What Is Delayed Gratification?

Online counseling can help with learning of delayed gratification

Ever since the development of the Internet, most people’s lifestyles have changed dramatically. Gone are the days when you watched TV and had to wait for the commercials to kick in before you could go to the bathroom. Today, you can watch pretty much any show online, pause the video if you need to do something else, and return to it hours later. 

Back then, prior to leaving the house, you had to tell your parents exactly where you were going. You also had to make sure you’d be back by the time you promised because there was no way of informing them about any change of plans once you were outside.

Even before the pandemic, there was already a shift toward going digital, and why not? What you can do in real life can now be replicated online in better and faster ways.

Do you need clothes for a party happening this weekend? With just a click of a button, you can order an entire outfit online and have it delivered within 24 hours. If you suddenly crave fast food, multiple apps have been developed for the sole purpose of bringing your favorite restaurants to your doorstep.

With all the conveniences the digital age has brought us, it’s not out of left field to say that people have become almost addicted to the immediate pleasure that comes from short-term rewards.

What Is Delayed Gratification?

Although anecdotal at best, there have been recent findings that show people are becoming more impatient. In a survey conducted by BIC (yes, the stationary company) among 2,000 adults, most of them find waiting more than 25 seconds for a traffic light to change a nuisance.

Other waiting times that the participants think are annoying include: more than 14 seconds for a web page to load, seven minutes to be served at a bar, and more than 14 minutes to be served food.

Wakefield Research echoes the sentiment of those findings. Their results of over 1,000 participants found that 72% of them will still press an elevator button even if it’s green in the hopes that it’ll come faster. More than half of the group will hang up on a call if they’re on hold for more than a minute.

So what is delayed gratification, and how does it relate to people’s dwindling patience? Words like “self-control,” “ego control,” “ego resiliency,” and “self-regulation” are frequently thrown in when talking about the concept. People tend to interchange those terms because they assume that they all mean the same thing.

However, the ability to delay gratification doesn’t necessarily involve denying an impulse. What does it entail then? Resisting temptation toward instant gratification so you can receive a better, larger reward in the future.

On the other hand, self-regulation is associated with reducing the number of instances and intensity of compulsion through stress management. Self-control is more about steering clear of urges outright. Self-regulation makes self-control unnecessary in some situations where it’s better to regulate than go cold turkey.

Waiting for a long-term reward can be unappealing to some people because they see it as turning down something good that’s only a stone’s throw away. However, putting pleasure in the back burner to go for a more important and rewarding goal makes all the difference. More importantly, when you can delay gratification, it can directly impact how you plan out your future.

The Pleasure Principle or Immediate Reward

The pleasure principle is a Freudian concept believing that people are powered by their innate need to seek pleasure and avoid pain to meet their biological and psychological requirements. This is the guiding force of the id, which is the most primal part of one’s being. 

Some believe that the pleasure principle is the reason we seek immediate reward. Nonetheless, it’s imperative to people’s survival. After all, food, sex, sleep, and other basic functions help us steer clear of things that threaten our lives and allow us to get through our days with ease.

Young children and babies are dictated by id, of which they don’t see beyond. They only want to satisfy their most basic needs, usually hunger and comfort. Due to their age and lack of knowledge about the world, they’re incapable of waiting when it comes to the things they want.

Adults understand that every action has either a consequence or a reward. Therefore, they’re supposed to be the model for delayed gratification.

But the truth is that adults have a complicated relationship with gratification. Some situations may push them to seek pleasure because it’s the best choice in their current environment.

The Reality Principle

Ultimately, delaying gratification depends on one’s circumstances. There are times when even though someone wants to resist the allure of immediate gratification, they may have to take it because they have no choice.

Freud compares the pleasure principle to the reality principle, the rational counterpart. The reality principle compels the person to delay gratification when their environment dictates that immediate gratification is unnecessary. In that situation, one has to delay gratification for the sake of gaining access to better opportunities.

It can be as big as saving up for a dream home, pushing through challenges at work so you can get a promotion in a couple of years, or even just adopting a healthy lifestyle so you can lose weight at a steady pace. Not giving in to the lure of instant gratification can yield tremendous results as you’ll learn to be more patient and observe self-regulation.

The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel was an Austrian psychologist who specialized in social psychology. He conducted research in the latter part of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. His work has helped shape and define how delayed gratification plays a key role in one’s future success.

It was in 1972 that he conducted the famous marshmallow test. He and his team gathered a group of preschoolers between the ages of three and five. In the experiment, each child would be made to sit in a room with a piece of marshmallow placed in front of them.

A researcher would then explain to the child that they would be left in the room. If they can manage not to eat the marshmallow until the researcher returns, the researcher would give them a marshmallow in addition to the first one to enjoy. However, if they’re unable to wait, they can ring a bell so the researcher will come back earlier and the child can eat the marshmallow. As a consequence, though, they won’t receive a second marshmallow.

The children displayed different delay responses. Some distracted themselves by ignoring the marshmallow and pretending it wasn’t there. They interacted with other objects in the room, too. Researchers timed how long it took for the children who wanted to eat the marshmallow right away to ring the bell. 

In a follow-up study conducted after a few years, the children who practiced delayed gratification were more likely to have better grades than their counterparts. Their decision-making when they were younger somehow indicated how they would perform later in school.

Pros and Cons of Instant Gratification

Throughout this article, you’ll see instant gratification pitted against its delay. Instant gratification just means short-term rewards that make us feel good at the moment of consumption.

An example of this would be going on a shopping spree and buying a lot of clothes and shoes even though you don’t need them. After experiencing the dopamine and endorphin rush of retail therapy, you might realize you could’ve saved the money you’ve spent for things that you’d actually need down the road.

Instant gratification isn’t always bad. Sometimes, small rewards can motivate you to move forward, especially if you’re tired and worn out. Delayed reward and gratification won’t be able to help you in that situation since it’d require you to undergo a long—possibly arduous—process.

A person might lose sight of delayed rewards if they constantly deny themselves small bits of happiness. For example, most people who are trying to lose weight have scheduled cheat days wherein they can eat their favorite foods and rest. If you insist on strictly following your diet and exercise routine 100% of the time, the restriction could cause you to give up, particularly if you don’t see any results.

Despite the often negative connotation coupled with instant gratification, it can be good for your mental health. You should learn to moderate it, though, so you don’t end up exchanging bigger achievements for short-term happiness.

Examples of Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification takes different forms depending on where the person is in life. People who are older have most likely achieved the goals they’d set out for themselves, so they might no longer be in a hurry to get what they want. 

Meanwhile, younger individuals are still trying to figure out their goals and how they can achieve them. Because of that, their hunger for success can be insatiable, and they might not be as patient.

Consider the following examples of delayed gratification to find out how it can be applied in various aspects of day-to-day living:


Everyone has a relationship with food, be it good, bad, or neutral. Food affects our lives in many ways. Too much sugar may mean eventually developing diabetes. Some types of food can trigger allergic reactions in certain people. You might also refuse to eat as much as you used to should you decide to follow a restrictive diet.

However you feel about food, when you defer gratification for it, it can spell different things. Keep in mind that not everyone’s out there trying to lose weight. Some may have issues when it comes to gaining it.

Individual circumstances determine how they treat their meals. People who want to get in better shape know that they should watch their calorie intake and resist junk food as much as possible. Conversely, someone who’s recovering from an eating disorder won’t benefit from the same dietary routine involving delayed gratification.

Camaraderie and Relationships

When you talk to people, especially those you don’t know well, do you listen to what they say? Do you understand their purpose, goals, and intentions? People reveal a lot about themselves even when you don’t ask them about anything specific, so you can get to know someone better simply by being attentive.

When your boss gives you extra tasks at work, do you automatically get huffy and feel as though the situation’s unfair? Or do you practice patience, take it as a challenge, and try to accommodate their request to the best of your abilities?

In conversations, some people tend to have this constant need to put out instead of taking in. Though the anatomy of a conversation is in the exchange, there are talks that require more listening than sharing. Delaying gratification in this situation would be to wait until the other person has expressed everything they need to say.

Another way you can apply delayed gratification in relationships is not forcing yourself on a person. Every now and then, you might assume that your peers are supposed to connect with you either platonically or romantically. Perhaps you think that because they’re often physically close to you, it means you should be effortless to form a strong bond with them.

Delayed gratification, however, encourages both parties to collaborate and build a healthy, equal relationship. It’s true that some people click the moment they meet, but that’s not always the case. Many individuals might not relate to those they interact with face-to-face but find comfort in people they meet online.

Of course, if a specific relationship is important to you, then work hard so you can win the person over without scaring them off. Greet them in the hallways whenever you see them, share memes that you think will make them smile or laugh, or learn more about their interests.

Financial Status

Finances have to be one of the most affected aspects of a person’s life when it comes to delaying gratification. For instance, every time you go on social media, you see people showing off their brand-new sports cars and luxurious homes. The smiles on their faces convince you that their lifestyle and popularity would make you happy, too.

But instead of working hard and saving or investing money, you go to the bank and take out a loan. In taking that route, you might end up miserable once the euphoria from the big-ticket purchase, likes, and attention from strangers fades away and you’re left with unnecessary debt. Being saddled with expenses you can’t afford will surely put a strain on the other areas of your life.

Most people who have their finances in order usually save money as early as they can. This doesn’t entail saving every penny you’ve received since you were a child. It’s about placing six months’ to a year’s worth of your salary in an emergency fund. Though it could take a while to build the fund, it’s worth it since you can use the money in case you lose your job, get into an accident, or have to deal with an emergency.

If there’s a sale, you may be tempted to go all out. It’s not that you have to stay away from bargains, but always think before you spend. If you find yourself buying something just because of its markdown and not its utility, then it’s advisable to keep your money instead.

Goals and Achievements

Everyone has different reasons for wanting to accomplish things, which means that people have varying work ethics. Those who identify as high achievers consistently work toward long-term goals. They do so by avoiding distractions, having strong impulse control, and keeping their eyes on the prize, so to speak.

It’s all too easy to succumb to instant gratification and spend your evenings binge-watching your favorite TV shows. However, this won’t be rewarding in the long run.

Getting the larger reward of a promotion necessitates adequate time spent working on yourself. This can help you become a better leader and allow you to advance your career in the years to come. Therefore, even if this path demands more from you, your efforts will yield abundance tenfold.

Training Yourself to Delay Gratification

The good thing about delaying gratification is that it’s not innate. No matter your gender, race, or financial status, you can do it as long as they have self-discipline.

As defined before, self-control is where one denies themselves access to their impulses. Some people may think that by depriving themselves of pleasurable rewards, they can strengthen their ability to defer gratification.

However, by doing so, you’ll be tricking your brain into doing things against what it really wants. This may backfire on you as your brain needs consistency on why it has to do this and that. There’s no need for you to deny yourself of hard-earned long-term rewards. Here are some tips that may help you:

Start Small

You need to have doable goals. For example, are you trying to lose weight? Don’t suddenly force yourself into doing grueling exercise routines and following a diet that forces you to abstain from a lot of food. The shock from turning your lifestyle upside down in the blink of an eye could hurt you physically, emotionally, and mentally.

To avoid that, you need to learn to slowly but surely build up your stamina. You can do light 30-minute workouts at least three times a week. You don’t have to give up on all your favorite treats and snacks, either—just start controlling your portions.

Taking small steps and going for practical goals are the best ways to gain huge rewards. They’ll prevent you from losing energy and motivation as well.

Define Boundaries

You can use gratification delay in various parts of your life, especially those that you think could get out of hand if you don’t do something about them.

Case in point, you love to play games on your personal computer. You enjoy it so much that you’re no longer able to attend to your responsibilities in school or at work. It’s all you think about, and it’s the only thing you do whenever you have free time.

What you can do is to give yourself a schedule as to when you should play. It can be between 6:00 PM and 9:00 PM. Or you can play if and only if you’ve finished specific tasks such as cleaning the most neglected rooms in the house.

Always Be Thankful

Delaying gratification isn’t a walk in the park, unless you’ve been doing it for a long time. So don’t forget to acknowledge the effort you’ve been making so far to change your habits. It’s a good idea to pat yourself on the back from time to time and say, “I’m doing great, and I’ll continue to do great.”

Long-Term Success and Greater Reward

Delayed gratification relies on your impulse control and self-regulation in the face of immediate desires. But with the current zeitgeist, people are constantly looking for instant pleasure, which they can have access to thanks to technology. It’s therefore a challenge for a lot of individuals to enhance their ability to delay gratification.

With that said, it’s not impossible to have better impulse control even in modern times. By now, you already know that delaying gratification is something you can certainly learn and integrate in your personal values.

Counseling Now can help you develop distraction techniques so you’re not constantly chasing one immediate reward after another. Our team of counselors and therapists will guide you in becoming the best version of yourself. Book an appointment today with Counseling Now to get started.

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