Personal Growth, Writing

Can instant gratification lead to long-term gains? The surprising truth

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why is instant gratification bad
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You’ve probably read a great deal of articles bemoaning our generation’s hunger for instant gratification in the internet age. Indeed, I’m faced with this situation on any given day when it’s so much easier to read another article than, say, grade a stack of papers. But why is instant gratification bad? And are there situations where it can actually be good, resulting in lasting benefits?

The power of an instant

First, let’s examine the word “instant.”

Does an ad’s claim that a product will help you achieve instant results instantly make you skeptical?

In a seminar with copywriting legend Gene Schwartz, one attendee asked Gene this question. After all, his company was called Instant Improvement. Was his claim that a product yielded instant results a credible one?

To this Gene replied: “Almost anything that we do as publishers can be made instantaneous.” Applied to a book or article, this means the writer will identify a specific problem the reader has and then present a solution, helping the reader obtain instant gratification.

For instance, maybe you just read an article about how to turn your life around. Even if you haven’t applied the information yet, you’ll already feel better knowing there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Finding pleasure in the day-to-day

This concept of achieving instant happiness can be applied to just about anything.

In the same seminar, Bob King, then of Phillips Publishing, added: “No one goes to, say, medical school and says, ‘Gee, what, I’m gonna work hard for ten years in school so I can be a doctor.’ Instead, you think about ‘Why do I do that today? Why am I doing that? I do it because it feels right to me today to do that.’ If it didn’t feel right, there’s no way you’d work in the dark for ten years. So I think that you’re constantly doing things that give you instant gratification.”

To me, this was eye-opening. It showed how “instant gratification” could apply to choices we make not just because they feel good in the moment but also because they are right and necessary. Choices that have an impact on our long-term well being.

On the flip side, perhaps you’re pursuing a goal not because it feels right to you but because your family is pressuring you or it looks good on paper. Then each day will feel like drudgery.

Also, many people work at jobs they don’t really enjoy just so they can get their retirement fund which might or might not be there. As Zachary Slayback points out in The Myth of Delayed Gratification Virtue, there’s this pervasive belief that we must endure years of misery before we get our “prize.”

Why not invest your time in something you enjoy now?

When IS instant gratification bad?

We most commonly associate instant gratification with wasteful actions — shopping on Amazon for hours, eating an entire cheesecake, pouring over the latest developments on Brad and Angelina or Kylie Jenner’s lips — that give us temporary pleasure but derail us from our long-term goals.

I think the best way to differentiate between this type of instant gratification versus the “good” kind is to consider how you feel afterwards. Do you feel energized, fulfilled, and inspired? Or drained, frustrated, or hollow inside?

Sometimes when we’re working towards a goal, though, it can be a slippery slope because the learning phase, while still important, is often more fun than the doing phase and can create the illusion of progress. Again, though, I often DO feel drained if I spend too long consuming information. I explain how to achieve more balance between learning and doing in my post on information overload.

Can “good for you” equal “fun”?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, our culture tends to paint beneficial actions such as exercising, eating healthy, and building our business as necessarily grim and un-fun. “No pain, no gain.”

For writers, this mentality is especially true. We often approach our writing sessions like punching in the timesheet, driven more by obligation than desire. As Hemingway (supposedly) said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

But must our daily habits (writing, working out, etc.) be devoid of pleasure by default? Can’t we learn to find instant gratification in everything we do, even those things that are “good for us?”

Making my writing routine less “routine”

Even though I had found an intrinsic motivation for writing, been better about writing on a regular basis, and experienced fulfillment in my sessions, many days still felt like a slog, filled by instances where I hated my story, was bored to death by my characters, and could not wait until my hour (the length of time I had designated as the minimum acceptable) of writing was up.

So I looked for ways to make it more fun. What I found was that giving these routines an order and structure, and continually reshaping the parameters, made it feel less like work and more like a game.

For instance:

1) Using Mind Mapping software to chart out character and plot developments

2) Setting a timer for 15 minutes and a goal of 250 words (I didn’t always reach my goal, but I definitely wrote a lot more than I normally would have in that span of time)

3) Writing 100 sentences about my characters without pausing to think or second-guess myself (courtesy of “Outrunning the Critic” from The 3 AM Epiphany)

What I discovered from this experiment was that I began to enjoy these sessions more and take pleasure from the process, not just the end result. I also found that, ironically, I was way more productive.

This can apply to any routine.

Think of “good for you” actions as a smoothie. If it’s lacking flavor, just add a few ingredients and put the blender on a different setting.

Instantly elevate your mood

Is instant gratification a bad thing? When it comes to indulging in junk food or celebrity gossip, maybe. But as you'll discover, there are situations where it can actually be good, leading to lasting benefits. | instant gratification truths | long term goals | living in the moment | achieving happiness | releasing negative energy | release technique | don't delay happiness | elevate your vibration | make life fun |

 

You can also apply these concepts to your mood state. One of the central aims of the Release Technique is to drop whatever thoughts of grief, anger, or fear you are feeling right now. You simply make the choice to let go of this emotion and choose love instead. You are also choosing to focus on the “now,” because in this moment, there are no problems. Problems arise when we dwell on the past or worry about the future.

Another mistake we make is pushing our happiness into the indefinite future. Only when we have that house, that award, that lifestyle, can be happy.

But as Derek Rydall writes in The Abundance Project, rather than wait for the right timing or the right audience to express our gifts, we can embody and activate them right now. So, for instance, if you want to be an actor but being on the big screen is too big of a stretch at the moment, you can start by acting in community theater plays.

The book goes into much more detail — and I would highly recommend it as it has tons of actionable advice — but at the core is the idea that what makes our big dreams so appealing is the emotions associated with them. By acting as if we have already arrived at this point (and action is key — not just visualizing or imagining), we can immediately experience the pleasure associated with this dream. Which in turn motivates us to keep taking action.

Instant gratification, then, can bring instant (and beneficial) results.

What’s your take on instant gratification?

22 thoughts on “Can instant gratification lead to long-term gains? The surprising truth

  1. Love what you’re teaching here Kate and it truly resonates with the spirit of the stories I love to share. So many good points you mention to think about:

    “Can’t we learn to find instant gratification in everything we do, even those things that are “good for us?”
    “Finding pleasure in the day-to-day”
    “Why not invest your time in something you enjoy now?”

    Love all of this and I’m going to check out that Abundance Project – sounds like a great book!

  2. You make some really great points here! I think it’s important to note that even if the gratification starts in an instant, it’s only harmful if it ends in an instant too. If the gratification lasts beyond the instant, it’s beneficial.

  3. Hey Kate!
    Is always a pleasure reading your articles, I think we have so much in common.
    I believe in instant gratification because it is a way of finding pleasure in the now, I guess, as you said yourself, that people mistake instant gratification for being lazy or for procrastination sometimes.
    I don´t think they are the same.
    That being said, working towards a goal always includes going through the “not having much fun” part and understanding that struggle is part of the process makes everyone´s life easier.
    In my opinion, if we simply learn to offer the least amount of resistance to what is we would all be happier, instantly! 😉

    1. Hi Carla! Yes, that’s so true. When it comes to editing, for instance, it’s mostly just my resistance and anticipation of the struggle that makes it so tough. Once I get going, it’s not so bad. It’s even pretty fun!

  4. Kate, your article is just on point. This is the exact reason why I left my job that looks beautiful on paper, a nice topic for my family and friends to talk about but made me feel like I will die at 29 from a horrible heart attack no matte3 which workout I did everyday and healthy food I ate. I may not have a fat bank account these days but I can feel I am more alive. I wished you saw me nodding like crazy while reading your article.

    1. That’s so crucial, Dani! Yes, we can eat healthy and exercise but if what we’re doing isn’t driving our soul, we will suffer for it. It’s a high price to pay for comfort and a nice paycheck.

  5. I love this post so much! So many people in my life believe that it’s okay to suffer for years to be able to enjoy life when they’re older. For me it always felt wrong. For example, why should you sacrifice 40 years of your life for a job you don’t like, only to have money at 70, when you have no guarantee that you will be able to enjoy life then? I’m not there yet, but I imagine that I would prefer looking back on good memories, even if my retirement money isn’t that great. And there are ways to enjoy the things you’re doing while providing for the future as well. Anyway, thanks for sharing this!

    1. Thanks, Karina! It’s so true. Plus, we don’t know what the future holds and I imagine the way things are headed, the dream of living off your retirement funds and social security may not be so viable anyway, so might as well enjoy life now!

  6. I love a good flipping a concept on its head to see the other side! This post gave me instant gratification. I personally have a lot of habits on the less productive side of instant gratification, but having been learning over the years to do just what you’re suggesting and make the small moments that build the future more rewarding. I like your writing exercise suggestions too!

    1. Thanks, Sunday! Yes, it’s always a fun conceptual exercise to rethink conventional wisdom. True, I’ve a few not-so-productive habits myself that are all about pure gratification in the moment, but I’m doing my best to make “beneficial” things fun and rewarding, too.

  7. This is really interesting, thank you. I specialise in helping people to achieve their goals, so understanding the different roles of instant gratification is really helpful. Thank you for putting into words something that I have been deliberating!

    1. Thanks, Bekki! Yes, I think if you’re working toward a big goal, you need little incentives along the way in order to build that positive momentum. Otherwise it starts to feel dreary and even pointless.

  8. I really liked your perspective on the subject, and it’s a good way to take a cliche way of thinking and flip it on its head. And I agree that usually the best things in life take effort, commitment and grit- but that doesn’t mean we have to deny ourselves joy and a little break here and there till we get them. It really is so much more about the journey 🙂

  9. Great post! I love how you bring in the ways we do this for the things we already like to do. Instant gratification is such a loaded topic, but you wrote about it beautifully.

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