Instant Gratification Versus Delayed Gratification


Today I was faced with a decision. In front of me there were nine tasks. All of them are high priority. Yet, since they all require a high degree of analytical focus and I have worked quite a lot on this project this week, I’ve decided to not do them.

This left me into a dilemma. I don’t want to do these tasks but does this means that I’m not doing anything today? Should I watch a movie? Play a video game? Sleep? Waste my time checking random blogs?

The answer is no. I have decided to spend the day reading “The Startup Way” by Eric Ries. It proved to be a wonderful idea as it filled some important gaps into my knowledge and I’m looking forward to reading more of it.

What is relevant here for you (apart from reading the book, as you should) is how I’ve got to this decision. I imagined that it is Monday. I am on a call with one of my partners. I can have better answers and better solutions if I read the book. I can not tell a story about the movie I’ve seen and certainly not about the video games I’ve played.

Your future self succeeds or fails based on what you are doing now. The “you” of tomorrow or the “you” of next year will be prepared (or lack thereof) based on where you decide to invest your time and money now. Life does not get easier. You make life easier by building bridges today that you can use tomorrow.

This is a concept that so few people truly understand. Your future self can have an umbrella over his head only if you, present self, pick an umbrella from home. The degree of success you experience in the future is a direct consequence of the time you invest in preparing that success, time that pays almost nothing in the moment but pays dividends thereafter.

As humans, we don’t wrap our head around this easily. We don’t deal with the idea of present and future self naturally. We don’t understand that the you of tomorrow is to a large degree based on how you design it today. It is a linear process of causality.

This leads me to my second point – instant and delayed gratification. I can’t prove this but from my experience almost anything that provides instant gratification tends to also account to long term costs or long term opportunity costs. Almost anything that is easy and provides satisfaction in the moment tends to affect you longer term a lot more than you’ve benefited from it.

Let’s take the idea of smoking. Smoking is instant gratification. You smoke, your brain fires up dopamine, you relax. Thirty seconds after you inhale nicotine, you feel the effects. There’s a problem though. Five minutes later, your clothes smell ugly. Thirty minutes later, your lungs can’t process oxygen as before, so you fatigue easily. Six hours later you enter withdrawal which makes you smoke again. One month later you realize you’ve spent $100 – $150 on ciggarates alone. Six months later, you notice that your teeth are becoming yellow and you smell like an old person. Sixty years later, you probably die of cancer.

This is a dramatization, of course but it is one from someone who smoked for ten years. Between the cost of burned clothes, one pack a day, missed opportunities, bad fitness and bad mood, my smoking habit was a six figure affair, at least.

Here is another example, credit cards. I know someone who wanted an iPhone 6, when it was launched. He could not afford it (mind you, not everyone has that much discretionary income). He used his credit card to buy it. He ended paying about 250% of the normal price over 24 months. By the time he finished paying, he could have bought three iPhones 6 at full price.

The world is full of ways to achieve instant gratification. Some are innocent. Playing computer games won’t kill you nor does it cost so much. The loss is in opportunity cost. You spend only $50 for a computer game, that is true. Then you invest 50 hours that if you spent in learning a new language or coding or working on your work, it could have been a lot more valuable.

Others are not so innocent. Hard drugs like cocaine provide instant gratification. Milliseconds after your body registers it, you are happy. Needless to say, cocaine does kill, both through the potential of an overdose, abuse, withdrawal and it costs a lot of money. You end up paying a lot for those hours of happiness.

On the other hand, everything that tends to benefit you is slow, not that interesting to do and rarely provides feedback in the moment. Before you have that beach body, you need to exercise, a lot. When you eat green foods, you may not feel that great in the moment but you’ll feel great over the long term. When you don’t spend $1000 on that new TV with your credit card, you may feel bad for not seeing the game in 4K resolution but your future self will be very happy for the extra $50 each month he gets to keep instead of paying interest (apart from the actual initial cost).

This is the irony of life.

Almost everything good and stimulating in the moment, that rewards you now, tends to affect you long term. Almost everything that is not that interesting nor does provide instant feedback in the moment tend to have substantial long term rewards. So success becomes a game of denying yourself instant gratification in order to maximize long term results.

There’s a catch 22 though. If you always invest in your future circumstances, when do you enjoy your rewards? Well, in the moment in the future where your circumstances are better and rewarded based on what you do now. The only time in this process where you deny yourself any form of benefit is when you start. It is the zero point where there’s nothing in the bank and before you can receive a profit, you must deposit.

To give you a better analogy, imagine planting a garden. If you eat the seeds now, you have a meal and then you’ll starve. If you plant the seeds, you won’t have a meal now but you’ll have many plants that give fruits, which will be far superior to the seeds you’ve planted. So is life. You deny gratification now but the fruits of denying gratification now are going to be vastly superior to any pleasure you may have got in the moment.

So the next time you want to waste your time or follow instant gratification, ask yourself what you’re paying for this. There is a cost. There is a real cost to pay for watching TV, eating too much sugar, eating McDonalds, buying with your credit cards or any other hundreds of activities that generate satisfaction in the moment and then will suck success away from you in the long term.

Best regards,