Lately I’ve been fascinated with the concept of delayed gratification. The basic idea that intrigues me is this: People who have the ability to delay gratification are more successful in life. Some people are naturally good at delaying gratification and some of us, including me, are not.

Delaying gratification is the ability to wait for a later outcome that is better than the immediate outcome.

Check out my thoughts in the supplemental video below. I give a little detail about the part that delayed gratification plays in my life and how I’m still learning to apply it.

For example, when I got my first credit card I maxed it out right away and suffered the consequences of getting crushed by the interest rate for the following two years. Or another reoccurring example in my life that I’ve chosen to get fast food on the way home from work instead of stopping at the grocery store and cooking a meal for myself. And one that I know we all suffer from is shoving that pizza roll in my mouth as soon as it comes out of the oven instead of waiting for it to cool. Nothing like biting into molten lava.

I suck at delaying my gratification.

The question I ask myself is “If I know that delaying my gratification in each of these scenarios will increase my quality of life, why don’t I have the patience and will power to do it?”

Something that I’ve become obsessed with over the past two years is personal finance so I thought I would look at that area of my life to see how I’ve been able to teach myself delayed gratification. I’ve been able to go from contributing nothing to my 401(k) to maxing it out in the past two years. In my career I’ve paid about $43,000 more in taxes than I needed to just so I could have instant gratification. More on that later.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 31% of eligible Americans contributed $0 to their 401(k) plan in 2015. The cost of immediate gratification in this case was paying their effective income tax rate on that money so they could spend what remained right away instead of investing it and allowing it to grow tax-free.

picard facepalm
Why oh why?

The Marshmallow Test

In the 1960’s psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of tests on children from ages three to nine years old. His research was dubbed “The Marshmallow Test” by the media because of his use of marshmallows as a temptation device in the studies. (There were other sweets used as temptations but the media latched onto the marshmallows for some reason.)

Anyway, the basic principle of the study was to offer a child one sweet now (immediate gratification) or if the child could wait for the researcher to come back into the room later (up to 20 minutes) the child would receive two sweets. Among the many findings of the study, he found that as the children passed into adulthood the ones that could delay their gratification were more successful in life based on a variety of success measurements from physical health to earning power.

Delayed gratification can be learned

Before we go any further I think the important caveat to point out is that if a child is not able to delay his gratification that does not mean that they will be a failure in life. Nor does it mean that if a child is able to delay their gratification they will be a stunning success. Mischel’s results are statistically significant for predicting the results for a group not for an individual. Another thing I want to point out is that although some of us are better at delaying gratification, it does not me that those of us who aren’t cannot learn to be.

Opportunities for delaying gratification to improve yourself are everywhere. Think back to my fast food example: you are hungry and you have two options, either get some fast food (instant gratification) or cook food at home (delayed gratification). In most cases cooking your own food is cheaper and healthier. Delayed gratification is the better option in this scenario. I do want to point out that delaying gratification is not right in every circumstance. You need to weight the immediate outcome against the deferred outcome to see what is best.

Our culture is all about instant gratification and companies are all too willing to prey on our need for it. From On Demand programming and Amazon 1-hour delivery. To the ease of access to borrowed money for houses, cars, and even cell phones, we are a culture of instant gratification. The point I’m making is that we have an expectation that anything we want, we should be able to get right away because it’s our right. Right?

How to learn delayed gratification

I was having a conversation with a co-worker some time ago and we were talking about delayed gratification and The Marshmallow Test. When his children were young they would play a game where they turned the ceiling fan off and then had a celebration when the fan stopped moving. Since the fan would gradually come to a stop, not instantly, they would have to wait and wait until it stopped. Only when the fan came to a complete stop they would celebrate by clapping and cheering. The children enjoyed the clapping and cheering and would sometimes start clapping and cheering before the fan had stopped. However my co-worker would not celebrate with them until the fan had completely stopped and in this way he was teaching his children to delay their gratification.

It’s such a simple game but it got me thinking about how I had learned to delay gratification in some cases and how I could apply it to other parts of my life.

I don’t suggest that you stare at a ceiling fan and cheer when it stops. Although that would be funny to see an adult do. There are small ways that you can delay your gratification and build up to larger things. Delaying gratification is really an exercise in willpower.

The first step is to be aware of opportunities to delay gratification for the better because I believe awareness is the first step to self-improvement. The next step is to look for small opportunities to delay your gratification. I’m going to start with waiting until my pizza rolls are cool before burning the shit out of my mouth.


I was able to start maxing out my 401(k) by applying the first step of awareness. Over the past couple years I have done loads of research on personal finance and how it affects my happiness. I’ve run the numbers and iterated financial plan after financial plan to see what the results would be. I track my finances with surgeon-like precision. I know where I am now and where I expect to be next year. By having this level of awareness about my finances I can’t imagine not maxing out my 401(k). In order to max out my 401(k) contributions I look for small ways each day, week, month, etc… to maximize the value of my income. That’s the second step. So every little purchase decision gives me an opportunity to practice my delayed gratification in my finances. I deem this a success because it was an accomplishment of a value-based goal.

Now I’m looking for more ways I can train myself to delay gratification. In what ways can delaying gratification improve your life?


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