The Power of Delay

As a child, I spent every Sunday morning at First St. John’s Lutheran Church. Each week, our family would go through the same routine. It started with a bath, followed by my mom painfully combing the ‘tangles’ out of my naturally curly hair. She’d then dress me in my Sunday best, and my uncle would pick me up at 9am sharp for pre-church Sunday School that was held in the church basement.

At 11am, my sister and I would head upstairs and join my mother in the third pew from the back on the left hand-side. That’s where we sat every Sunday morning for over two decades. As I grew older, I developed the discipline to sit through the hour-long service without misbehaving. However, as a six-year old boy anxious to get home to his baseball bats and hockey sticks, getting me to sit still for sixty minutes (and seventy-five minutes during the once per month communion Sunday service) was a difficult task.

My mother’s solution to this problem was candy. It’s a pretty good answer to any six-year-old’s problems, I imagine. After about twenty minutes of the service, when ennui began to set in for my sister and I, she brought out rolls of sweet tarts for each of us.

And here’s where I learned a valuable habit that has helped me succeed in life.

I made it my mission every Sunday morning to hold out longer than my sister before eating the candy. Some weeks I’d hide my candy, pretending I’d eaten it, and then, when I knew my sister was done with hers, I’d produce my sweet tarts from my pocket and take great pleasure in eating the tiny candy pieces in front of her. On other occasions, it would be a straight-up battle of wills as we both played with our candy in an attempt to see who could go the longest without eating it.

What I discovered on those Sunday mornings was the power of delayed gratification. As a young boy in church, I used this skill to “win” at the candy game with my sister. As a teenager, I put this power to use by forcing myself to go to my after-school job, then to the gym to lift weights, and then home to do homework, all before going out with my friends.

In my college years – excluding my freshman year where I let the habit slide – I used delayed gratification to put schoolwork first over late night partying. This way, I’d end up on the Dean’s Honour List three years in a row – and eventually win a scholarship that paid for my time in graduate school. I still remember the Friday nights spent in the lab finishing up my research projects until 10pm before finally rushing out to meet my friends at a house party.

The power of delayed gratification is, in fact, a research-proven phenomenon. There’s a famous study that was performed at Stanford University, the kind you’d read about in a Malcolm Gladwell-esque business book, known as the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment”.

In the study, researchers tracked a group of four-year-old children, each of whom was given a marshmallow and instructed to wait twenty minutes before eating it. The children were then monitored for their developmental progress into adolescence. The scientists, led by Professor Walter Mischel, discovered that the children that were better able to wait to eat the marshmallow—delaying gratification—were generally more dependable and achieved greater scores in their Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Substitute a church pew for a Stanford University research lab and sweet tarts for marshmallows, and you can see the personal connection I have with this research.

But I don’t believe that the ability to delay gratification is something that you must be born with. Instead, it’s a powerful habit you can build. However, it seems that most people (from the Boomer Generation to the much-maligned Millennial Generation) have missed this lesson. Instead, too many people spend their paychecks when they get them – or even before. As a result, they get deep into debt. They want it all. And they want it now. But that’s not how it works if you want to be successful.

Work comes first. Then reward. It’s not the other way around.

No matter where you’ve stood in the past on this success equation, you can change. Just like we can all learn to get up earlier, make exercise a daily habit, or improve our diet, you too can build the habit of delayed gratification. The rockstar Sting even suggests we can learn delayed gratification for the benefit of tantric sex, but that’s another article for another day, I suppose.

Here’s an easy place for you to start working on developing your power of delayed gratification. It’s your email inbox. You and I will surely both agree that if you can avoid getting sucked into your email each morning that you’ll be able to get more done each day. So do it. Just delay it. Wait one more minute each day before opening your inbox and checking that first email.

I learned to do this and started my progression back in the summer of 2007. Up until that point, I was an email “first thing in the morning” person. I rolled out of bed and practically right into the chair at my computer (it helped that I was living in a 400 square foot bachelor apartment at the time). Some days, I didn’t even have to roll out of bed. I was able to check my email on my Blackberry while my head was still on the pillow.

Over time I worked to decrease my dependency on morning messages. First, I stopped all email from being sent to my inappropriately named “smart phone” (as it wasn’t making me any smarter at all). Next, I began the habit of walking the dog and then writing for just fifteen minutes before checking my email. Slowly the fifteen minutes blossomed into thirty, expanded into sixty, and has grown into a magic five hours of productive time before I finally check my email in the morning.

If I can do it, you can do it too, I promise.

Struggles will come first. But you must look at the work and the struggles as blessings. Practice (i.e. training) is the only way you can build up your delayed gratification muscle and with it the benefits you’ll get in many areas of your life.

Like running hills or squatting weights, it’s going to be hard at first, but you will come to appreciate your new power of habit. The rewards are well worth it.

Mastery takes time. But mastery is worth the effort.

Take action. Struggle. Fight. Flex. And work.

You can do it. You will do it.

[Ed. Note. Craig Ballantyne is the Editor of EarlytoRise.com and Financial Independence Monthly. He also coaches executives of companies with sales over $1 million. Later this summer, Matt Smith and Craig will be offering a new virtual private mentoring program for Financial Independence Monthly subscribers.]
  • Jungle Gentleman

    I just “discovered” Early to Rise recently. I’m still going through the archived posts written by you, Craig. I’m surprised to see that this wonderful, useful, informative post has no comment yet. So here I am to thank you for sharing a powerful lesson along with some entertaining stories.

    I, too, have the bad habit of checking my emails way too often. I’ll begin working on my willpower right from this moment. Instead of struggling in the fight against temptations, I’ll follow your examples and be playful, imagining I’m competing with my “sister”.

    Great post, Craig. Keep up the good work!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you, greatly appreciated.

      Craig

  • Thank you Craig. I really needed to read that today. One of those “what the hell am I doing” days. This has calmed me. Keep doing what you’re doing. ..

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you John!

  • Elangwe Christina

    What a powerful article. You always have such great insights. I am going to put this into practice. I am so glad I subscribed to Early to Rise

  • c.kalaivani ashok

    I loved the article on delayed gratification, it is a simple yet effective message told interestingly thank you. Wish to add that delay without anxiety is as important to relish the reward to the fullest.

  • Melissa Tinker

    Craig,
    It’s good to know that candy is the “universal” tool Mom’s used on us to keep us quiet in church! Mine used it with all 5 of us preacher kids (who I might add were rowdier than your average kid in church), I used it with my two girls and I feel confident the tradition will continue with my grands. Hey, whatever works and besides, we’ve got to keep the dentists in business, right? Great article! Thanks for filling my inbox with things I LOVE to read!

  • This is a great article. I like the small step approach. 15 minutes of writing each morning can grow to 5 hours. I recently made the mistake of trying too much too soon, and some part of my sub-conscious rebelled. One step at time.

    • ttcert

      Great stuff, well said Trey!

  • Keith

    Craig, greetings from STL. I think most persons could benefit from
    a healthy and regular dose of delayed gratification, but it backfired
    for me. Perhaps more truly, I squandered the benefits it brought,
    and did not leverage well enough the opportunities. So my bad. Now
    I feel like I missed a lot of good experiences, always delaying the
    enjoyment until I had done, or accumulated more. Put myself in
    what I thought would be a better position from which too act. Guess
    I just wasn’t very wise. Generally, a habit of DG is probably good
    counsel. Be well and much success, keith

  • Radha

    Dear Craig
    I greatly appreciate your posts on ETR, though I have not been too regular in reading or writing (half-way through in the ETR contest).
    Your mentioning of “delayed gratification” took me down memory lane when I had devised this silent contest against my elder brother and some of my friends (big bullies). It often had made them wonder if I had got a bigger share. My brother’s conclusion was that i was a slow eater and that’s how I continued eating the goodies long after he finished them. I did not tell him about it then nor have shared it with anyone till now. There were many instances when I have applied this technique especially having small rewards of having the snack after finishing a certain portion of studying and slowly increasing this portion. It feels heartening to know that this has been researched and indeed is an effective way to stay motivated!
    Thanks once again for giving this platform to share. I believe this will also help to bring back the writer in me!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      well done!

      • ttcert

        Happy to help!

  • maggie

    I got a lot out of this… it really speaks to me.

    • ttcert

      Cool, thanks Maggie!

  • I loved this Craig…a while back you suggested doing this, checking email later rather than sooner. I love it because I am getting my most important tasks done first.

    Regarding meditating: I used to be able to meditate for nearly an hour (many years ago). Then, I got out of the habit. I attempted to start it up again about 5 years ago and I find that I have a really difficult time with my mind wandering…much more than years ago.

    I think one reason might be because of all the information that comes to us so quickly and seems to demand immediate responses.

    Thanks for all your wisdom and good reading…

    Patti

    • ttcert

      Thank you Patti, stay strong!

  • SJ

    Craig,

    Love the Stanford Marshmallow experiment. I hadn’t heard that one!

    It is so true that being able to delay gratification is a key to success, and what you did as a child is something that quite a few adults these days have trouble accomplishing.

    Like anything, I am sure it is a skill that can be built up and strengthened with some effort

    Thanks for the great read,

    SJ

    • ttcert

      Thank you! And yes, it can be built up.

  • Guest

    The power of overcoming “pleasure” is one of the greatest strength you can over have.

    Did you know that most temptation (“any form of pleasure”) last no more than 2 minutes? If you can overcome that 2-minute urge, you can overcome a life-time of anything!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Great tip, appreciated. – Craig

    • ttcert

      Interesting, greatly appreciated!

  • jon

    Craig,

    Thank you for dragging me out of this hell hole. For a long time, I was caught in the loop of instant gratification and endless temptations. I was easily distracted and believed in getting something done for the minimal effort, always looking for the easiest way out.

    I used to be a high achiever, getting excellent results in high school. I believed I was lucky. We had no computer, no mobile phones and no distractions at that time. I could only go out to play after I finished my work. So, I studied hard, really hard, and thus the good results.

    Moving on college and then working life now, complacency and instant gratification caught up as quick as technology advances. I am distracted and tempted constantly by everything around me and it is slowly destroying my life. I was looking for the minimal effort to accomplish anything. Being in a sales job, this mentality compounded the issues. I am actually afraid of putting in the effort to accomplish something. There were countless times I tried to get out of this rut- by reading, researching and listening to motivational talks, trying to hack my brain etc. Everything worked for a bit, and then stopped.

    Until I read this article. It took me down memory lane and allowed me to understand how and why everything worked for me last time and is crashing now. The whole key is delayed gratification. I shall take steps to change my life now.

    Thank you for this, keep posting those articles. These are changing lives as we speak.

    • ttcert

      Thank you, happy to help, Jon!