Importance of delayed gratification.

boy and two marshmellows

In today’s day and age of one-click purchases and immediately accessible information, instant gratification is seen as the norm. With smartphones and Wi-Fi, the always-on world reinforces that you have to get what you want right away. But instant gratification isn’t always the best — impulse control is an essential life skill. Delayed gratification is the skill that will get you there faster when it comes to achieving your goals.

It’s not realistic to get everything you want, much less get it immediately. Instant gratification is a source of frustration — it creates false expectations. By learning to employ delayed gratification, you buy time to strategize thoughtfully and learn from your failures. But what is delayed gratification? And how can you build this essential skill?

What is delayed gratification?

Delayed gratification means resisting the temptation of an immediate reward in anticipation that there will be a greater reward later. It’s a powerful tool for learning to live your life with purpose. It’s linked to impulse control: Those with high impulse control typically excel at delayed gratification. However, delayed gratification is also a skill that you can develop.

According to Freud’s “pleasure principle,” humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is why children seek instant gratification. But as we mature, this desire is tempered by the “reality” principle, or the ability of humans to consider risks versus rewards, by which we’re able to delay fulfilment instead of making a poor decision — especially if the later reward is greater than the one we’d get immediately. This is delayed gratification.

Why is delayed gratification important?

The ability to hold out now for a better reward later is an essential life skill. Delayed gratification allows you to do things like forgo large purchases to save for a vacation, skip dessert to lose weight or take a job you don’t love, but that will help your career later on.

In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel created one of the best-delayed gratification examples. He tested hundreds of young children by placing each child in a private room, accompanied only by a single marshmallow placed on the table. Researchers then offered each child a deal: If the child refrained from eating the marshmallow while researchers briefly left the room, the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. But if the child ate the first marshmallow, there would be no second one.

The results of the so-called “Marshmallow Experiment” underscored the difficulty humans of any age have with delayed gratification. Some children ate the first marshmallow immediately. Others tried to restrain themselves but eventually gave in. Only a few children managed to hold out for the two-marshmallow reward.

Researchers followed the Marshmallow Experiment participants into adulthood over a span of 40 years. Unlike the children who caved to temptation, the children who delayed their reward were far more successful in almost all areas of life. They scored higher on standardized tests, were healthier, responded better to stress, had fewer substance abuse issues and demonstrated better social skills. This delayed gratification example proved that it is pivotal to success in almost every facet of life.

Training your brain with delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is a learned behaviour in children — and adults, too, can train their brains to wait. Researchers at the University of Rochester wanted to dig deeper into the question: “What is delayed gratification?” They followed up on the famous Marshmallow Experiment with a new group of children and an important twist. They split the children into two groups prior to the marshmallow test. Researchers promised rewards like crayons and stickers for the first group, but the rewards never materialized. For the second group, the rewards materialized as promised.

The children in the first group struggled with delayed gratification because they’d been conditioned to believe the reward wouldn’t occur. They had no reason to wait since evidence had never given them cause to trust the researchers. For those of us working to embrace delayed gratification as a life skill, there are several valuable lessons to be learned from these kids.

The children who received prizes as promised had unknowingly trained their brains to believe that (1) they could delay gratification and (2) delayed gratification was worth the wait. These kids’ ability to postpone pleasure was not predetermined or genetic — it was a learned behaviour. That means you can train your brain to delay gratification in some different situations.


Skills like impulse control and long-term thinking are essential to achieving your goals throughout life. Here are some examples of delayed gratification in different areas of your life.


  • Resist the impulse to start a fight or react angrily to your partner, and instead, use your communication skills to find a constructive solution.
  • Put your phone down — resisting the instant gratification of social media or texting — and be fully present with your partner.


  • Resist the desire to marathon Netflix or scroll through social media, and instead, use your N.E.T. time to gain skills or knowledge that will advance your career.
  • Delay the gratification of a night out or a late happy hour in favour of being well-rested and prepared for a big presentation.


  • Instead of giving in to the instant gratification of eating that piece of cake, delay your gratification and reap the reward of vitality and energy later.
  • Resist the comfort, certainty and instant gratification you get from an easy workout. Find your workout inspiration and earn the delayed gratification of health benefits.


  • Delay the gratification of purchasing something you don’t absolutely need, and earn the long-term reward of having more savings and financial freedom.
  • You may not get instant returns when you invest, but the delayed gratification is even greater as you compound your money.


If you want to develop self-control, it might be tempting to build as much “muscle” as possible by denying yourself anything pleasurable. You might even be tempted to up the ante by denying yourself a reward you’d promised yourself. But when you try tricking yourself, it backfires because your brain looks for consistency to guide its decisions. Be reliable with yourself, and follow through on your promises. These four tips will get you started.


To orient your brain toward delayed gratification, start small. Create a goal so easy you can’t refuse it, like waiting three minutes before eating dessert. Next time, improve by one per cent — or in this case, you can improve by 33% and wait for four minutes. Incremental progress lets you build confidence with each small goal you achieve.


You can also use delayed gratification as a “rule” for certain parts of your life where you may lack self-control. If you’re a shopaholic, rule that you must wait three days — or a week — to buy that jacket you saw online. Or, make a rule that if you’ve spent more than five minutes debating a purchase, you don’t make it.


Practice Gratitude

Reminding yourself of all you have is a very effective way to train your brain to accept delayed gratification. When you think of all the clothes you’re already lucky enough to have or the perfectly good car you own, you realize you don’t need that new stuff you’ve been coveting. Instead of being disappointed, you’re having a salad for lunch instead of a burger. Be grateful that you have food to nourish your body. Delayed gratification comes naturally when you practice gratitude.


Remind yourself of your goals

What is delayed gratification if not the ability, to reach your biggest goals and dreams? You’re putting off that purchase to save for a home or retirement, and you’re having a salad instead of that burger so that you can achieve the body of your dreams and have more energy. Keep a picture of your goal on your phone — you can even set it as your wallpaper — to remind yourself what you’re working toward. It will make delayed gratification that much easier.

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