Courtney Ackerman, 19 June, 2018
How to Overcome an Instant Gratification Bias
I won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended)—saying no to immediate gratification is no easy feat. If it was, we would all be trim, healthy, and have a reasonable amount of money in our savings account. However, there are some things you can do to get better at avoiding the temptation to give in to instant gratification, including:
- Empathize with your future self. Before making a decision between instant and delayed gratification, take a moment to think about your future mental state—if you opt for instant gratification, how will the future you feel? Will she be happy you made this decision the way you did, or will she wish you had opted for delayed gratification?
- Precommitment. One of the best ways to protect yourself from the temptation of instant gratification is to make some decisions beforehand. If you can set some of your most important decisions in stone now, you will be less likely to change your mind or go through the hassle of backtracking and undoing your preparations when you come face to face with the decision.
- Break down big goals into small, manageable chunks. Big goals are fun set and can be motivating, but they can also seem overwhelming or far off. When you must decide between instant, easy gratification and delaying gratification in the attempt to meet a big, distant goal, it’s hard to stick to your long-term goal. Breaking these big goals into smaller pieces with rewards after each step makes you more committed and more likely to make the best decisions (Mani, 2017).
When you give your future self some consideration, make important decisions ahead of time, and split your big goals up into smaller, more manageable goals, you will find it much easier to say no to immediate temptations.
Tim Urban’s Instant Gratification Monkey (The Instant Gratification Monkey and Why Procrastinators Procrastinate)
If you haven’t happened upon Tim Urban’s blog Wait But Why, you’re in for a treat! He explores interesting and impactful topics at a depth that is unseen in the blogosphere. His ability to explain complex ideas in a simple and straightforward manner is exceptional, and the drawings that accompany his blogs are nothing if not endearing.
One of his best pieces (in this author’s humble opinion) is “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate,” in which he introduces us to the Instant Gratification Monkey. I highly recommend reading the entire piece (which you can find here), but I’ll outline the gist of this naughty monkey if you don’t have the time to invest in Urban’s long but worthwhile blog post right now.
The Instant Gratification Monkey is a troublesome creature who lives in the brain of procrastinators and constantly grapples with the much wiser tenant of the brain (the Rational Decision-Maker) for control—and frequently wins. The problem is that this monkey is truly terrible at making decisions.
I’ll let Urban tell you why he’s so bad at decision-making:
“The fact is, the Instant Gratification Monkey is the last creature who should be in charge of decisions—he thinks only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and he concerns himself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment. He doesn’t understand the Rational Decision-Maker any better than the Rational Decision-Maker understands him—why would we continue doing this jog, he thinks, when we could stop, which would feel better. Why would we practice that instrument when it’s not fun? Why would we ever use a computer for work when the internet is sitting right there waiting to be played with? He thinks humans are insane” (Urban, 2013).
In procrastinators, the monkey is bigger, stronger, and louder than in those steadfast people who embody patience and wisdom. The monkey has only one natural enemy in the procrastinator’s brain: the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster shows up when deadlines are approaching and only immediate and extreme effort can salvage the situation. Many Instant Gratification Monkeys run for the hills when the Panic Monster appears (although some are unaffected even then), and the procrastinator is finally able to get some things done.
While this might seem like a good thing—after all, at least something gets done—it’s a really bad strategy for the long-term. Here’s why it’s a really bad strategy:
- It’s unpleasant for the procrastinator, who could enjoy some well-deserved rewards after dedicated and consistent effort instead of guilty pleasure and last-minute panic.
- The procrastinator will eventually fall prey to underachieving and fail to meet his goals, which keeps him from reaching his full potential and is likely to result in guilt, regret, and self-esteem issues.
- The procrastinator may get the “must-do” things done, but he will rarely if ever, get the “want-to-do” things done; anything that does not have a strict deadline that sets off the Panic Monster’s alarm bells will never become a priority (Urban, 2013).