Just yesterday, I heard an ad on the radio from a leading Indian private bank. The gist of the ad was simply that for any possible dream that you may have, be it festive house renovation or a foreign holiday, there is no need to wait as you can simply avail a Personal Loan in 3 seconds! This ad left a bad taste in my mouth as it wily panders to the temptation of instant gratification that we have now started taking for granted. But is it really a good idea to fall into the trap of instant gratification?

What is Instant Gratification?

Instant Gratification refers to shrinking the time between an action and it’s intended consequence or outcome or fulfillment. For instance, when you are thirsty and want a beverage, put money at a vending machine in front of you is bound to provide you with instant gratification. On the other hand, walking a mile, probably in the hot sun to get to a store that stocks up on your beverage of choice to quench your thirst fulfills the same purpose in a very different manner.

Let’s take another example. As a kid, I was fortunate to be part of a family that loved to travel and also store those memories in a camera. In those days, the cameras were fuelled by those round, generally Kodak films with 36 photos per roll. Once the trip was done, I and my sister would make the trip to our neighborhood film development and photo studio. After 3-4 days, we would make another trip to the shop and finally get to see the trip photos. Contrast it to today, where most of us are eager to click off at literally everything – the dish in front of us, the monument we are at, the people we are with. When do we get to see the result of our trigger-happy action? You got it. Instantly.

The Trouble With Instant Gratification

To most of us naïve folk, instant gratification is a wave of fresh air and we see no harm. It is all about efficiency, so why bother? While I do believe instant gratification can have a few merits to it, especially with the feedback loop being so timely in some cases, in the long run, most results worth having come after a dedicated time of action.

Let’s look at some of the biggest problems with this disguised “trap” of instant gratification.

The wait is often sweeter

Every story has 3 components to it – a problem or need, the struggle to achieve it and the fulfillment or achieving of it. The bulk of a story or the main part of it is devoted to the struggle. For instance, in Shawshank Redemption, had they not shown Andy Dufresne’s struggle for 19 years and his final escape, instant making the escape instant, would it have been as good. No, I am not saying wait for anything for 19 years! But yes, some things are worth waiting for.

Anticipation often makes the end result feel even better and sweeter. Have you ever paused to realize that the time before a holiday literally flies considering our excitement and anticipation of it? This is true to a lesser degree for material purchases also. Suppose you have fantasized about buying a car for years and are saving up for it. When you finally use those saved funds to buy that car, you will cherish it far more than if you thought of it one fine day and figured out a few places to borrow the money for it.

Makes us impatient with everything

I have had many memorable moments with my almost 7 year old nephew, who is an American citizen. Used to the comforts of the American life, on one of his India trips, as a three and a half year old kid he encountered some painfully slow internet at my parent’s house. Watching the screen buffering away in pain, trying to load his favorite video, the little tyke groaned, rolled his eyes, threw his tiny arms in the air and exclaimed “Oh come on man!”.

There is enough and more research to show that when we get used to the idea of instant gratification in almost every sphere of our life – information, movies, appreciation on social media, material possessions – we are likely to become more impatient when that option of instant gratification is not available in any other aspect of our lives.

Reduces the will to work on long-term projects

Some projects require time and effort to come to fruition, for instance writing a book or becoming a Certified Financial Planner. Such tasks require you to chalk out, plan and keep working even after which it will take its’ own sweet time to show any result. However, when the brain becomes accustomed to the idea of getting instant gratification, the will and the stamina to do so is bound to drop.

Instant gratification often comes at a cost

Getting things immediately has its advantages in a lot of instances. In the above example of getting a beverage, being able to buy it instantly from a vending machine is definitely beneficial as compared to a walk in the hot sun. But all things instant come with their fair share of hidden costs.

Think of Maggi, the 2-minute noodles – it’s quick and tasty. But nutritious? No chance in hell, even if you add vegetables! Or the personal loan which started me on this trip of instant gratification. You could very well borrow the money to fund your foreign trip in 3 seconds, but you would also be setting yourself up on the path of repaying a high-cost loan for something that could have waited.

Even the instantly gratifying likes on social media come at a cost of possible addiction as well as the time that could otherwise be productively utilized.

Giving in to impulses comes easier

There are some things in life that we can achieve only when we control our urges and not give in to impulses. To take a slightly unconventional example, to stay faithful in a marriage also requires one to not give in to the urge of an available hook-up. To lose weight definitely requires the resistance to highly tempting delicacies.

Our brain is a creature of habit. Once we accustom it to saying yes and giving in to pretty much any impulse, chances are it’s going to take that easier path whenever given the option.

How to delay gratification?

If you are still not convinced on the role of delaying gratification in your life, check out this article from Psychology Today.

Let’s say you agree with me on the need to limit instant gratification and to work on delaying gratification in your life, how do you start? First up, it’s not easy. In a world where we are surrounded by temptations in most of the core aspects of life – time, money, food, resisting it is hard. But, it sure gets better with time and practice. Try the following three ways to put in a filter mechanism on your acceptance of the easy path of instant gratification:

Do a cost-benefit analysis

While I have used a technical term here, it is simply a quick mental check. Ask yourself, is the action I am about to do beneficial for me in the long run and at what cost? For instance, if you give in to the temptation of watching Netflix for hours on end after work, is it beneficial for you? The first twenty minutes, maybe. After all, we all feel the need to unwind with some entertainment after the day’s end and despite the benefits, reading may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, as you keep watching it episode after episode, or movie after movie the costs are immense. You are losing on precious sleep, the time that you could have used to learn something as well as the kind of space it is now taking up in your head.

Try to do a rational analysis for most things where the concept of instant gratification applies, and figure out where you need to press the brakes.

Use the instant gratification as a reward

Charles Duhigg in his popular book – The Power of Habit, has brought out the popular concept of the three stages of building a new habit: Cue -> Routine -> Reward. Use the junk habits that are fulfilled instantly more as a reward for doing tasks that you otherwise might have been delaying.

For instance, I am not allowing myself to watch another episode of the really funny TV series Scrubs till the time I am done publishing this post. It is addictive to keep watching and available instantly for me. However, I am artificially banning it till the time I am done with the more productive and important yet sometimes tedious task of writing my blog posts.

Gamify delayed gratification

I am a fan of gamification, be it in savings or any other aspect of life. I think it can work wonders. For things and actions that you are able to fulfill instantly but realize are not really adding value to your life, gamify your delay on it. Confused?

Suppose, you are in the habit of buying a cupcake from the nearby bakery every day after lunch and it’s beginning to show its impact on your waist and wallet. Challenge yourself to see how many days you can go without it. If need be, start tracking it creatively in a bullet journal and you will realize the depths of your own winning streak at delayed gratification.

The trap of instant gratification can be enticing and addictive. However, as soon as we are conscious of the impact it’s having on us, delayed gratification becomes a far more rewarding habit. Do you practice delayed gratification? What do you do to resist the charms of instant gratification? Let me know in the comments below.