What is Delayed Gratification? And Why Should It Be On Every Executive’s Radar?

In the executive suite, self-control has a constant place in the playing field. More specifically, the ability to actively choose the pain of discipline, backed with an understanding that in the long run, the outcome will be more beneficial. In the scientific sphere, this skill is known as delayed gratification.

The benefits of delayed gratification are discernible, but did you know that in the wake of 40 years of Stanford research, psychological studies have proven that the ability to exercise self-control is a key factor of success?

Stanford, sweets and success

In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel suspected that self-control was a common denominator of success, and began conducting an ongoing series of cognitive studies. Over the course of his experiments he tested hundreds of children, and concluded that when it comes to success in work, health and life in general, delayed gratification is a major player.

Cue the marshmallow experiment…

This saw each child isolated in a private room, and placed in front of a marshmallow. The researcher then offered the child a deal, wherein they explained they were going to leave the room, and that if the child refrained from eating the marshmallow while they were gone they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. If the child ate the marshmallow before the researcher returned, the second treat was void.

So, the decision was simple: Enjoy one treat now, or two treats later.

Over the course of 15 minutes, some children pounced on the marshmallow, some struggled to resist and eventually gave into temptation, and others did succeed.

As the children grew up, researchers continued to study their success in a number of different areas. Amazingly, they found that the children who were able to delay gratification enjoyed higher SAT scores, heightened social skills, better health, lower levels of substance abuse and better responses to stress. Over 40 years, these trends appeared again and again. Ultimately, this was the study that allowed Mischel to prove that the ability to delay gratification is critical to success.

Can delayed gratification be learned?

Which poses the all-important question: Are some people naturally gifted with more self-control, or is it a skill that can be learned? Intrigued by the study, researchers at the University of Rochester later conducted a similar experiment, only this time the children were split into two groups. The first had been exposed to a series of unreliable experiences, while the second had enjoyed reliable experiences. Unsurprisingly, the children in the unreliable group scoffed the marshmallow, while their reliable counterparts resisted temptation. In other words, delayed gratification isn’t necessarily a predetermined trait, and is largely influenced by experiences and environmental factors.

So how can you get better at delaying gratification, and unlock a key trait to success? Here’s five techniques that will help you exercise self-control now, so you can enjoy the benefits later.

  • 1.Set yourself up for success by starting small. Make new habits easy and attainable, so it’s difficult not to refuse.
  • 2.Use the 1% rule to empower yourself with a sense of constant improvement.
  • 3.Develop a deep understanding of your own personal values. With these onside, you’ll be able to make decisions that put you on a path to happiness, and success.
  • 4.Set goals. Goal setting is fundamental to success, and will help you keep your eyes on the bigger picture. If you’re aiming for a target, it’s much easier to exercise self-control.
  • 5.Don’t forget to reward yourself for a job well done. Depending on your goals, it could take weeks, months, years or even decades to get where you want to be. So, remember to break down your overall goals, and reward yourself along the way.

While delayed gratification is by no means the ‘easy’ path, it’s a battle that categorically has to be won if you want to tap into success across all aspects of your life.


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