The ability to delay gratification (or the ability to wisely wait) is a skill worth developing. Imagine the following hypothetical situation: your child was just born and some magical being gives you the following choice, “You can choose one of two gifts for your newborn child,” it says “Option A; he or she will have a high IQ, will be considered physically attractive and will have some money, but they won’t be able to wait. They won’t be able to say ‘no’ when they want something. Or you can choose option B for your child, which means he or she will be average intellectually and physically. They will also be somewhat poor financially, but they will be able to wait or delay gratification when they want something.” Okay; all things being equal, which option – A or B – would you choose for your child? Most new parents would choose option B, and they would be wise to do so; psychological research suggests self-control is correlated with a person’s long-term success and happiness to a greater extent than other significant factors, like high IQ, good looks or high income. Of course, no one would suggest that money, looks or IQ don’t matter at all (especially when they are either very high or very low), but it seems that – when it comes to long-term outcomes – they just don’t matter as much as the ability to wait.
This is good news! Unlike good looks, high IQ, and family wealth, self-control (or the ability to delay gratification) is a skill; it can be developed – like a muscle. It is also a skill or mental muscle that applies across domains. So, whether you consider yourself an artist, an athlete, or an academic, persons who are successful have – to a greater or lesser extent – learned to develop self-control – no matter what walk of life they prefer.
But you need to learn how to develop self-control wisely, and about 40 years of scientific research suggests self-control* can be developed if you keep four “S-words” in mind: Self-Monitoring, Shifting to Values, Self-care, and Structure. These words may sound pretty unsexy, but keep reading as I explain each term.
The 4 Ss
People who have high self-control are able to track or self-monitor their moods, impulses and behaviors to a greater extent than people with low self-control. For example, people who do not spend money impulsively consistently track where they spend their money, and people who do not eat impulsively keep a food journal. Easy right? Not so fast. It is crucial to self-monitor in a non-judgmental way. Those things that cause us to feel shame are the same things we eventually avoid – even if we just avoid them mentally. Said differently, if you judge yourself for having an impulse, thought, or feeling, then the impulse, thought, or feeling will not go away – it will just go “underground”; it will continue to hook you into old patterns of behavior. For example, there is a difference between saying to yourself, “Right now, I feel the impulse to yell at my kids” and saying to yourself, “I want to yell at my kids… what is wrong with me?” Monitoring your mood, impulses or behaviors nonjudgmentally will help you develop an in-the-moment awareness of when you are getting “hooked” by your impulses. And this is the first step to change. (It is also a big reason mindful meditation is now such a big part of psychotherapy; mindfulness teaches a person how to be aware without being judgmental. If you need more information on how to develop the skill of mindfulness, click here.)
Shifting to Values
Once you have an “in-the-moment” awareness of your impulses, thoughts or feelings, you can develop the ability to shift your thinking to your higher values. (Once again, you must do this nonjudgmentally.) It is also important to remember how values are different from goals: goals can be achieved, values will not, which allows them to continue to inspire us – even if we just messed up. When they are “triggered”, persons with high self-control know how to shift their thinking to long-term consequences and values rather than going down the “rabbit hole” of rationalization or going completely off-line and drifting mindlessly into old habits.
To illustrate, I sometimes tell my patients the following, “The next time you want to over-eat (or spend money, or yell at your kids, etc…), imagine a split screen television in your mind. On the left side of the split screen is an image of how you feel after you over-eat: the feelings of shame or disgust, for example. Go ahead and ‘fast-forward’ over the short-term pay off, which might be short-term rush of feeling sweets on your tongue. Spend about 30 seconds on the left half of the screen – not enough to trigger shame, but just enough time to slow you down. Then shift to the right side of the screen. This should be an image of your long-term values. For instance, image an image of yourself playing with your kids or engaging more fully in life (i.e., a higher value). This should be a reminder of why you are doing what you’re doing, so you aren’t just ‘white knuckling it’ through life. Use language like, ‘I don’t overeat’; not ‘I can’t overeat.’ Spend at least 60 seconds on this positive image… to the point you can feel a small part of the accomplishment.” Even though this intervention may sound simple, it is amazing how much the mind doesn’t want people do to this 90 second activity. It would rather you just mindlessly “drift” back into old habits. Notice we aren’t participating in denial or distraction here. Instead, we are practicing mental flexibility. The famous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” But this quote gets something wrong: shifting your thinking doesn’t have to do with intellectual intelligence; it has to do with emotional intelligence…. and emotional intelligence or mental flexibility is something we can all learn.
Since self-control is like a muscle, we have to be aware of mental fatigue. Let’s be honest: most self-control “failures” happen when it is late at night or when we are sad, anxious or emotionally vulnerable. Therefore, if you are going to change something in your life, you have to prioritize and start small. Pick one thing at a time. Remember that “10% change” is still change. Do not try to do a personality “overhaul” by biting off more than you can chew. (No pun intended if your target is to change your diet.) Once you have a target or a priority, make sure you are getting enough rest, healthy nutrition and down time to make gentle progress.
You wake up each morning with only so much “gas in the tank.” If you deplete your self-control energy or gas by depriving all aspects of your life or by doing too many things at once, your change will be – at best – short-lived. And after you fail, you probably won’t adopt a “lets-learn-something-from-this” attitude. (“Hey, I guess the amount of sleep I get each night does matter…“). Instead, you will just go back to mentally beating yourself up for having the problem in the first place. (And if this strategy worked I – and thousands of other therapists, like me – wouldn’t have a job.) Eventually, you’ll stop self-monitoring and drift back into old habits. There is a reason why the turtle-and-the-hare story is so famous: if you opt to be the hare or to sprint, your change will be temporary – not because you are a bad person, but because you’ve set yourself up for failure by wearing out your self-control muscle – even though you are participating in a marathon called behavior change.
Probably the most important of the 4 “Ss” is the last one: re-structure your environment and social life so that positive habits are easier to engage in than negative habits. This means that a person who impulsively commits to an extreme workout or dieting routine, will lose less weight than a person who does not commit to anything extreme but does “clean out” all destructive foods from their homes. The purpose of a good structure is not to constantly say “no” to yourself, but to do two things at once: to limit (or make harder) your access to negative, self-defeating habits, while increasing (or making easier) your access to positive, replacement behaviors, which are based on your values.
This also means your may have to cut off contact with social influences that don’t help you, while telling positive people in your life about your commitment to change. This will give you some positive social pressure or accountability. At the very least, spend time with people who share your values or are headed in the same direction; they value what you value and they can be supportive (not enabling) when you inevitably stumble.
If you do not re-structure your social and physical environment to make change sustainable, you are making the mistake of over-relying on motivation. In my opinion, motivation is like good looks, it’s nice when you have it, but it’s superficial at best and misleading at worst. Afterall, motivation is a temporary feeling: even in the best circumstances it fluctuates up and down. In other words, the motivation you are feeling right now is not going to be constant. Therefore, you have to re-structure your environment for your weakest or most unmotivated moments – not your best. If you are unwilling to do this, you are one bad mood away from relapse. Therefore, ask yourself these questions, “Looking at my routines and social environment, how easy is it for me to engage in self-defeating behaviors? How can I make accessing positive, replacement behaviors easier and self-defeating behaviors harder?” If you want to start working out, make your workout bag easily accessible. If you want to be a better student, set up your study area to make starting easier. The following quote from James Clear is important, “You will not rise to the level of your goals; you will fall to the level of your systems.” Be wise and honest with yourself about the social and environmental systems that surround you.
Putting it into Practice
Let’s look at the 4 Ss in action using some common examples: food and anger
Self-Monitor: A person uses a food journal for at least a week. Everything that is not water is briefly jotted down in this journal before (not after) a person consumes something. (If you wait to write it down afterwards, you aren’t self-monitoring… you are reminiscing.) This allows the person to nonjudgmentally track their eating habits and the times of day they are most vulnerable to binging on sweets.
Shift to Values: After a week of journaling, a person spends two minutes doing the split screen visualization described above before they eat. They are surprised by how much their mind does not want them to do this; they typically ignore themselves and act out impulsively or dwell on the short-term pay off of sweets. Instead, they shift to an image of themselves engaging in life with vitality and energy.
Self-Care: The person makes sure they get enough sleep and starts to schedule non-food related down time. This is especially true during periods that journalling has illustrated are the most “vulnerable” parts of their day. When possible, they put off trying to change a lot of other areas of their life until a good routine has been established for at least a month.
Structure: They clean out their fridge or pantry of chips, cookies and ice cream. They also don’t shop when they are hungry. When they do shop, they manage to stock their fridge with quick, easily made, and health food alternatives. They also may have binged with others in the past, but they let these people know how they are going to be eating differently in a way that isn’t preachy; however, it holds them (i.e., the person changing) accountable.
Self-Monitor: A person makes mental note of what things, people or situations make them angry. This may include a mood journal, but – at the very least – will include the person saying to themselves, “Right now, I feel myself getting upset, maybe I should take a break.” They don’t go down the rabbit hole of replaying the grievance in their mind or repetitively telling themselves they are bad for having the feeling in the first place.
Shifting to Values: In a moment of calm, the person imagines the change they want to be in the world. They ask themselves, “In the long-run, what would my relationships be like if I wasn’t angry.” After having this vision, they practice re-imagining it each morning. While they brush their teeth (or do some other menial activity that they were going to do anyhow), they imagine being irritated by something, but then shifting the grievance they usually replay in their head to the most positive explanation possible for the other person’s behavior. They also see themselves responding in a way that is consistent with their values. Doing this mental exercise every morning, builds up psychological ‘muscle memory.’ It also allows them to learn from relapses rather than retreating into shame when things don’t go according to plan.
Self-Care: They plan down time to decompress, rather than plowing ahead and magically expecting the stars to always align for their plans. They sleep, eat, and socialize in a moderate way so they aren’t always about to “blow”.
Structure: When possible, they distance themselves from difficult people. When not possible, they build in some “oh crap time”: they double the amount of time they expect it to take to get a job done. This way they don’t expect things to go smoothly; instead, they are able to stay centered so a – largely imagined – since of impending doom does not take over. They also clearly communicate their preferences beforehand when they are levelheaded and calm (vs. assuming others ‘should know’ or have the ability to read their mind.)
After looking at the 4 “Ss”, you have to plan for bad days and relapses. Things will not go perfectly. Don’t expect that! But, if you can learn from mistakes and shift to a growth mindset, behavior change is possible and your ability to delay gratification will grow over time. Be patient with yourself and the process. You are worth the investment.
Bryan Bushman, PhD is a clinical psychologist in practice in northern Utah. He is the author of Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay). He enjoys chasing around his toddler, hiking, and convincing himself he can eat ice cream like he is still in his twenties.
* I admit that I don’t like the term ‘self-control’. Probably because it has the word “control” in it, which causes people to feel constrained, like they are in a mental straight jacket of some kind. If you feel the same, you can substitute terms like, ‘wisely waiting’ or ‘delaying gratification’. I also don’t like the term self-control because it brings to mind images of someone “white knuckling it” through life. While such persistence matters, I think you’ll find that the 4 Ss are much more than this and can provide you a better sense of direction and purpose than just perpetually depriving yourself.