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Self-Control and Delayed Gratification

Self-control and delayed gratification
Self-control and delayed gratification

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the link between self-control, delaying gratification and success, and reveal how to actually delay gratification.

First a quick update:

“5 Signs you aren’t ready for a long-distance relationship”
Do you need constant in-person attention or lots of physical affection? Read my insights in the article.

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Now, let’s talk about revealing the link between self-control, delaying gratification and success, and reveal how to actually delay gratification.

In a scene from the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman who plays a courtesan is trying to seduce a Duke she believes could make her famous by financing her theater. However, she doesn’t realize she is trying to seduce the wrong man. Ewan McGregor is not the Duke, but a poet who is trying to pitch a show.

While her focus is on winning him over, his focus is to read his poetry. Her movements and touch are working and he is being understandably distracted. But he continues to place all of his focus on his reading, while huffing and puffing trying to ignore her overtures until he finally succeeds in impressing her with his poetry reading.

Whilst very comical, this scene also demonstrates the ability of self-control; in this case, his skill of placing all of his attention on one thing – his reading and not giving into the immediate temptation.

Every day we are all faced with some form of temptation – something that will pull us away from our goal or be destructive or damaging to us. Sometimes, we do not even realize that the immediate magnet is actually harmful – if not harmful now, maybe in the long term.

The ability to say “No”, to harness self-control or to delay gratification is directly linked to future success – in all areas – behavior, friendships, relationships, stress, BMI and career.

Ultimately, the test is “Can you deal with and handle hot emotions?”

If you can’t, you’re in trouble in the long run.

In 1968, Walter Mischel, PhD, began a series of studies at Stanford University involving 4-year to 6-year olds.

Placing them in a room, he gave the children a simple choice – eat one of the marshmallows on the table, by a chair or, wait fifteen minutes (while he leaves the room) and get two marshmallows. The test was also conducted with cookies and pretzels.

A minority of the children ate the cookie immediately, the majority struggled and ate the cookie within 3 minutes, and one-third of the children waited for 15 minutes to receive the reward.

The children used various ways to attempt to conquer the temptation – some covered their eyes with their hands, others turned away and sang songs from “Sesame Street”, others played hide and seek under the desk, and others were kicking and tugging at their own pigtails.

This raised two key questions:

  1. How can children (and thus, adults) learn self-control and delayed gratification? Is it via will power?
  2. What are the long-term consequences of delayed gratification?

Years and even decades later, Walter Mischel and his colleagues did follow-ups with the participating children. They were shocked to learn that the children who could not delay their yearning for instant gratification:  

  1. Had more behavioral problems in school and at home
  2. Got lower SAT scores
  3. Struggled in stressful situations
  4. Had poor attention spans
  5. Experienced challenges maintaining friendships

However, the child who was able to delay gratification and wait the full 15 minutes had an S.A.T. score 210 points higher than the child who could wait only 30 seconds.

In a separate study into self-control with 8th graders, Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania found that the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. “Intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

Of course, it takes self-control and delayed gratification to say “No” to video games, internet & TV and instead do the homework! The same applies to adults who need to control what they eat, how much they exercise and what other activities they engage which consumes time, produces no results and undermines goals and other objectives.

The answer to the question about how to engage and develop self-control is to use the same thing that pulls us away from doing uncomfortable tasks – distraction.

When we don’t want to do something, we find excuses by distracting ourselves. For example, we don’t want to finish that essay or presentation, so we surf the internet or make an unrelated phone call.

This is what the successful children did in the ‘marshmallow test”; they distracted themselves instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow – the “hot stimulus.” Some did so with physical sensations (singing, looking away, pulling at their pigtails) and others simply focused on the stimulus of the reward.

Interestingly, those children who tried to use ‘will power’ by staring at the marshmallow failed. The attraction and temptation was much too strong.

Will power is not about overcoming or conquering the desire; it is about paying attention to something else.

The key to self-control and delayed gratification is practice!

Can you deal with your hot emotions and temptation?

Here are some pointers to developing self-control. When faced with the temptation – the immediate gratification – adopt these steps:

  1. Distract yourself
    Put your attention on something else. Parents know that you can help a child overcome a mild tantrum or negative response when they aren’t getting their way by distracting their attention and getting them to think of something else.
  2. Remove the temptation
    For example, if you know you cannot easily overcome the draw of that favorite sweet, don’t buy it and stock it at home. The same applies to someone who is constantly pulling you in the wrong direction – stop socializing with them.
  3. Remove yourself
    If you can’t remove the temptation, remove yourself. Know your own strengths and boundaries and accordingly, leave the room, the party or the event.
  4. Focus on the greater, long-term rewards
    What is it that you really want? Think about this; focus and imagine the rewards and benefits. Really imagine and feel the rewards of doing the right thing now (saying “No”) so you can truly enjoy the bountiful and plentiful benefits very soon!

And if you need help to let go of the past, get over a break up, gain more confidence, achieve emotional freedom, believe that you are worthy & good enough, heal a relationship or change some behavior, then consider a one-on-one private session with me.  Watch the video here.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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