Learning delayed gratification

In today’s day and age of one-click purchases and immediately-accessible information, instant gratification is seen as the norm. The world reinforces that you should get what you want right away and become frustrated if you don’t. Why bother asking “what is delayed gratification?” when cultural norms dictate otherwise?

The truth is, it’s not realistic to get everything you want, much less get it immediately. Instant gratification is actually 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. It takes practice, but embracing delayed gratification takes your life to a new level.

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What is delayed gratification?

What is delayed gratification? Psychology Today reports that delayed gratification is a powerful tool for learning to live your life with purpose. At any age, most adults have a complicated relationship with pleasure, oscillating between the extremes of over-indulgence and self-denial. But rather than avoiding pain in the moment by indulging in an immediate distraction, you can learn to embrace the pain for a time to maximize your end reward. By practicing delayed gratification, you buy yourself time to figure out lasting solutions to your problems instead of settling for quick fixes. Freudian psychology outlines the “pleasure principle” by which you’re able to delay fulfillment when a situation doesn’t call for immediate rewards. By developing a tolerance for waiting, you’re able to work with your natural desire for pleasure without sacrificing the bigger picture of your long-term goals. You’re able to pay attention to your immediate needs without impulsively giving into them.

Delayed gratification examples

What is the most important characteristic for success in your career and all of life? In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of psychological studies to find out. The results provided rich delayed gratification examples that still inform behavioral research to this day.

Mischel 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. Researchers concluded that the capacity for delayed gratification is pivotal to success in almost every facet of life.

How to become skillful at delayed gratification

Researchers at the University of Rochester followed up on the Marshmallow Experiment with a new group of children and an important twist. They split the children into two groups prior to the marshmallow test. For the first group, researchers promised rewards like crayons and stickers, but the rewards never materialized. For the second group, the rewards materialized as promised. 

The results would provide additional delayed gratification examples as well as strategies for building self-control. The children in the first group struggled with delayed gratification, because they’d been conditioned to believe the reward wouldn’t actually 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.

You can train your brain to accept delayed gratification

The children who received prizes as promised had unknowingly trained their brains to believe that (1) they were capable of delaying gratification and (2) delayed gratification was worth the wait. These kids’ ability to postpone pleasure was not predetermined or genetic – it was a learned behavior. Adults, too, can train their brains to wait.

train your brain

The brain responds to consistency


If you’re trying 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 take the approach of tricking yourself, it backfires, since your brain looks for consistency to guide its decisions. Be reliable with yourself, and follow through on your promises.

Start small to train your brain

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 percent – 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.

starting small

Start now

As ironic as it sounds, training yourself to embrace delayed gratification is not something to delay. Start now so you’re building skills in the here-and-now that will benefit you for years to come.


Want to develop your skills?

What is delayed gratification? It’s a valuable skill that takes practice and commitment to build. Get the support you need to overcome obstacles with a special trial offer on Tony Robbins’ Ultimate Edge.