Delayed gratification is a very important skill to nurture if we want to achieve anything worth doing in the long term. If you’ve ever had to save up for something you really wanted, instead of blowing hard earned cents or a small allowance as a child, you’ll know what I mean.
As adults, it is the thing that makes us save up for a downpayment on a house, instead of borrowing on credit at atrocious rates. It is difficult if you’ve never had to cultivate the skill, but anyone can get better at it through practice and patience.
At the same time, we live in a world of quite the opposite. Instant gratification abounds on nearly every street corner. And it has never been easier to get what you want, when you want (never mind the fine print).
When we bought them, I had no idea how clearly they would illustrate the concept of delayed gratification, but also greed.
While we lived in London, we found these amazing chocolate truffles in a local store. In cute little gift boxes and from fairly traded cocoa, we figured they would be great couldn’t-get-back-in-Norway holiday gifts. So we wrote a list and bought a stackful.
The interesting part didn’t begin until after different relatives had received their gifts.
One relative didn’t open it until several family member came over for a holiday dinner. Almost all of them disappeared over coffee and dessert. Generosity abounds.
When we visited a second relative only a day or so after opening gifts, over half the box was already empty. Did not share.
And lastly, a third family member saw the box as a precious commodity. They had been enjoying one, just the one, with their afternoon cup of coffee once in a rare while.
What fascinated me about the last case, was that even though they saved and savoured each chocolate in the box, and probably would have truffles until spring at the speed they were enjoying them, they still shared. Offering them up like precious morsels, even though they knew we still lived in London at the time and could purchase more, while they could not.
While truffles are not money, I will admit that I was quite bemused at how similar each relative’s relation to the truffles were to their relationship with money. I will give you no prize if you guess who is the worst saver of the three (pst, it’s number two).
I think this is part of the reason why money can be so difficult. It is an intrinsic part of our personality and shows up in all sorts of ways. Our attitude to money and our attitude to other things influence each other, and vice versa.
If you want to exercise your delayed gratification muscle, it is no good to say you’ll turn everything around tomorrow. That’s like saying you’re going to run a marathon with no training. Naive, demotivating, and you’re likely to get hurt.
Instead, like any muscle you want to improve, you need to start slowly and build your way up. Save for small goals in the beginning to see some traction and slowly build yourself up to bigger long-term goals. If you’re living on credit cards at the end of each month because the paycheck never quite seems to make it, it’ll be very difficult to save for financial independence, a mortgage, or a vacation.
Start with small wins. If you always go out for lunch, try to pack your own. You don’t have to do it every day in the beginning. Start with trying once or twice a week, and then gradually ramp it up. A tip here is to pack your lunch the night before, if you’re always rushing out of the house in the morning. I’ve even seen people leave essentials like their wallet or keys in the fridge on top of their lunch, just to help them remember.
The same goes for a regular fancy coffee habit, or a 2 pm pick me up at work. Isn’t the point of work to earn money? At this rate, you’re spending quite a bit just to work!
It always staggered me, especially while I was working a low paying job, just how many still spent money on their lunch. They would spend one hour’s wages on lunch, and 1+ hour on the commute, leaving only 6 hours (minus tax) to actually take home at the end of the day. I am sure they had their reasons, but if you can avoid it, sure try to!
Delayed gratification is a muscle that, once strong, can reap enormous benefits in your life. I won’t claim to be an expert by a long shot, but by exercising this skill, it’ll be easier to stick with things like exercise, healthy eating, and practising that other skill you really want to get better at. It really helps in all walks of life, if you manage to build it.
It’s about knowing things will get better, even if you don’t see any progress right now.
Often we help our motivation with things like spreadsheets and keeping track. It is a good habit and keeps us accountable, so what could be better?
Myself? I can be really horrible at leaving snacks and tasty morsels alone if they are in the house, in particular if they have been opened. I keep trying to work on it, but sometimes I fear I will just always be a snacky sort, and the best course of action has been to just avoid having too many snacks in the house to begin with, just in case the snack-hunger strikes.
Improving your delayed gratification muscle is an ongoing effort. It is not something I used to be very good at, so I’d love to hear if you’ve got some tips and tricks for working that skill. Please let us know in the comments!