27 September 2023

The unexpected dangers of instant gratification

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Michelle Gibbings* describes a lesson she learnt from the hundreds of digital photos she took on a Northern Territory holiday.

We live in a time of immediacy. We want everything in an instant. Don’t know something? Google it. Want something? Order it.

I was reminded of this desire for immediacy following a trip to the Northern Territory.

After the trip, I was scrolling through the hundreds of photos I took and found myself deleting many of them.

My ability to take a limitless number of photos and quickly delete what I didn’t like meant I took less care.

Now, I’m going to date myself (and perhaps you too if you remember) and take you back to the days of 35mm film.

In those days, you’d buy your Kodak or Fuji film rolls, with 24 or 36 photos per roll.

The film was expensive, and because of the limited number of shots per roll, you’d be selective in the photographs you took.

You’d then have to wait, sometimes up to a week, to get them processed before you saw the results.

There was the joy of flipping through the photos and reliving your experiences.

On the other hand, there was often surprise as you forgot some of the pictures you took, and perhaps frustration when some didn’t turn out as planned.

Despite the range of emotions, much of it involved delayed gratification.

We’ve long known the significance of delaying gratification.

In seminal studies from the 1970s, first with pretzels and cookies and then with marshmallows, we saw how some children could control their desire to satisfy a need if it meant a bigger reward later, while others couldn’t.

The researchers followed these children into later life.

They found that the children who delayed their gratification had higher university entrance scores, lower body mass index and appeared more successful in other realms.

While recent research suggests that a child’s ability to delay gratification is getting better, not worse, the lesson of the studies stands.

It turns out that acting on Queen’s lyrics, ‘I want it all, and I want it now’, isn’t good for us.

When we act on impulse, we can fail to notice what is around us. We can take short-term actions with longer-term negative consequences.

So how do you delay gratification? Several things help.

Find the punctuation points in your day. This approach means you take the time to pause and notice what is going on around you.

Be clear on what matters to you and where you need to focus your energy. This prioritised focus helps you balance short- and long-term needs.

Self-control wanes when we are tired, so be conscious of how, where and when you are making decisions.

When you find yourself wanting to act on impulse, stop, breathe and give yourself 15 seconds before you act.

Check your action is based on deliberate actions, rather than an immediate reaction.

Practise meditation and mindfulness to help create the time and space in your brain between stimulus, reaction and action.

Cultivate a future-focused mindset where you can appropriately (and effectively) balance current and future needs.

In doing all this, remember the wise words of the author, Craig D Lounsbrough:

“Incessantly demanding that I am given some ‘thing’ today may very well destroy the role that it was going to play in my life tomorrow.”

*Michelle Gibbings is a Melbourne-based change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at changemeridian.com.au.

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