Delayed Gratification

The Human Brain Did Not Evolve For A Life Of Delayed Gratification

How to apply the long game approach to your life and sacrifice short term gains for long-term wins


Delayed Gratification -
The Human Brain Did Not Evolve For A Life Of Delayed Gratification. Andy Warhol style graphic with a hallucinogenic effect of a hippy woman looking confused.

Delayed Gratification - Overview

Delayed gratification  means to delay gains now to get more later.

This can be described as the long game approach to any area of life that sacrifices short term gains for long-term wins.

This involves having a long term goal and taking the necessary steps now to set yourself up for long term success.

There is one major problem with this, and it is nothing to do with will-power, commitment or focus or any form of conscious effort and it is that human brain has not yet evolved to accommodate delayed gratification.



    The human brain is hardwired for an "immediate return environment" but we live in a "delayed return environment".



In "Atomic Habits" we noted that:

In the modern world  we live in a "delayed return environment" where the ability to accept deferred gratification is critical.

Author James Clear says:

"In modern society, many of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately…You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff."

But given that our brains are hardwired for instant gratification, they process and evaluate potential rewards by ascribing a higher value to the present and a discount to the future, so there is a conflict.

From an evolutionary perspective, back when we were living on the plains of Africa most of our decisions had an immediate impact and thus our focus was on the present or near future.

In life on the Savannah plains of Africa it made sense to place a premium on instant gratification. Our survival often depended on it. So, our brains evolved over time to prefer quick hits of pleasure to the kind of satisfaction one might get from long-term accomplishments.

The earliest remains of modern humans are approximately two hundred thousand years old and they had a brain relatively similar to ours.

As Clear succinctly puts it:

"You are walking around with the same hardware as your Paleolithic ancestors."






The Human Brain Did Not Evolve For A Life Of Delayed Gratification


How old is the human brain?

James Clear - The Evolution Of Anxiety

The pace of change has increased exponentially compared to prehistoric times. In the last 100 years we have seen the rise of the car, the airplane, the television, the personal computer and the internet. Nearly everything that makes up your daily life has been created in a very small window of time - much of it in our lifetimes.

Whilst a lot can happen in 100 years, from an evolutionary perspective 100 years is nothing.

The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for the immediate return environment - and suddenly it changed dramatically  to a delayed returns environment.





Professor William Irvine Explains Evolutionary Psychology and Thinking Systems In Our Brain:




How Hardwired Is Human Behavior - Harvard Business Review






Setting The Scene For Delayed Gratification

Before we get into the detail of how to deal with the uncertainties and stresses of delayed gratification I want to set out some context and parameters for our approach and recommended strategies:



Focus on things you can control and ignore the rest.

[1] Focus on things you can control, ignore the rest.

The Stoics referred to this as "the dichotomy of control".

Modern psychologists refer to an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control.” What this basically means is that if you have internal locus of control you will most likely believe that you are responsible for most of what happens in your life - to the extent that your response to events determines the outcomes you experience.


Existentialism and the meaning of life.

[2] Live life authentically by making your own choices for which you alone accept total responsibility.

An existentialist perspective on life

  • Is about living authentically by making your own choices for which you alone accept total responsibility
  • Is also about rising above your circumstances which is seen as transcendence - this gives authentic meaning and can act as agent of change to those circumstances
  • Views human existence as having no meaning other than that which you choose to give it


You are not your thoughts.

[3] Understanding that you are not your thoughts and it is not the content of your thoughts that matters it is your relationship with them that counts.

In You Are Not Your Thoughts, we set the scene as to how we deal with our negative thoughts, such as thoughts of anger, accusation and despair. In summary:

  • These thoughts arise automatically and are largely unconscious in their origination.
  • These thoughts originate from the “hardware” and “software” in our brains.
  • The best way of becoming more aware of the repetitive nature of these thoughts, and the triggers that give rise to them is by the practice of mindfulness.

Immunity To Change.

[4] Your failure to achieve a personal change goal isn’t the result of a lack of will-power, it’s your "emotional immune system" trying to protect you.

Immunity to change can be defined as a "hidden commitment", with an underlying root cause, that competes and conflicts with a stated commitment to change.

It these hidden commitments that cause you to not change and to fail to realise your best intentions.

Put simply, it is these hidden commitments that cause us to not keep New Year resolutions, to fail with diets, to not stop smoking etc.

Here's how to resolve your immunity to change.






How To Deal With The Uncertainty, Anxiety and Stress Of Delayed Gratification


James Clear - The Habit Loop

The key to reconciling our brain’s need for immediate feedback and at the same time taking the necessary steps to realise the major benefits of delayed gratification is to have a daily routine that rewards you right away [immediate return] and at the same time resolves your future problems [delayed return].

There are 2 components to this approach:


[1] Focus On The Process Not The Goal



    Shift your worry from the long-term problem to a daily routine that will solve that problem.


  • "Instead of worrying about living longer, focus on taking a walk each day.
  • Instead of worrying about whether your child will get a college scholarship, focus on how much time they spend studying today.
  • Instead of worrying about losing enough weight for the wedding, focus on cooking a healthy dinner tonight.

The key insight that makes this strategy work is making sure your daily routine both rewards you right away - immediate return -  and resolves your future problems - delayed return." [James Clear - The Evolution of Anxiety]






[2] Measure The Small Steps In The Process



    Rapid feedback is one of the most significant distinctions between an immediate return environment and a delayed return environment.


Animals in the wild are continuously receiving feedback on the things that cause them stress.The effect of this is that they know whether or not they should feel stressed.

Without measurement you have no feedback.

James Clear:"The first thing you can do is measure something:

  • You can’t know for certain how much money you will have in retirement, but you can remove some uncertainty from the situation by measuring how much you save each month.
  • You can’t be sure that you’ll get a job after graduation, but you can track how often you reach out to companies about internships.
  • You can’t predict when you find love, but you can pay attention to how many times you introduce yourself to someone new.

The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known.

  • When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation.
  • Measurement won’t magically solve your problems, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening."





How To Get Better At Getting Started With Delayed Gratification


If you accept that success in any field requires discipline and a preparedness to choose the harder option of delayed gratification then you need to have some simple strategies to help you get better at taking that first step and getting started.

Here are 3 proven and simple steps:


[1] Start Very Small

When you start on the path of creating a new habit, create a "launch habit" that is almost ridiculously simple and small, so small you won't say no because it would seem ridiculous not to  do it.

At the starting out stage, doing the habit is what matters and it is far more important than how much you do.

For examples, a few years ago I wanted to go the gym regularly so I set myself the task of just turning up at the gym for 10 mins several times a week. Then I would leave.

After a couple of weeks of this, the habit of going to the gym was starting to get established. I increased the duration of the visit to 15 mins and continued like that for another couple of weeks by which time the habit was stronger and then I increased the duration to 30 mins per visit.


[2] Set Up A "Gateway Habit" with "The 2 Minute Rule"

In "How to Stop Procrastinating With the “2-Minute Rule” James Clear says:

"When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version:

  • “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.”
  • “Do thirty minutes of yoga” becomes “Take out my yoga mat.”
  • “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.”
  • “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.”
  • “Run three miles” becomes “Tie my running shoes.”
The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away.

A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy.

What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path."

As with the "Start Very Small" approach, this is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it.


[3] Don't Break The Chain


This approach is all about "the art of showing up" or the power of consistency.

This is an adaptation of the Seinfeld Strategy. A young comic asked Jerry Seinfeld for any tips on how to be a better comic:

"He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day."

Then Seinfeld said:

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.

Your only job is to not break the chain".







Setting Yourself Up For The Long Game


The Long Game.


The basic rule here is to stop optimizing for today and start playing the long game to delayed gratification with these 7 proven strategies:


[1] Adopting the Craftsman Mindset

In "So Good They Can’t Ignore You" Cal Newport cites the comedian Steve Martin, who once said his advice for aspiring entertainers was to “...be so good they can’t ignore you...”

The focus of his book involves picking a skill that is "rare and valuable" and then mastering it until you become "so good they can't ignore you".


[2] Attract Luck - Be The Best At What You Do

Naval Ravikant commenting on what he calls "The Four Kinds Of Luck"
says that:

“...the last kind of luck is the weirdest, hardest kind, where you build a unique character, a unique brand, a unique mindset, which causes luck to find you.” 

While you can’t control this fourth, potentially most lucrative kind of luck, you can influence it by committing to being the best at what you do.


[3] Focus On The One Thing

In "The One Thing" Gary Keller maps out a process for focusing your attention and your actions on the achievement of  the one big thing you want to achieve by narrowing your present focus down to the one next step you must take to progress you towards that one big thing.

Success is about doing the one right thing, not about doing everything right.


[4] Benefit From The Power Of Habits

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits explores the long term power of compounding habits, which is a key feature of the long game.

Small habits make a big difference over the long-term.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.


[5] Compound Your Way To Exponential Growth

Compounding is the process whereby a gain made on an invested resource is reinvested alongside the original resource, and further gains are made on that gain thus the growth rate is exponential.

Small improvements accumulate into massive changes.


[6] Be Smarter Rather Than Faster

In The Red Queen Effect we looked at strategies for negating the red queen effect by operating smarter rather than running faster and faster just to stand still. Here are 2 powerful strategies.

(A) Focus On The Few To Find The Many - It's now the 80/20 curve/Pareto Principle that defines our lives.

(B) Benefit From The Fat Tail Fractal Factor - The Top 1% Of Fat Tails Account For 50% Of The Results.

So when focusing on the top 20%, remember that somewhere in amongst that group is a subset - which may be just one or two individuals - who will deliver over 50% of your results.


[7] Live an Antifragile Life

Antifragility is the quality of something that gets better, or thrives, in the presence of disorder.

There are ways in which you can position yourself to make gains from this disorder and get stronger.

Shane Parrish suggests 10 core principles that you can follow.







The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

How To Deal With The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled In A Delayed Return Environment


The Road Less Traveled.

Aia Fernandez



    "You have to be willing to look like an idiot in the short term to look like a genius in the long term."[Shane Parrish]


'The road less traveled' is a phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with the book of that title about the journey to maturity and growth that lies through confronting life's difficulties and moving through the hard and often painful process of change toward a higher level of self-understanding.

I am using the phrase in the very specific context of the long game which describes an approach to any area of life that sacrifices short term gains for long-term wins. This is about having a long term goal and taking the necessary steps now to set yourself up for a long term success.

Playing the long game and paying the price for delayed gratification  is hard enough when you are traveling on a well defined route such as qualifying to be doctor, a lawyer or an academic.

Playing the long game is doubly difficult when you are traveling on a road less traveled that is not well defined, where the milestones and metrics are not known when you start out on this journey.

Examples of the road less traveled are starting a business or any other form of entrepreneurial activity. Other examples could be launching any form of creative or artistic endeavour.

The well defined route is clearly sign posted and has clear markers, metrics and milestones.

On the road less traveled the route is often not clearly defined and does not have clear metrics and milestones.







Issues faced on the Road Less Traveled To Delayed Gratification


[1] Working Out The Route

  • How can you figure out some useful metrics to know how you are doing?
  • How do you keep going when the going is tough and you are not sure if you are wasting your time?

[2] Maintaining Your Mental Health And Well-Being

  • How do you cope when everyone else thinks you’re mad or deluded?
  • How do you cope with recurring disappointments and let downs?

[3] Dealing With Other People


  • How much do you tell other people about what you doing?
  • How do you cope with other people’s inability to understand what you are telling them? [Esp. when they are on tram lines and you are not?]

Full version: Issues faced in a delayed return environment - the route is often not clearly defined and does not have clear metrics and milestones:

The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled






Delayed Gratification - Further Resources

Here are a number of touch points with other key articles on this site:




Return from "Delayed Gratification" to: Home Page



English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


LATEST ARTICLES

  1. The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

    Issues You'll Face When Playing The Long Game. The challenges of the road less traveled is loosely based around the phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with his book "The Road Less Traveled". This arti…

    Read More

  2. How To Benefit From the Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

    These Unseen Margins Can Have A Very Dramatic Impact On Your Life. To understand how to benefit from the unseen margins we need to start by understanding what they are and where we find them. In this…

    Read More

  3. The Art Of Thinking Clearly - How To Do More Than Just Survive And Reproduce

    3 Key Tips The art of thinking clearly starts with the sobering realisation that our brains are designed to achieve two things: Survival and Reproduction! 98% of our thinking is unconscious, automatic…

    Read More

  4. Algorithms to Live By - 5 Useful Rules Of Thumb

    5 Useful Heuristics From Algorithms To Live By The thesis of the book "Algorithms to Live By" is that algorithms developed for computers can be used by people in everyday life in a wide range of situa…

    Read More

  5. Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

    The Art Of Being Wise Is The Art Of Knowing What To Overlook. We are blessed and cursed to live in the digital age. We have access to more information than we can possibly handle yet we struggle to fi…

    Read More

  6. The Checklist Manifesto - Your Personal Safety Net

    A Checklist Is A Safety Net That Encourages Better Results And Prevents Avoidable Mistakes. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correc…

    Read More

  7. How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

    How To Avoid The 7 Causes Of Everyday Stupidity. We are all capable of everyday stupidity as we undertake routine tasks in our business and working lives and also in our personal lives. This is not ab…

    Read More

  8. Beginners Mind And The Voice Of Experience

    Only The Experts Survived Evolution. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." These are the famous words of Shunryu Suzuki in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Min…

    Read More

  9. The Art Of Being Alone Is A Skill

    Let's Make Today A Good Day. You may not have chosen the condition of being alone, and it may have been imposed upon you by circumstances beyond your control, but your response to the situation is wit…

    Read More

  10. Intuition & Anxiety - Are There Angels Or Devils Calling Here?

    How To Tell The Difference Between Intuition and Anxiety. How do you know whether the voice of your intuition is real or just the product of your inner anxiety? We all struggle with these inner voices…

    Read More

  11. Like A Prayer - Life Is A Mystery

    It Isn't The Process Of Prayer That’s The Problem, It’s The Way It’s Framed. Regardless of what we feel about Madonna or her song the topic of prayer often arouses strong reactions. Usually, it is som…

    Read More

  12. Fear Of Missing Out - "I'll Have What She's Having!"

    We Follow The Herd - We Mimic Other People's Choices. Fear of missing out - or FOMO as it is popularly referred to - is the feeling that everyone else in your peer group is having much more fun than y…

    Read More

  13. Free - Self Improvement Resources

    Exercising Balance and Discernment. I have just updated these self improvement resources with a number of additional sources of material that are practical and can help you change your life. Check it…

    Read More

  14. Your Higher Self - Your Hardwired Portal To The Universe

    This Is The You That Is Beyond Your Thinking Mind. This is the big you, the transcendent you, the you that is often referred to as your higher consciousness or higher self. This is the you that acts a…

    Read More

  15. The Power Of Gratitude - It's Good For You!

    Gratitude And Attitude Are Not Challenges, They Are Choices. The power of gratitude quite simply is that it is good for you! Many of us were raised by parents who instilled in us the social niceties o…

    Read More

  16. Living With Your Thoughts - 4 Tools To Help You

    Develop A Good Working Relationship With Your Mind. The first step in living with your thoughts is to understand and develop a good working relationship with all areas of your mind. The key to develop…

    Read More

  17. You Are Not Your Thoughts - How To Escape This Ferris Wheel Of Suffering

    The 4 Stages To Dealing With Your Thoughts. You are not your thoughts, at least that's what your rational mind tells you most of the time, but that's definitely not how it feels at 3 am when you have…

    Read More

  18. Finish What You Start - Action Will Destroy Your Procrastination

    4 Key Tips To Help You Finish What You Start. So why do you fail to finish what you start? Or in my case, why do I fail to even get started? There is a wealth of information out there about how to avo…

    Read More

  19. Going The Extra Mile - The Power Of One More

    Life Is Non-Linear, Which Makes The Rewards Of Continued Effort Disproportionately Big. In the pursuit of a long term goal you have to go countless extra miles to set yourself up for a big success. Go…

    Read More

  20. Tao Te Ching - Connecting To Your True Source Of Power.

    How To Be Lived By The Tao. The Tao Te Ching is one of those books that many people read, few understand, and even fewer put into practice. The only way to know the Tao is to experience it, and it is…

    Read More

  21. Dying To Self & Dropping The Ego

    Everything Does Not Revolve Around Me. The two phrases dying to self & dropping the ego are Christian and Buddhist expressions of the same fundamental truth - the need to correct the inbuilt, hardwire…

    Read More

  22. The Confident Mind - 4 Keys To Peak Performance

    Peak Performance Is Meditation In Motion. Peak performance is grounded in the Tao practise of Wu Wei which means "doing with out doing". This is all about how you take action by being so immersed in p…

    Read More

  23. Going With The Flow - The Balance Of Being And Doing

    Steer The Boat Each Day Rather Than Plan Ahead Way Into The Future. Going with the flow is about learning to become comfortable with uncertainty, and learning how to exploit the potential hidden withi…

    Read More

  24. 8 Principles For Success

    A Timeless Foundation On Which To Build Your Success. There are Universal laws and processes that work to support us and guarantee that we achieve all our goals. But first we need to know what they ar…

    Read More

  25. The Loving Father

    A Love That Will Not Let You Go. I had a loving father. I knew that I did, but I never felt it. My father was a good man but very damaged and unable to show his feelings. So I grew up knowing in my he…

    Read More

  26. Your Ebenezer Stone Of Help

    How To Stay Connected To Your True Source Of Power. Approximately 2,500 years ago the Israeli town of Kafr Qasim was close to the site of two battles between the ancient Israelis and their neighbours…

    Read More

  27. The Stockdale Paradox

    How To Deal With The Attrition Factor. The Stockdale Paradox is named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the American-Vietna…

    Read More

  28. Embrace Your Fear Of Failure And Uncertainty

    We Celebrate Success And Ignore Failure. Numerous studies have been undertaken on successful people to understand what it was that they did to become so successful, how they did it and when they did i…

    Read More

  29. The Wilderness Years - 3 Keys To An Exit

    How You Got Into The Wilderness Matters Less Than The Lessons To Be Learnt There. The wilderness years can be described as any lengthy time, longer than a year, that is spend aimlessly; without an imm…

    Read More

  30. Boredom – Your Greatest Threat to Results

    We Live In A World That Glorifies The Results And Not The Process. We all know what we should be doing, but the trouble with that is that sooner of later we get bored. The enjoyment fades, the excitem…

    Read More



Get new posts by email:









Zen-Tools.Net





Support This Site