language has been deeply interconnected and researched. Self-directed speech is a metacognitive ability involved in self-motivation and task-oriented behavior (Mulvill, 2019).
Children begin to master this internal dialogue between the ages of 10-12. Utilizing this ability and maximizing its effectiveness improves one’s self-regulatory behaviors. Consciously directing delaying of impulses through our inner dialogue is an incredibly effective way to help ourselves off something for more significant gain later on.
Test Yourself With These Tests
The Bredehoft-Slinger Delayed Gratification Scale (Bredehoft & Slinger, 2010) can be taken to determine one’s ability to delay gratification.
Permission to utilize this scale can be found here. This scale uses a 7 point Likert scale measuring the impulsivity, task completion, and anger/frustration to determine participant ability to postpone impulse.
If you want to test your willpower, here is a scientifically-backed test to see whether or not you’re ready to take that New Year’s Resolution.
A widely used test called the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale for measuring impulsivity can be found here.
The Cookie Test is a test of willpower you can perform on yourself. Grab a freshly baked cookie and place it in front of you. Note the time it takes for you to avoid consuming it. This won’t work for those who don’t love cookies quite as much as the cookie monsters of the world.
A Take-Home Message
Delaying gratification takes a considerable effort, resulting in energy depletion. The benefits of creating strategies to understand one’s impulses and hinder them in favor of better rewards down the road are something anyone can learn. The skills of highly successful people are accessible to anyone who has the desire to change their life.
A worldwide shortage of skills to delay gratification has created a huge need for action in adults and children alike. Epidemic levels of obesity, drug and alcohol misuse, and financial scarcity are important reasons to begin to change how we approach our impulsivity.
More people learning how to see long term goals as beneficial over the desires of instant gratification will result in more successful populations.
- Evans, T. A., & Beran, M. J. (2007). Chimpanzees use self-distraction to cope with impulsivity. Biology Letters, 3(6), 599–602.
- Mulvihill, A., Carroll, A., Dux, P. E., & Matthews, N. (2019). Self-directed speech and self-regulation in childhood neurodevelopmental disorders: Current findings and future directions. Development and Psychopathology, 1–13.
- Muraven, M., Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1999). Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise. The Journal of Social Psychology, 139(4), 446–457.
- Niemiec, Ryan. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe Publishing Corporation.
- Schultz, W. (2015). Neuronal Reward and Decision Signals: From Theories to Data. Physiological Reviews, 95(3), 853–951.
- Slinger, Mary & Bredehoft, David. (2010). Relationships Between Childhood Overindulgence Adult Attitudes and Behavior.
- vanSonnenbeg, Emily. (2015). Self-Regulation. Polly, Shannon & Britton, Kathryn Character Strengths Matter: How To Live a Full Life. (pp155-159). United States. Positive Psychology News, LLC.