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Why waiting is your most important skill

David was a high school friend of mine who subscribed to a monthly magazine of games and puzzles. I got a kick out of watching him dig into each new issue because he did the same hilarious thing every time.

He would flip to a random logic problem, word scramble or picture puzzle and start his brain to work on it.

Then after about a minute – sometimes less – if he couldn’t figure out the answer right away he would quickly flip to the back section of the magazine to read the solution. “I can’t help it! I have to know!” He would laugh at himself, fully realizing that he had very little control over his urge for immediate satisfaction.

If David had been able to hold out longer he would have solved more puzzles himself and received more value for his money in the form of satisfaction.

David’s inability to control his "need to know now" illustrates the power of the lizard brain’s impulse for speed and immediate reward. That primitive urge served our ancient ancestors well, but for us modern humans it can be a huge problem.

Mission: control

The ability to exercise the self-control needed to overcome the urge for immediate gratification is arguably the most important skill we have, but we tend to underestimate its impact. Our success in this area has a profound effect on our health, wealth, and happiness.

A fascinating study released in 2011 examined the long-term effects of self-control by following 1,000 children for 30 years. They found that children with lower self-control later had greater rates of health issues (substance dependence, for example), financial problems including debt and the inability to save, and even crime.

Other studies show that delayed gratification is a key trait in achieving success, having better relationships, and reaching our goals.

But delaying pleasure requires resisting your lizard brain – not an easy task.

Battling the rising tech tide

Unfortunately, we are making it tougher on ourselves. Modern technology is built to deliver immediate rewards and we have become increasingly accustomed to not having to wait. Getting satisfaction quickly has become the expectation and the norm. We feel a greater level of discomfort at even the thought of waiting for something we want.

The 24-hour news cycle is a prime example. We want to know now, even if the information is incomplete or inaccurate, which it often is and one reason fewer people trust the media than ever before.

Interestingly, I recently discovered a news magazine that bucks this trend and only publishes content once every three months, after the dust has settled and facts become clearer.

The name of the magazine? Delayed Gratification. You can check it out here.

A matter of taste

An obvious area where the ability to put off gratification is eating. Our ancestors needed to eat whenever food was available because they knew food could quickly become scarce. So the lizard brain encourages scarfing it down while the going is good!

But if we (modern humans) were to eat whatever we want whenever we want, we would quickly become obese. Food is no longer scarce for most of us. And with the ability of modern food producers to engineer foods with the highest amount and optimal ratio of chemical compounds that excite the brain’s pleasure centers, it becomes more difficult to resist the allure of foods that are high in fat, carbs, sugar, and calories.

The result? An adult obesity rate in the U.S. that continues to climb and is currently around 35-40%.

Tools for success

To combat the growing assault on our ability to delay gratification, we need to recognize that we are in a constant battle against both our own lizard brain impulses and the outside forces working against us.

Then consider some of the following ideas for interrupting the allure of short-term pleasures:

Re-direct: When contemplating a short-term pleasure that you know is not good for you in the long run, distract yourself mentally with other activities that are pleasurable without the negative side-effects.

Change your environment: Resisting temptations that are easily accessible is difficult, so create friction to make it harder to access those things. For example, if you have trouble not wasting time on “junk” internet sites, use an app to block those sites during work hours.

Keep your eye on the prize: Write down the specific long-term benefits you will achieve by forgoing the short-term pleasure. Be as detailed as you can about what you will gain and when. Then keep that message easily accessible and visible, especially during the times you are most vulnerable.

As in most things, moderation is key. Allow yourself some immediate pleasures, but know when to say yes and when to say no - for now.

Think well, be well!

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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