“The obsession with instant gratification blinds us from our long-term potential” — Michael Dooley
Instant gratification feels good. It’s really difficult to turn off the switch in our brains that fiends for that incredibly satisfying feeling.
And there really is a switch, too (of sorts). This article by Dr. Shahram Heshmat talks about ten psychological reasons we rush instant gratification, and it’s pretty interesting.
For example, there is actual psychological discomfort associated with denying ourselves immediate satisfaction. “Evolution has given people and other animals a strong desire for immediate rewards,” Heshmat explains.
Instant gratification is also linked to procrastination. We often delay accomplishing things we know we should do because the task at hand does not give us the immediate reward we’re wired to look for.
Charlotte Lieberman’s article from The New York Times discusses the causes behind procrastination, revealing that the habit is derived from negative feelings that surround specific tasks.
“Put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on ‘the immediate urgency of managing negative moods’ than getting on with the task,” the article says.
These ‘negative moods’ can stem from anxiety or self-doubt over said task. For example, when procrastinating working on a writing assignment, one may feel that they aren’t skilled enough to yield satisfactory results.
They may tell themselves, “It’s not going to turn out good, anyway.” Or, “I’m not good at this. I’m just not a good writer.” This can apply to pretty much anything.
Therefore, we put off completing the task, whatever it may be. We avoid what our brains perceive as negative and intimidating. It isn’t instantly gratifying.
“It’s a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.”
Our short-term needs include the need to self-gratify, and to do so instantaneously. So why do we prioritize our current needs so much more than our future ones?
“When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off — and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side — are somebody else’s problem,” Lieberman writes.
In other words, we tend to associate our future selves as separate from our present selves.
Hence, our tendency to chase instant gratification. We want our rewarding feelings now.
To top things off, our brains actually detect the sense of insecurity and low self-esteem around the task as a genuine threat. They tell us that the safer option is to avoid whatever it is on our ‘to-do’ list we’re putting off.
So how do we change this habit? We’d never get anything done if we simply did whatever feels good in the moment…
Well, according to psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, we give our brains a better prize. We need to give them something better than the quick and temporary gratification that procrastinating gives us.
“ We have to find a better reward than avoidance — one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future selves,” Lieberman says.
What could that be? The Times article suggests simply re-framing the project or task you’re dreading from being surrounded by negative connotations to positive ones.
Self-compassion goes a long way; just try to stop beating yourself up. You’ll start to associate the thing you’re avoiding with more positive feelings, and you can start to break the cycle of self sabotage.
Remind yourself of a time when things actually worked out after completing the job. Imagine how you/your teacher/your boss will feel or react to your finished work!
Another way to combat this need for instant gratification is to try and not think about whole project in its entirety. Try and only focus on the next step.
That way, your brain won’t be overwhelmed by how much work you have left. It’s like a mind trick in a way — you’re giving yourself a sample of gratification with completing one small step, but deducting the dread that causes avoidance.
By doing this and making it a pattern over time, you’re essentially training yourself to require less and less instant gratification.
It’s almost like weening yourself off caffeine or sugar: it’s painful and goes against all your instincts at first, but eventually, you won’t really need it anymore.
This process will allow you to pursue larger, more strategic goals and projects that will ultimately better your long-term situation, and your overall life.
It’s won’t be easy, but you’ll gradually stop being blinded from your own potential and break this destructive addiction to instant gratification.