Instant vs. Delayed Gratification

Nobel Prize Winners in Physics

One of the largest separating factors between an entrepreneurial individual, and one who is not able to grasp that mindset, is the quality of handling delayed gratification.  From a recent issue of The Economist, Mr. Banerjee of MIT’s Poverty Action Laboratory stated “Armed with a capacity and a tolerance for delayed gratification, [new entrepreneurs] emerge from the middle class and create employment and productivity growth for the rest of society.”  There is a world of difference that comes about when you don’t accept instant gratification on your way to a larger reward.  Here, I discuss points of separation between them.

Instant Gratification

A way to open this is to discuss how to think about instant gratification.  Let’s say you are intent on learning another language.  You don’t inform any others about your plan.  You study words and phrases in that language for a week, and are glad about your results thus far.  Your good feeling at that point comes from having put out effort that you haven’t recouped the gains for, like you have invested in yourself, and know that the dividends will be coming.  If you pull out your dividends right at that point, and tell others about your wonderful week of learning, or ostentatiously present your new-found knowledge to someone who only knows one language, or tell yourself that you have done so much, you are going down the instant gratification route.

Exercise Example

Let’s say you are intent on working out, in order to build muscle.  You head to the gym one time to start your efforts, and you have a reasonable workout that leaves you sore the next day.  You have two options, in that you can then gratify yourself with a reward that ignores the innate reward that is already on the way, or you can accept the effort you have put out thus far, and build upon that toward a larger reward.

Zero New Rewards

When you accept a reward too early, you are giving up some of the internal motivation that would arise from having a feeling of investment in future gains.  In short, an item accepted as a reward now is given up from being accepted later.  Like an e-mail box that is constantly checked, sticking to instant gratification as your regular habit leaves your reward inbox at “0 new rewards”.  There is also a connection to e-mail checking here, as leaving it to be checked twice a day, as opposed to twenty times a day, leaves you feeling like you have more control of your environment, which is a definite plus.  Like people that have a financial cushion to back them up in times where problems arise, you will be much more willing to take larger risks and make bolder moves if you have a few rewards in your “In-basket”.  Successful people have multiple rewards ready for their acceptance, which they hold back for a later date, while they focus on creating new investments through their efforts.

Delayed Gratification Is Invested Instant Gratification

In this way, delayed gratification can be thought of as instant gratification saved for a later usage.  When your gratification is delayed, you are indirectly saying that can handle the lack of a reward now, and that you know the benefits of reserving one for later on.  You can notice that the ones who have multiple rewards in their in-basket are the ones most watched by other members of society, who are wondering “when will he cash in his effort-based results?”.

Academic degrees and business positions that one is able to reach are heavily related to the level of delayed gratification they can handle.  The “struggles” related to moving up academically or professionally are the “struggles” of not getting instant rewards along the way.  Some results can take months to materialize, and others can take years.  Part of the struggle involves informing your own mind that it is in fact worth it to continue to persist with a lack of tangible rewards arriving in the early stages.

If you are to handle the onslaught of turmoil that will arise when heading towards the completion of a task, you have to be ready for that which will come competitively, which includes others wanting your ability to handle delayed gratification to not be as strong.  That single factor is a dominating aspect of your performance ability, so competitors would rather have you accept instantly gratifying rewards, in order to keep you from having a cushion of protection.  Competition is also sometimes about providing instant gratification to others, as a tool to prevent their independent growth.

Check The Sources Of Instant Gratification

It is wise to look at any source of instant gratification, in order to assess the helpfulness that it actually provides.  You will find, time and time again, that sources of quick rewards and fast results are not there to benefit you, and that few, if any, will actually result in your long-term growth.  Although different venues, companies, or people could be named, it is not the people that should be avoided.  The items to avoid are the ones that smell like instant gratification from a distance away.  Selling instantly gratifying items is on the easy side of the selling scale, while usage of instantly gratifying items is low on the long-term value scale.


The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is a an experiment that studied the impulsiveness of young children, and then checked on their qualities many years later.  Walter Mischel of Stanford tested four-year-old children on their impulses and delayed gratification.  A marshmallow was shown to the kids, and then the experimenter informed the children that he had to go somewhere, and they were told that they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for him to come back before eating it, they could eat two marshmallows.  Some children would instantly eat the marshmallow that was left, while others would wait twenty minutes for the experimenter to come back.

The same children were tested when they reached age 18, and the children who most quickly took the marshmallow were compared with those that waited in order to get two marshmallows.  The average SAT score of those that had waited to get two marshmallows was 210 points higher, and this difference is said to be as large as the difference that shows between children from families with graduates degrees versus those with parents who had not completed high school.

Delayed gratification in the study was related to people being assertive, self-reliant, trustworthy, dependable, eager to learn, able to cope with frustration, and more competent academically.  On the other hand, accepting instant gratification was associated with people that were more likely to be indecisive, stubborn, impulsive, overwhelmed by stress, prone to jealousy and envy, poorer students, and have a lower self-image.

Delaying Your Gratification Gives You An Edge

As is seen in all the qualities that branch off from this important distinction between delaying gratification or making quick use of it, you are able to see that a small change in your current average level of gratification usage will impact a multitude of aspects in your character.  Leo from Zen Habits often refers to holding back, or limiting yourself, and this leans toward the side of delayed gratification.  When you limit yourself in certain ways, you are delaying the gratification that would result from release of all your energy.  Reserve your rewards for a later time, and not only will this give you an edge on the competition, but it will give you a continuous motivational boost.

14 thoughts on “Instant vs. Delayed Gratification”

  1. al gates: That is a cool article. I like the point in it about the one-minute reprimand, with first reprimanding the behavior and then encouraging the person. It does make a valid point about all these instant items we seek. Thanks for that.

  2. Fitness is the goal that really taught me delayed gratification. Nobody gets big arms and a six pack overnight, right? I’ve invested 2 years of steady fitness and I’m still not in perfect shape, but I love the journey, so I’m enjoying every day!


    1. Hi Ibrahim.

      This is true. You can’t get fit quickly. It takes loads and loads of focus and effort. All the good things in life take a solid helping of both of those. You have to work out today, and then 2 days from now, and then every 2 days for the next 2 months, making sure to eat right, and if all that is done, results show up, but by the time they show up, it doesn’t matter so much, because you already have the right habits in place.

  3. Who says there will be *any* gratification at all?

    It’s not just about delaying–that’s easy. But whereas bond holders have a guaranteed rate of return, entrepreneurs might make $0 or negative.

  4. Man, I am a very smart kid, but I should work harder I guess to delay my gratification. Lately I’ve been moving instant gratification items for money, but not much money. The other thing is, I’ve spent 16 bucks, and I’ve only made 6. I still owe someone 2 bucks, but I’m using 8 bucks for my own instant gratification and only making 6 bucks, I hope. I shouldn’t have used any of my 14 bucks but I did. Also, I wasted another 2 bucks on the carrying fee for an instant gratification item because I didn’t want to save money and wait for the gratification.

  5. Great post! Delayed gratification is the planting of the seeds. Its the patience to wait till the fruit is ready to be picked. Planning ahead, persistence, self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification are the keys to the brightest future you could possibly dream of. Good thing comes to those who put in the hard yards and are patient. I also want to share this article that would also further explain the essence of delayed gratification.

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