We all have dreams and goals. We want to start our own business, lose 20 pounds or learn to play the guitar. Without them, life would be very dull. It feels good to think about our dreams and fantasize about how it would feel to finally reach our goals. That’s how we pass the time during a boring meeting, while waiting at the doctor's or before we fall asleep at night.
But instead of taking action usually this happens:
• We only pursue our goals when we feel motivated.
• We tell ourselves the time isn’t right.
• We get distracted by the little urgencies of life.
• We get started but stop as soon as it gets a bit difficult.
• We don’t see progress fast enough and quit.
• We get bored and jump onto something else.
• We question ourselves if it’s really worth pursuing this goal.
It almost seems like we are trying to sabotage ourselves. We know that going after our goals will be good for us in the long run, but it seems like a lot of work to get there. And work is hard. Instead, we are falling back to seeking instant gratification; to things that make us happy right now. Watching another episode on Netflix seems like so much more fun than putting on the running shoes and going out the door. Ordering a pizza is so much easier than cooking a healthy meal from scratch.
This is what Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, called the Pleasure Principle. We have an instinctual urge to seek pleasure and avoid pain at all times. Our culture has gotten really well at exploiting this. That’s why people fall for “get rich quick” schemes, try diets that promise overnight weight loss and rather buy the new iPhone than saving for retirement. We are promised instant happiness and forget about the consequences for our future. This is an easy way out. No willpower needed. Just follow your instinct.
On the contrary, the concept of Delayed Gratification: We can resist the impulse to receive an immediately available reward in anticipation of obtaining an even more significant, more-valued reward in the future. This concept was famously tested during the Marshmallow Experiment conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. In these studies, a child was brought into a private room and received a marshmallow. At this point, the researcher offered a deal. The researcher would leave the room for a short while, and if the child did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned, the child would receive a second marshmallow. The choice was simple: get one treat now or two treats later. As you can imagine, many of the children just couldn’t resist the temptation of the first marshmallow. But some actually did.
The surprising part came years later when the researcher conducted follow up studies with the now grown up kids. They found that the children who had waited for the second marshmallow and delayed gratification had higher SAT scores, better health, lower levels of substance abuse and generally showed better scores in a range of measures. What does this mean for us? The ability to delay gratification, to endure a little discomfort now and then, has been shown as an important personality trait. Now ask yourself: Are you able to wait for the things you really want, even if it means sacrificing satisfaction at the moment? Do you make decisions based on your purpose on life or on what feels good right now?
The good news is that we can all learn how to work systematically towards a goal. We can put a system in place that will help us when things get tough, and we feel like quitting. I'll share the first steps tomorrow.