There’s a simple rule operating in the world around success. Technically, it’s known as the ability to ‘delay gratification’ but you might know it better as ‘short term pain for long term gain’. Basically, what is good for us in the long run requires us to put in work in the short term, and vice versa – those things that feel good/ are easier now tend to have poor long term consequences.
We’ve all seen this rule in action
Study and complete assignments along the way – pass the course
Avoid study and binge watch Netflix – fail the course
Choose takeaway for convenience – end up overweight
Put in the effort to cook a healthy dinner – maintain your body shape
Consistently refine your marketing – successful campaigns to grow your business
Surf the web – business stagnates
Ignore the growing distance between you and your partner – break up
Do the work to solve disagreements and connect with your partner regularly – happy relationship
Science has tested this rule too
Psychologists have constructed some pretty evil experiments in their time. The original study which tested this rule involved getting four year olds to sit in a room with a cookie. They were told that if they didn’t eat the cookie, they would get two cookies upon the experimenter’s return – a better reward in the future in return for the short term pain of waiting. They then had to wait up to fifteen minutes waiting! The result: some children ate the cookie, and some were able to wait. What’s interesting about the study is that the researchers then tracked the children as they grew up, and found that the ability to wait for a better reward– to ‘delay their gratification’ - predicted all sorts of later success in life, such as high grades and a good job. As you can see from the examples in the previous section, those that can wait for good things are the best rewarded in the long run.
If this rule is so powerful, why don’t more people use it?
This rule might seem pretty basic or obvious. But honestly, how many people actually implement the rule consistently? Why is it that so many people have trouble with it? The reason is because of a phenomenon known as temporal discounting – the further away in time a benefit is, the less real it seems to us, and so we have trouble acting as though the future will become the present one day (although barring a tragedy, it will).
What to do about it – Bring the future to the present
If you’d like to overcome temporal discounting, you need to bring the future into the present. This means finding ways to remind yourself that the future will arrive. This is one reason why writing down goals and reading them regularly, as well as visual reminders of the future, such as dream/goal boards, work. They make our future seem more tangible, and as a result inspire us to work towards that future today.
What to do about it –Do one thing at a time
Once you’ve overcome temporal discounting, how can you ensure you actually put in the work to reach your goals? After all, it’s still harder than not doing the work. The answer is to PRIORITISE. What’s the most important area for growth for you right now? Is business your focus, or weight, or your relationship? Choose just one area to put work into, and don’t try to improve any other areas at the same time. Why? Because we have finite resources. There is only so much time, energy and willpower to be worked with and working on more than one area at once is too hard for most people, leading to failure (for more about why that is, check out ‘Could Decision Fatigue Be Destroying Your Willpower?’).
With regular reminders of your goals, and the knowledge you only have to push yourself through discomfort in one area of your life, you give yourself the best chance of long term success in that priority area. And after you’ve been doing the work for a time, you will begin to see the rewards – you’ve reached the future! Once rewards are starting to flow, maintaining the work will be easier, because now the benefits are being experienced in the present. Once you’re getting results, you can choose a new priority to work on and the old priority will be maintained by the now immediate benefits. Done repeatedly, you can then continuously upgrade across several areas of your life, whilst only ever suffering short term discomfort in one area. People who run marathons, have successful businesses and develop great relationships don’t get these things automatically or all at once. They build them up slowly, over time, with work. But when what seemed a distant future becomes your present, it’ll all be worth it.
If you struggle to make the future relevant in your present, you could benefit from a life coach – someone who gets to know you and your goals, helps you craft paths to reach your goals, and who hassles you (nicely!) to get things done now so that you actually reach your goals in the future. If you’re interested in learning more, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do it now – your future is coming fast!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.