“Delayed Gratification” is over-rated

Source: Psychology Today, Mar 2017

In a series of five studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Kaitlin Wooley and Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that the experience of immediate rewards—such as enjoying the taste of a healthy food—predicted, more strongly than anticipated rewards did, how persistent people would be in pursuit of their goals to exercise more; study longer; eat healthier; stick with a new year’s resolution; or sustain a lifestyle change.

It turns out that long-term desires like making the honor roll, getting a promotion, or fitting into a smaller pair of pants fuel the motivation to set goals in the first place.

But after we define that future vision of where we wish to end up, reminding ourselves how badly we want to get there—how much we really want to squeeze into those skinny jeans or earn that raise—does a relatively poor job of keeping us motivated to resist temptation for the weeks or months it will take to achieve the goal.

The Chicago studies found that those who succeed at doing something new are not just those who are better at delaying gratification. Those who succeed are better finding other ways to gratify themselves until they reach that bigger goal.

Instead of simply grinning and bearing the misery of jogging, people who successfully meet their goal of exercising more are the ones who switch to Zumba or find a jogging partner they like talking to everyday.

The grittiest college students aren’t those who constantly sacrifice pleasure by imagining the day they’ll finally get to become an investment banker. They are the students who focus on the satisfaction they feel every time they accumulate a new piece of knowledge or on the immediate pride they feel each time they crack open a book instead of a beer.

This also explains Teresa Amabile’s and Steven Kramer’s discovery that the number one predictor of work engagement is a phenomenon they call “the progress principle.”

At work, we throw ourselves into challenging projects not because our boss blankets us with warm fuzzies or because we think it will add another zero to the east side of our paycheck. More than anything else, people stay engaged in hard work when they feel like they are making progress on a project that matters.

The Chicago studies tell us why. By setting and achieving tiny goals every couple of days, we tap into a constant flow of immediate gratification needed to keep us motivated in pursuit of that distant goal. 

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