Delayed Gratification: Make It a Better Pill to Swallow



The gratification comes in the doing, not in the results.” — James Dean

If you’re familiar with the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment , then you know the power of delayed gratification and how you can learn it as a skill.

Delayed gratification shows up time and again as one of the best ways to live a better life.  It’s how we rise above the pitfalls of instant gratification.   It’s also how we focus on doing more of what’s important.

But how can we master delayed gratification?

After all, who wants to sacrifice the here and now for the promise of a better future … someday, maybe?

That is a tough pill to swallow.

You can’t just throw willpower at it.  You can’t just suck it up or dig deep, or lean in.  There’s more to it than that.

And that’s where we find the secret to delayed gratification.

We have to transform the difficult, painful, and boring, into the easy, pleasant, and fun.   The best news here is that this is a skill we can learn, practice, and eventually master.

To master delayed gratification, you also need to understand our two modes of operating:  the “Go” system and the “Know” system.   And, our success in work and life is how well we can use the right system for the job, and most importantly, how well we can master our emotions so we can rule ourselves by reason, rather than be ruled passions and by fear.

In the book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler show us how to master delayed gratification.

Let’s walk through this and learn how to master delayed gratification ….

We Operate in Two Very Different Modalities

You might have heard of right-brain thinking and left-brain thinking.  Or, you might have heard of the two systems referred to as “emotional thinking” and “rational thinking.”

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“Contemporary research reveals that human beings operate in in two very different modalities, depending on the circumstances.  However, as Mischel and Bandura informed us, these modalities or systems are viewed less as character traits or impulses and more as behaviors that can be regulated through skill.”

The “Go” System

You might have heard the “Go” system referred to as the “lizard brain”, or our “fight-or-flight” response.  At the end of the day, the key is to know that sometimes the lizard brain is good, and other times it’s not.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“The first of these two operating modalities is referred to by contemporary theorists as our “hot” or “go” system.  It helps us survive.  We stumble upon something threatening — say a tiger — and as our “go” system takes over, our brain sends blood to our arms and legs, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, and, like it or not, we start producing cholesterol — just in case we face blunt trauma.

More intriguing still, as our ‘go’ system kicks in and blood flows out of the brain and toward our arms and legs, we start relying on a much smaller part of our brain (the amygdala) to take over the job of ‘thinking.’  When the amygdala takes control, we no longer process information in a cool, calm, and collected way.  Rather than cogitating, ruminating, and completing other high-level cognitive tasks, the amygdala or ‘reptilian brain’ is made for speed.  It’s wired for quick, emotional processing that, when activated, triggers reflexive responses, including fight or flight.  The amygdala instinctively moves us to action.  We see a tiger, and bang, we’re off and running.  This hot/go system develops very early and is most dominating in the young infant.”

The “Know” System

Our “Know” system is when we are calm, cool, and collected.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“The second system, known as the ‘cool’ or ‘know’ system, serves us well during more stable times.  It’s emotionally neutral, runs off the frontal lobe, and is designed for higher-level cognitive processing.  Consequently, it helps us thrive, rather than survive.  It’s the part of the brain we’re using as we’re calmly picking blackberries while chatting with a friend.  The system is very ill suited to dealing with the tiger that is just about to appear around the corner.  Our ‘know’ system is slow and contemplative and begins to develop around age four — just about the time children are first able to delay gratification.”

The “Go” System Takes Over More Than It Should

Our “Go” system doesn’t always serve us.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“This inappropriate emotional reaction is exactly the same thing that happens whenever your appetites or cravings kick in at a moment you would prefer that they remain less active.  Your ‘go’ system isn’t designed merely for fight or flight; it’s also designed to take charge whenever a quick, reflexive, survival behavior might suit you.  For example, you smell fresh donuts as you walk by the company cafeteria, and an urge from within whispers, ‘Eat now before it’s too late.’”

You Can Learn Self-Management

We can learn to switch modes more effectively, so that we can be calm, cool, and collected, even in stressful scenarios.  It’s a learnable skill.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“Sometimes we switch into the wrong version of our two operating systems, and this change causes us huge problems.  That’s why in spite of the fact that we’re committed to a vital behavior, we often crumble at stressful moments.  If only we could learn to wrestle control away from the amygdala when it’s kicking in hard at the wrong time.  Then perhaps we could be ruled by reason, and not let passion take charge.  The good news is that this powerful self-management skill is learnable.  And if you want to equip yourself or others to survive the tide of opposing emotions, this skill is pivotal.”

Distract Yourself with Other Activities

One way to practice self-management and learn delayed gratification is to distract yourself with other activities or invent your own diversions.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“In his original experiments, Mischel had observed that children who were able to delay gratification were better at distracting themselves from thinking about either the short- or the long-term reward.  Delayers managed their emotions by distracting themselves with other activities.  They avoided looking at the marshmallows by covering their eyes, turning their chairs away, or resting their heads on their arms.  Some even created their own diversions by talking to themselves, singing, and investing games with their hands and feet.”

Focus on the Tasks, Not the Rewards

Focus on the journey, not the destination.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“When Mischel taught other children the same tactics – and thus helped them take their minds off the rewards and place them on something else – subjects routinely increased their ability to delay gratification.  In similar studies where subjects were given specific tasks that would help them earn their long-term rewards, subjects who focused on the tasks as opposed to the reward the most often were the least persistent.  Researchers also found the distracting individuals by having them focus on the cost of failure, or thinking bad thoughts, did not enhance delay.”

Sucking It Up Doesn’t Work

Throwing will power not only doesn’t work — It can backfire.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“Finally, asking subjects to employ ‘willpower’ by directing their attention to tasks that were difficult, aversive, or boring didn’t work.  Despite the fact most people are convinced that individuals who show poor self-control merely need to exert a stronger will – demanding that subjects dig down, suck it up, or show strength of character – research found the opposite.  Telling people to hunker down didn’t improve performance.”

Transform the Difficult Into the Easy

The ultimate recipe for sustainable success for the long-haul is to turn those bitter pills into better pills that we actually enjoy to swallow.

In In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors write:

“The far better strategy was to transform the difficult into the easy, the aversive into the pleasant, and the boring into the interesting. … Suffice it to say that when industrial engineers began to find ways to help employees and others make their tasks easier and more pleasant, leaders learned that they didn’t have to continually harangue people to stick to their unpleasant or boring tasks.  And when leaders began to learn how to measure and focus on short-term goals, it took the pressure off having to continually motivate people into hanging on until the end.”

To put this into practice, try one thing that you know you should do more of, and ask yourself how can you make it easy, make it pleasant, and make it fun?

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Image by Amy Thibodeau.


  1. Does this book discuss other means of practicing self-management and learning delayed gratification, such as the distraction technique?

    • Yes, actually.

      The authors do a great job turning insight into action, and science into results.

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