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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.
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
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?