Many people worry about humanity’s seeming inability to self-regulate.
The ability to have 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 and 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 lists of strength, it is within all of us. It can grow, like all other strengths.
Come along and read how you can learn to delay gratification and open yourself up for improved self-regulation and higher goal achievement.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
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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 we become of our automatic behavioral reactions to impulses, the better prepared we are to delay those impulses. Interrupting the default mode does require more energy and can be uncomfortable at first. It can, however, make us more mindful of our behavior and reactions.
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’ as one of their top three 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 every day. This will likely feel inauthentic and difficult at first, but it can have 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 you successfully use it.
Here are some specific actions you can take to help build your delay muscles.
- Monitor your distractions first. Phone, TV, and the internet may be a good place to start. You can install apps to monitor your usage and see how you’re really spending your time.
- 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, it can be easier to make clear decisions 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.
The If-Then Worksheet is a 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, Baumeister, & Tice, 1999).
However, the long-term benefits of effortful practice of self-regulation may be able to strengthen the “muscle” overall.
The more opportunities we have to practice, the more we can exert our 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 our 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 you 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 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 could inadvertently encourage children to 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 reevaluate 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 by 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 allows for easier real-time decision making when pitfalls 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 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. Negativity bias gives significantly more weight to negative experience than to positive experience. We continually punish ourselves by allowing our 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 can be 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 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 us 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 and delaying 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 (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.
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, we must have the ability to fully understand behavior and consequences.
Self-directed speech is considered a developmental milestone for children and is another way to practice delayed gratification in daily life. Historically, thought and language have been deeply interconnected and researched. Self-directed speech is a metacognitive ability involved in self-motivation and task-oriented behavior (Mulvihill, Carroll, Dux, & Matthews, 2020).
Children begin to master this internal dialogue between the ages of 10 and 12. Utilizing this ability and maximizing its effectiveness can improve our self-regulatory behaviors. Consciously delaying impulses through our inner dialogue is an incredibly effective way to avoid something for more significant gain later on.
Test Yourself With These Tests
The Bredehoft-Slinger Delayed Gratification Scale (Slinger & Bredehoft, 2010) can be taken to determine your ability to delay gratification.
You can find permission to utilize this scale here. This assessment uses a seven-point Likert scale measuring impulsivity, task completion, and anger/frustration to determine the participant’s 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 on that New Year’s Resolution.
You can find the widely used Barratt Impulsiveness Scale for measuring impulsivity 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 our impulses and hinder them in favor of better rewards down the road are many. The skills of highly successful people are accessible to anyone who has the desire to change their life.
The ability to delay gratification can be lifesaving. 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 can help contribute to a healthier and happier world.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a 6-module emotional intelligence training package for practitioners which contains all the materials you’ll need to become an emotional intelligence expert, helping your clients harness their emotions and cultivate emotional connection in their lives.
- 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. (2020). Self-directed speech and self-regulation in childhood neurodevelopmental disorders: Current findings and future directions. Development and Psychopathology, 32(1), 205–217.
- 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, R. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.
- Schultz, W. (2015). Neuronal reward and decision signals: From theories to data. Physiological Reviews, 95(3), 853–951.
- Slinger, M., & Bredehoft, D. (2010). Relationships between childhood overindulgence adult attitudes and behavior. National Council on Family Relations Annual Conference: Families and Innovation, Minneapolis, MN.
- vanSonnenberg, E. (2015). Self-regulation. In S. Polly & K. Britton (Eds.), Character strengths matter: How to live a full life (pp. 155–159). Positive Psychology News.