Is there something else you should be doing right now? Working on a project? Writing a paper? Putting away that load of laundry that’s been in the dryer for two days?
If so, you’re in good company. We all find ourselves distracted from meeting more long-term goals by more enjoyable short-term activities. Each of us likely struggles with these urges to procrastinate every day—with varying degrees of success.
Why is it so hard to stay the course on our long-term projects, even when we are certain that the advantages of sticking to it will far outweigh the more immediate benefits of putting them off?
The answer is instant gratification.
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This article contains:
- What is the Meaning of Instant or Immediate Gratification?
- Instant Gratification Theory in Psychology
- 6 Examples of Instant Gratification
- How to Overcome an Instant Gratification Bias
- Tim Urban’s Instant Gratification Monkey (The Instant Gratification Monkey and Why Procrastinators Procrastinate)
- Instant Gratification and its Effects on Relationships
- Instant Gratification’s Effect on Society
- “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” – 13 Quotes
- A Take Home Message
What is the Meaning of Instant or Immediate Gratification?
Instant (or immediate) gratification is a term that refers to the temptation, and resulting tendency, to forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit. When you have a desire for something pleasurable—be it food, entertainment, or sex—you rarely think thoughts like, “My stomach is rumbling and I would love to have that delicious dish, but I’d rather wait another hour.”
It’s a natural human urge to want good things and to want them NOW. It has almost certainly provided an evolutionary advantage for humans and their ancestors, as life for pre-modern humans hinged on decisions made and actions taken in the immediate far more than those intended for long-term gain. It’s all well and good to plan for the future, but actions that are taken to benefit you in the here and now are much more advantageous when you’re being stalked by a fierce predator or offered the opportunity to eat your fill in a time when starvation was a much bigger concern than obesity.
The flip side of instant gratification is delayed gratification, or the decision to put off satisfying your desire in order to gain an even better reward or benefit in the future. It’s easy to see how delayed gratification is generally the wiser behavior, but we still struggle on a daily basis with the temptation to give in to our immediate desires. Why is it so difficult to choose delayed over instant gratification?
Instant Gratification Theory in Psychology
At the heart of instant gratification is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. This tendency is known as the pleasure principle.
The term was first used by Sigmund Freud to describe the role of the “id,” his proposed component of the unconscious mind that is driven purely by baser instincts (Good Therapy, 2015). Although Freud’s conceptualization of the human mind has largely been relegated to the “interesting idea, but it doesn’t really pan out” category of psychological theories, the pleasure principle was one of his more enduring propositions.
It’s clear that humans are, to at least some extent, driven by the desire to experience pleasure. You could even argue that self-defeating behavior that seems to bring no immediate benefits is in line with the pleasure principle—for example, a person who frequently starts fights with his spouse may seem to be getting no benefit from his actions, but perhaps the apology or make-up period after the fight has passed outweighs the short-term discomfort of the argument (Good Therapy, 2015).
However you slice it, the lure of short-term pleasure is a tough temptation to avoid. Psychologist Shahram Heshmat outlines 10 reasons why it is so difficult to sidestep this urge (2016):
- A desire to avoid delay: it’s uncomfortable to engage in self-denial, and all of our instincts are to seize any opportunity for pleasure as it comes.
- Uncertainty: generally, we are born with nearly infinite certainty and trust in others, but over time we learn to be less sure of the reliability of others and of our future; this uncertainty can cause us to value the less beneficial but certain-and-immediate over the more beneficial uncertain-and-long-term.
- Age: as you have likely already noted, younger people have a tendency to be more impulsive, while older people with more life experience are better able to delay and temper their urges.
- Imagination: choosing delayed gratification requires the ability to envision your desired future if you forego your current desire; if you cannot paint a vivid picture of your future, you have little motivation to plan for it.
- Cognitive capacity: higher intelligence is linked to a more forward-thinking perspective; those who are born with more innate intelligence have a tendency to see the benefits of delayed gratification and act in accordance.
- Poverty: even when we see the wisdom in delaying gratification, poverty can make the decision complicated and even more difficult; if you have an immediate, basic need that is begging to be met (e.g., food, shelter), it’s unlikely you will choose to forego that need in order to receive any future benefit.
- Impulsiveness: some of us are simply more impulsive or spontaneous than others, which makes delaying gratification that much more difficult; this trait is associated with problems like substance abuse and obesity.
- Emotion regulation: individual differences in emotion regulation also impact our tendency towards instant vs. delayed gratification; emotional distress makes us lean towards choices that will immediately improve our mood, and those who have developed emotion regulation problems are especially at risk.
- Mood: even those with healthy emotion regulation can be led astray by their current mood; we all experience bad moods, boredom, and impatience—all of which serve to make immediate desires that much more seductive.
- Anticipation: finally, the experience of anticipation can influence our decisions to delay gratification or seek it immediately in either direction; humans generally like to anticipate positive things and dislike the anticipation of negative things, which can lead to decisions to put things off or to engage in them as quickly as possible to seek pleasure or avoid discomfort.
6 Examples of Instant Gratification
There are so many examples of instant gratification that it might seem easier to list examples of delayed gratification! However, humans engage in delayed gratification more often than you might think. After all, if everyone pursued instant gratification all the time, would anyone actually make the trek into work early in the morning unless they absolutely loved their job?
Some particularly salient examples of instant gratification that you can likely spot around you include:
- The urge to indulge in a high-calorie treat instead of a snack that will contribute to good health.
- The desire to hit snooze instead of getting up early to exercise.
- The temptation to go out for drinks with your friends instead of finishing a paper or studying for an exam.
- The temptation to go out for drinks with your friends instead of getting a good night’s sleep on a work night (this is one temptation that crosses generational bounds!).
- The desire to buy a new car that will require a high-interest loan instead of waiting until you have saved enough money to buy it without taking a loan.
- The urge to spend all your time with a new beau instead of working towards your long-term goals.
You have probably noticed that at least one or two of these examples apply to you. Don’t worry—a little instant gratification now and then won’t hurt! If you find yourself constantly choosing the immediate over the long-term, however, you might be struggling with an instant gratification bias. Read on to learn how to address this bias.
How to Overcome an Instant Gratification Bias
I won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended)—saying no to immediate gratification is no easy feat. If it was, we would all be trim, healthy, and have a reasonable amount of money in our savings account.
However, there are some things you can do to get better at avoiding the temptation to give in to instant gratification, including:
- Empathize with your future self. Before making a decision between instant and delayed gratification, take a moment to think about your future mental state—if you opt for instant gratification, how will the future you feel? Will she be happy you made this decision the way you did, or will she wish you had opted for delayed gratification?
- Precommitment. One of the best ways to protect yourself from the temptation of instant gratification is to make some decisions beforehand. If you can set some of your most important decisions in stone now, you will be less likely to change your mind or go through the hassle of backtracking and undoing your preparations when you come face to face with the decision.
- Break down big goals into small, manageable chunks. Big goals are fun set and can be motivating, but they can also seem overwhelming or far off. When you must decide between instant, easy gratification and delaying gratification in the attempt to meet a big, distant goal, it’s hard to stick to your long-term goal. Breaking these big goals into smaller pieces with rewards after each step makes you more committed and more likely to make the best decisions (Mani, 2017).
When you give your future self some consideration, make important decisions ahead of time, and split your big goals up into smaller, more manageable goals, you will find it much easier to say no to immediate temptations.
Tim Urban’s Instant Gratification Monkey (The Instant Gratification Monkey and Why Procrastinators Procrastinate)
If you haven’t happened upon Tim Urban’s blog Wait But Why, you’re in for a treat! He explores interesting and impactful topics at a depth that is unseen in the blogosphere. His ability to explain complex ideas in a simple and straightforward manner is exceptional, and the drawings that accompany his blogs are nothing if not endearing.
One of his best pieces (in this author’s humble opinion) is “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate,” in which he introduces us to the Instant Gratification Monkey. I highly recommend reading the entire piece (which you can find here), but I’ll outline the gist of this naughty monkey if you don’t have the time to invest in Urban’s long but worthwhile blog post right now.
The Instant Gratification Monkey is a troublesome creature who lives in the brain of procrastinators and constantly grapples with the much wiser tenant of the brain (the Rational Decision-Maker) for control—and frequently wins. The problem is that this monkey is truly terrible at making decisions.
I’ll let Urban tell you why he’s so bad at decision-making:
“The fact is, the Instant Gratification Monkey is the last creature who should be in charge of decisions—he thinks only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and he concerns himself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment. He doesn’t understand the Rational Decision-Maker any better than the Rational Decision-Maker understands him—why would we continue doing this jog, he thinks, when we could stop, which would feel better. Why would we practice that instrument when it’s not fun? Why would we ever use a computer for work when the internet is sitting right there waiting to be played with? He thinks humans are insane” (Urban, 2013).
In procrastinators, the monkey is bigger, stronger, and louder than in those steadfast people who embody patience and wisdom. The monkey has only one natural enemy in the procrastinator’s brain: the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster shows up when deadlines are approaching and only immediate and extreme effort can salvage the situation. Many Instant Gratification Monkeys run for the hills when the Panic Monster appears (although some are unaffected even then), and the procrastinator is finally able to get some things done.
While this might seem like a good thing—after all, at least something gets done—it’s a really bad strategy for the long-term. Here’s why it’s a really bad strategy:
- It’s unpleasant for the procrastinator, who could enjoy some well-deserved rewards after dedicated and consistent effort instead of guilty pleasure and last-minute panic.
- The procrastinator will eventually fall prey to underachieving and fail to meet his goals, which keeps him from reaching his full potential and is likely to result in guilt, regret, and self-esteem issues.
- The procrastinator may get the “must-do” things done, but he will rarely if ever, get the “want-to-do” things done; anything that does not have a strict deadline that sets off the Panic Monster’s alarm bells will never become a priority (Urban, 2013).
To hear more from Urban on the immediate allure and eventual disappointment of procrastination, check out his TED Talk here:
Instant Gratification and its Effects on Relationships
“We’re becoming impatient and lazy and we’re allowing this to shape our approach to our relationships. But successful relationships aren’t handed over on a plate, or downloaded at the click of a button, or ours in twenty-four hours for just £9.99 extra. Relationships are up there with food, water, clothing and shelter and you can’t just buy them or trade them in for an upgrade.” – Sam Owen
It will not come as a surprise to you to learn that instant gratification can have a markedly negative impact on relationships. When we are consumed with our desire for immediate pleasure or satisfaction, we rarely make decisions that benefit our long-term future with our partner. Whether these decisions are more innocuous, like putting off something you promised your partner you would do to binge a new show on Netflix, or more serious, like satisfying a desire to sleep with someone who is not your partner, instant gratification is not part of the standard recipe for a happy and healthy relationship.
How does instant gratification harm relationships? Laura Brown from Meet Mindful explains:
- Relationships must be respected as organic, living creations that develop and grow at their own pace; people are also on their own unique path that may result in a different pace than their partner’s. The desire to get the relationship you want right now or force a commitment in a relationship that is simply not mature enough yet is a great way to ensure that the relationship fails.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate! We all know communication is important, but the quality of communication is even more important than the quantity. It might feel good to shoot off an angry text or discuss what seems like an urgent issue right now, regardless of you and your partner’s current emotional state, but these actions can be extremely detrimental. High-quality, face-to-face communication beats out 160-character messages and taking the time to explore your feelings and reflect beats blurting out the first thing that pops into your head.
- Not every relationship SHOULD evolve, meaning that not all relationships will last ‘til-death-do-us-part, and that’s okay! It might feel extremely important to you to push your relationship to the next level—or to whatever level you desire—but forcing a relationship into a stage or a mold that doesn’t fit will only end in pain. Sometimes the best decision is to let a relationship go, even if it seems unbearably painful in the moment.
- Patience is a virtue. There’s a reason that on-the-fly marriages in Las Vegas are less likely to last than those between two long-term partners who have planned their future together: it takes time to get to know your partner, to get to know yourself, and to create a healthy, nurturing relationship. The poets and romantic comedies may push the idea of love at first sight, but it simply doesn’t exist; you must actually know someone to truly love them (although newborns have a unique tendency to capture our hearts pretty quickly). If you don’t spend the time and put in the effort to build a strong foundation, your relationship is at risk of folding at the slightest breeze (Brown, n.d.).
Instant Gratification’s Effect on Society
Aside from the impacts on our personal lives when we give in to instant gratification’s seduction, there are society-wide impacts as well. We are undoubtedly becoming a society that is accustomed to getting what we want when we want it, and there is a big reason for this trend: technology and social media.
What Role Does Technology and Social Media Play?
“Technology has eliminated the basement darkroom and the whole notion of photography as an intense labor of love for obsessives and replaced them with a sense of immediacy and instant gratification.” – Joe McNally
Although instant gratification has been a struggle for humans for a long time, it is undoubtedly harder than it used to be to delay gratification.
The biggest contributor to this increase in difficulty is modern technology and social media. When you have, essentially, the world at your fingertips, it’s extremely challenging to consciously choose delayed gratification over instant. In an age where Amazon has accustomed us to one-day delivery and Netflix and Hulu have gotten us hooked on instant streaming, it seems unthinkable to wait.
This relationship between instant gratification and technology is a two-way street: the more we are offered instant gratification through our technology, the more we come to expect it, and the more habituated we become to getting what we want right now, the more pressure there is on companies to fulfill this urge.
Emma Taubenfeld of Pace University outlines some of the effects of this interplay with salient examples:
- DVRs eliminate the need to wait through commercials to get back to your show or movie.
- Disney parks offer fast passes that allow you to skip the wait and jump to the front of the line—for a fee.
- Walmart and eBay are offering progressively faster shipping to compete with Amazon.
- Internet providers are constantly upgrading the speed of their connections to compete with other providers (2017).
Perhaps the biggest influence on our gratification habits comes from social media. Not only can we find out in an instant what all of our friends are up to or share the picture we snapped just moments ago, we can meet new people in seconds as well. Dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, and OkCupid offer the opportunity to connect with literally millions of people within seconds, and to filter them by dozens of specifications with a delay of only a minute or two.
While there are certainly positive outcomes from our new constantly-connected world, there are negative effects as well. It’s not a stretch to say that people are simply much less patient than they used to be. Research from the University of Amherst found that video stream quality has a shocking impact on viewer behavior: if a video takes more than two seconds to load, would-be viewers start melting away, and each additional second of load time causes an additional 5.8% of people to give up and move on to something else (Krishnan & Sitaraman, 2013).
This is astounding when you stop to think about it. A delay of only two seconds is enough to make many of us give up on discovering something new, learning something we need to know, or even being entertained!
In a study on a similar topic, the Nielsen Norman Group found that most people stay on a web page long enough to read only about a fifth of the text that it contains (Nielsen, 2008). The average web page in the study contained 593 words, so visitors generally read only about 120 words on a typical visit. Data from this study also showed that for 100 additional words on a page, visitors will spend only 4.4 seconds more before moving on to a new page. Depending on reading speed, that translates to around 18 words.
Think about that—when you add text to a page, you can only expect visitors to read about 18% of it! Although this certainly points to a tendency towards instant gratification (i.e., visitors find what they need and get out as soon as possible, or they give up because it takes too long), it may also be a sign that internet users are getting better at scanning pages and finding the information they are looking for.
However, with the exponential growth of false information online, even this silver lining has its own cloud—with so little time spent on gathering information, how could anyone have time to verify what they read? It’s all well and good to quickly find what you need, but how certain can you be that it is accurate when you spend mere seconds scanning the page?
As we become more dependent on the internet, and less patient with our time, it’s hard to see a future in which the prevalence of false information becomes less of a problem. If the past decade has been any indication, we can only expect more inaccuracy and less patience!
Are Millennials the Instant Gratification Generation?
“Everyone wants instant gratification: you have to have everything your parents had right away.” – Jim Flaherty
With such findings on instant gratification and technology, it’s easy to see how millennials got their reputation as the “instant gratification generation.” Millennials—the generation generally agreed to be those born in the 1980s and early 1990s—grew up with much more advanced technology than any previous generation. They didn’t all have cell phones in their tweens, but they likely came of age with a connection to the internet that facilitated instant (or near instant, if you had dial-up) messaging.
Millennials get a lot of flak for their tendency towards instant gratification but ask a millennial about instant gratification and you might get an answer about how much longer this generation is waiting to get married, have children, buy a house, or dig out of student debt. To be sure, millennials don’t get everything they want on demand—and are actually more patient when it comes to certain things—but they are certainly accustomed to receiving entertainment and communication with minimal delay.
Perhaps the question of whether millennials are the generation of instant gratification is the wrong question to ask; the right question might be about how the notion of instant gratification changes over time. If you’re a member of the Baby Boomer generation, you probably agree that with the assertion about millennials and instant gratification, but take a moment to think back to your parents and grandparents’ generations: did they grow up with a telephone in the kitchen or fast, reliable, and (relatively) inexpensive automobile in the garage?
Traditionalists and earlier generations likely thought their children and grandchildren were spoiled by instant gratification as well; they could speak with anyone, nearly anywhere in the world, at the drop of a dime! The definition of the “instant gratification generation” is relative, such that whatever generation you were born into seems normal to you, while younger generations likely seem spoiled and entitled to immediate satisfaction.
Or perhaps millennials truly are spoiled and entitled to immediate satisfaction—you may want to take my millennial ideas with a grain of salt.
“Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” – 13 Quotes
Fans of the late Carrie Fisher will recognize her quote above: “Instant gratification takes too long.”
Meryl Streep had a similar quote: “Instant gratification is not soon enough.”
These humorous takes on instant gratification hold a kernel of truth to them—as we get more and more accustomed to quick satisfaction, we will only want quicker satisfaction. Avoiding the instant gratification trap requires delaying gratification, sometimes to gain even better benefits later, and sometimes just to remind us that we will survive the wait.
Here’s some other takes on instant gratification that you might find funny, insightful, or inspiring—and maybe just a few that validate the feel-good rush instant gratification can bring!
“What about getting up after five hours of sleep?’ ‘Oh, that’s morning guy’s problem. That’s not my problem—I’m night guy! I stay up as late as I want.”
“In a world where people are hungry for quick fixes and sound bites, for instant gratification, there’s no patience for the long, slow rebuilding process: implementing after-school programs, hiring more community workers to act as mentors, adding more job training programs in marginalized areas.”
“As we get part our superficial material wants and instant gratification we connect to a deeper part of ourselves, as well as to others, and the universe.”
“We live in a quick-fix society where we need instant gratification for everything. Too fat? Get lipo-sucked. Stringy hair? Glue on extensions. Wrinkles and lines? Head to the beauty shop for a pot of the latest miracle skin stuff. It’s all a beautiful £1 billion con foisted upon insecure women by canny cosmetic conglomerates.”
“I don’t think patience is something that any of us grow up with in a large dose. It’s a world of instant gratification.”
“We’re used to the characteristics of social media—participation, connection, instant gratification—and when school doesn’t offer the same, it’s easy to tune out.”
“I think it’s kind of nice, in this day and age of instant gratification, that you have to wait for something.”
“Working is not instantly rewarding. It’s a long process, and it’s much easier to just feed whatever dopamine cycles exist in your brain in instant gratification ways. I get it; I do.”
“The phenomena of taking photos and sharing them isn’t new, but with Instagram being mobile, both have become cheaper and faster, producing the instant gratification of knowing how our shots look in our palms.”
“We live in a time where there’s a required instant gratification from audiences. That’s a fun challenge in terms of putting together this teaser, picking and choosing how much you’re actually giving away.”
“We are often too late with our brilliance. We are on time delay. The only instant gratification comes in the form of potato chips. The rest will find us by surprise somewhere down the road maybe as we sleep and dream of other things.”
A Take Home Message
The take-home message here is the same one you will find when you ask your parents or grandparents for advice, or the suggestion you find when clicking on nearly any link that pops up in response to Googling “instant gratification”—it’s important to learn how to put off instant gratification.
You don’t always need to say no to things that make you feel good. Giving yourself a break once in a while is important, as is treating yourself to a reward after hard work. However, these occasional treats are much more valuable when you have made delayed gratification a habit.
If that is your goal, read our post on delayed gratification exercises.
In addition, use the tips outlined earlier to build your capacity for delaying gratification—you will thank yourself later!
What do you think about this topic? Am I biased towards my generation, and missing the obvious signs that millennials are indeed the generation of instant gratification? How do you resist the urge to put off what you need to get done? Let us know in the comments section!
Thanks for reading—now get back to work!
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- Brown, L. (n.d.). How instant gratification is ruining dating. Meet Mindful: Dating & Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.meetmindful.com/instant-gratification/#
- Good Therapy. (2015). Pleasure principle. GoodTherapy PsychPedia. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/pleasure-principle
- Heshmat, S. (2016). 10 reasons we rush for immediate gratification. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201606/10-reasons-we-rush-immediate-gratification
- Krishnan, S. S., & Sitaraman, R. K. (2013). Video stream quality impacts viewer behavior: Inferring causality using quasi-experimental designs. IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking, 21, 2001-2014. doi:10.1109/TNET.2013.2281542
- Mani, L. (2017). Hyperbolic discounting: Why you make terrible life choices. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/behavior-design/hyperbolic-discounting-aefb7acec46e
- Nielsen, J. (2008). How little do users read? Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read/
- Patel, N. (2014). The psychology of instant gratification and how it will revolutionize your marketing approach. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/235088
- Taubenfeld, E. (2017). The culture of impatience and instant gratification. Study Breaks: Culture. Retrieved from https://studybreaks.com/culture/instant-gratification/
- Urban, T. (2013). Why procrastinators procrastinate. Wait But Why. Retrieved from https://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html