You already know what delaying gratification entails, which means you already know how difficult it is. Avoiding a temptation that’s standing right in front of you so you can hold out for something substantially better down the line–for many of us, that’s a losing battle.
But it’s often a losing battle that helps win a war, like when a sports team rests its star players in an unimportant game so they can be at their best for the playoffs. And if you can manage to turn delaying gratification into a regular habit, you may be able to take your own performance from just mediocre to top-notch.
Ever seen someone get hired who wasn’t quite good enough, just because the hiring manager couldn’t afford to keep looking? How about a contractor taking on business that doesn’t really make them money but uses up their resources so they’re not available for other work? Or maybe you know someone who always stays a little more overweight than they feel good about. Each of these outcomes can be improved by learning to delay gratification.
The psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow studies” are probably the best known research findings on the psychology of self-control and delayed gratification. He showed what happened to preschool-aged kids who could pass up a temptation in the short run–in this case, a marshmallow sitting right in front of them–for something better down the line.
Mischel found that the kids who had that level of willpower experienced some surprising outcomes: they had better SAT scores years later and were better at coping with stress, among other differences, than their peers who couldn’t help opting for the marshmallow.
Self-control isn’t necessarily an inborn trait that you either have or you don’t, though. Mischel and his team also started to explore what led kids to take the mediocre treat now versus the better one later. And since then, psychologists have further identified how people weigh decisions like these. The good news is that there are some simple mental exercises you can practice just about every day that can sharpen your willpower when a really tempting option pops up unexpectedly. Here are three of them.
Mischel showed early on in his marshmallow research that a dependable way to cave in–you know, to finish off those remaining cold fries, even though you’ll complain all night about feeling full and gross–is to focus your attention on the short-term win. Think about the fries that are right in front of you. Maybe even push them around your plate with your fingers and consider polishing them off since they look so good.
The takeaway here is that it’s a lost cause trying to convince yourself that they actually don’t look so good after all. The better safeguard against caving in is to distract yourself with thoughts of other things you enjoy–like watching movies, playing music, the latest technology, whatever. That doesn’t mean dashing headfirst out of McDonald’s to the nearest movie theater. It just means shifting your mental focus while you’re sitting there.
When you merely think about things you like, instead of the other thing you also like that’s right there in front of you (hey there, fries!), you’re more likely to hold out for the better reward–in this case, of feeling a little better and being a little healthier than you otherwise might.
When we remain constantly busy, we get caught up in the little things that don’t really matter, and lose track of the bigger, longer-term things that do.
Research suggests, for example, that people who let their minds wander from time to time–at least when it’s not critical to stay focused–are more likely to reconnect with the longer-term goals they have, which mean a lot more to them than the stuff that’s instantly gratifying.
So one way to make delaying gratification more of a habit is to adopt another one that’s probably a lot easier: Daydreaming. When you finish one task that consumed a lot of cognitive energy, don’t just snap into the next one on your to-do list. Instead, take a mental break. Even if it’s just sitting right there at your desk, looking away from your computer screen and just staring off for a few moments to see where your thoughts take you.
Read more: The Scientific Benefits Of Mind Wandering
It turns out that gratitude can lead you to value your future options more. Researchers have correlated the emotion of gratitude–feeling thankful–with a person’s tendency to prefer waiting longer for better rewards.
That’s true even for material rewards, not just abstract or emotional ones. Studies have shown that practicing gratitude can even help subjects tough it out for more money as opposed to opting for less cash right away. And the researchers found that it was the feeling of gratitude in particular, and not just any positive emotion, that made the difference.
At this point you may be thinking, “That would be nice, but I can’t just will myself to feel grateful.” But actually, you can, and all it takes is a moment of reflection. Consider this: there are already things you feel grateful for, but you rarely take time to actually reflect on them.
The same way you can carve out a few minutes in your workday for mind-wandering, you can also take a second or two to mull over what you’re most grateful for. Some people even pick up some daily rituals, like keeping gratitude journals, to help them turn this into a regular habit.
Read more: The Surprising Benefits Of Gratitude
These may seem like small, purely mental changes–thinking about what you enjoy, taking a second to daydream, and feeling grateful–that you might worry are no match for the power of an unexpected temptation. But don’t forget that impulse for instant gratification is all in your head. So is the will to avoid it–again and again and again, until it’s merely a matter of habit.