Delayed gratification is one’s ability to sacrifice or postpone immediate rewards in order to achieve something more rewarding in the future.
This allows us to achieve better results in the long term and avoid potentially harmful and counterproductive impulses.
Delayed gratification plays an important role in human motivation, especially in relation to long-term goals, which require consistency, self-control, and focus. Therefore, it increases the chances of becoming more successful in your professional and personal life.
Examples of delayed gratification include going to the gym daily with the expectation of more strength in a few months’ time and studying hard now for a reward after the study session,
Instant gratification is the opposite of delayed gratification. Being unable to resist immediate pleasure often leads to impulsive behaviors, resulting in addiction, unhealthy eating habits, and risk-taking.
Delayed Gratification Definition
Ding et al. (2021) define delayed gratification as “Delay of gratification–a form of self-control–is the ability to forsake immediately available rewards in order to obtain larger-valued outcomes in future, which develops throughout the pre-school years.” (Ding et al., 2021).
The concept of delayed gratification is associated with “willpower” and “discipline.” Being goal-oriented and persistent can help achieve significant results.
One of the main benefits of delayed gratification is the ability to identify what is really important. Many extremely important successes in life – from getting a degree to buying a house – require frontloading of hard work for reward at a later date.
The ability to develop delayed gratification is influenced by social and cultural factors. For instance, one study found that children in Japan have a higher ability to delay gratification compared to children in the United States (Yanaoka et al., 2022).
The concept is also a central idea in self-control theory, which holds that people who can delay gratification are less likely to end up in trouble with the law.
10 Delayed Gratification Examples
- Focusing on learning: Learning itself can be a daunting task and requires strong self-control and discipline. It may take years to learn a certain skill set that will provide rewards. Students who are able to sacrifice immediate rewards, such as parties or playing video games, and focus on learning tend to have higher academic achievement.
- Healthy eating: Eating a cake or other calorie-dense foods is more pleasurable than eating healthy foods. However, healthy eating habits are associated with numerous long-term health-related benefits, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and better general well-being. It is not surprising that poor ability to delay gratification is associated with higher risks of obesity (Caleza et al., 2016).
- Improving professional skills: While an individual may receive nothing for improving professional skills in a short-term perspective, it increases chances of achieving better career growth and development by growing professionally.
- Investing money: Investing in stocks and other financial instruments can provide significant financial gains in the distant future. Often, people have to wait for many years to receive substantial financial rewards from investing activities.
- Exercising and physical activity: Waking up in the morning instead of sleeping more or going to the gym instead of watching Netflix is another example of delayed gratification. It requires much time, dedication, and effort to gain a dream physique or achieve other sport-related results.
- Abstaining from impulsive purchases: Consumerist culture promotes instant gratification by stimulating people to buy things they don’t really need. Impulsive purchases prevent people from saving money and spending them on more valuable and rewarding things.
- Avoiding addictive substances: Addiction is associated with poor control and self-discipline. Addictive substances are sources of instant pleasure, and individuals who can’t delay gratification are at higher risk of developing addiction (Wulfert et al., 2002). By contrast, people who avoid addictive behaviors tend to be more productive and achieve better results.
- Parental discipline and upbringing: Parents often apply principles of delayed gratification to modify the behavior of their children. Giving a snack for cleaning a room, or buying a valuable gift for success in learning, are all examples of delayed gratification.
- Investing time in romantic relationships: Establishing and maintaining relationships requires many personal resources and may not be as rewarding as having one-night stands for instant sexual pleasure. Eventually, strong and healthy relationships may become a highly rewarding experience for both partners.
- Starting a business: Many prominent businessmen had literally worked for free for years or even decades before achieving any significant results. Steve Jobs started assembling computers in a garage while Mark Zuckerberg was working in his dorm room. Focus on delayed gratification is one of the significant factors contributing to success in business.
Delayed vs Instant Gratification
The main difference between delayed and instant gratification is that delayed gratification focuses on the future, while instant gratification requires immediate satisfaction.
Delayed gratification and involves creating a plan for the future, setting goals, prioritizing tasks, and persevering despite obstacles.
Still, delayed gratification is an essential factor for overall success in life. It helps to develop self-control, build character, and achieve long-term goals. At the same time, repeated exposure to instant gratification can be rather dangerous, as it disrupts the balance and leads to the development of impulsive behavior (Gao et al., 2021).
However, it is wrong to say that instant gratification should be avoided at all costs. A smart approach to instant gratification may provide various benefits, such as improved mood and stress alleviation.
Benefits of Delayed Gratification
The ability to delay gratification is an essential life skill. It provides numerous benefits and can contribute to personal and professional success.
Delaying gratification can help people achieve greater levels of academic performance, increase self-discipline, develop better problem-solving skills, grow professionally, and learn to manage stress and anxiety.
1. Academic Achievement Benefits
Delaying gratification has been linked to improved performance in the classroom, as children who can resist temptation and focus on long-term rewards tend to perform better academically than their peers who are easily distracted by immediate gratification (Cheng & Catling, 2015).
2. Professional Growth and Financial Success
Developing new professional skills is highly important in a modern dynamic environment, yet it takes time and effort for these skills to develop.
Delayed gratification helps individuals to concentrate on long-term career-related goals and contributes to constant self-development.
Effective financial planning and financial success are also directly associated with delayed gratification.
By saving and investing money, instead of spending them on immediate pleasures, it is easier to achieve higher socioeconomic status.
3. Controlling Impulses, Reducing Risk-taking Behavior, and Discipline
Learning this skill also helps people develop self-discipline and the ability to control their impulses.
People with strong self-discipline are better able to stay focused on their goals and resist short-term temptations that can lead them off track.
By delaying gratification, individuals become more focused on routine tasks and activities necessary to achieve success.
4. Problem-solving Skills and Planning
Delayed gratification also helps people to develop problem-solving skills, as problem-solving requires people to think through different options and consider the potential consequences of each one before making a decision.
Practicing delayed gratification helps build self-awareness and the ability to recognize when a choice is beneficial or detrimental to one’s long-term goals.
While striving to achieve major goals, people who delay gratification develop better planning abilities.
They are able to identify and set sub-goals leading to the achievement of the major goal. This improves analytical skills as well as the ability to identify the most effective strategies for pursuing goals.
Delayed gratification refers to the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in exchange for a larger, future benefit.
It is an essential life skill that can help people achieve greater levels of academic performance and professional growth, increase self-discipline, and develop better problem-solving skills.
By understanding and practicing delayed gratification, individuals have the opportunity to not only benefit themselves in the short term but also position themselves for greater success in the future.
Caleza, C., Yañez-Vico, R, Mendoza, A, and Iglesias-Linares, A. (2016). Childhood obesity and delayed gratification behavior: a systematic review of experimental studies. The Journal of pediatrics 169: 201-207.
Cheng, V., & Catling, J. (2015). The role of resilience delayed gratification and stress in predicting academic performance. Psychology Teaching Review, 21(1), 13-24.
Ding, N., Frohnwieser, A., Miller, R., & Clayton, N. S. (2021). Waiting for the better reward: Comparison of delay of gratification in young children across two cultures. PloS one, 16(9), e0256966.
Gao, Z., Wang, H., Lu, C., Lu, T., Froudist-Walsh, S., Chen, M., … & Sun, W. (2021). The neural basis of delayed gratification. Science Advances, 7(49), eabg6611.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.
Wulfert, E., Block, J. A., Santa Ana, E., Rodriguez, M. L., & Colsman, M. (2002). Delay of gratification: Impulsive choices and problem behaviors in early and late adolescence. Journal of personality, 70(4), 533-552.Yanaoka, K., Michaelson, L. E., Guild, R. M., Dostart, G., Yonehiro, J., Saito, S., & Munakata, Y. (2022). Cultures crossing: The power of habit in delaying gratification. Psychological Science, 33(7), 1172-1181.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]