It’s time to dive into something so foundational to success that it can hardly be overemphasized.
It is the hallmark of what makes the great great.
It is what holds people back from achieving more.
It is what makes the difficult more difficult.
Wanting me to say it already? If that urge is very strong, then you may need to read this article more than you think…
Struggling well is one of my favorite topics to improve on and discuss. Developing this ability in myself has been the most rewarding investment I’ve ever made. I truly believe that the discipline and personal power that comes out of struggling well gives an individual the ability to achieve anything.
With such an ability, the value you have to offer the world becomes exponential. You can help others in ways that most can’t and you get to experience the world in ways that most don’t. Even your perspective of reality is valuable.
It is in this light that I will explore deeper on a single idea that I’ve brought up in my post on Challenge. This idea is about delaying gratification.
Big Idea: Remaining in control of your thoughts and actions, even amidst temptation.
Basically: Putting off a reward in favor of some future, internal or external, reward.
Delaying gratification is about putting off some immediate reward for the sake of some, perceived, future reward. We like to have immediate feedback and reward. But this leads to impatience. If left unchecked, it grows into a viscous cycle, since immediate feedback contributes to habit formation. This is compounded even more when you add in the reward that was anticipated.
Delaying gratification can be tough to develop. It starts with awareness and then total absorption. As mentioned in my Challenge and Deliberate Action posts, it is best to fully commit. This is because delaying gratification is closely tied to an individual’s character. Personality changes requires a full and utter commitment. Any sort of full embodiment such that the entire environment seems to be fundamentally different to the brain. This can be seen during traumatic events that people experience.
Delaying gratification is one of the most accurate factors in determining someone’s success. It is also found in just about every successful individual. To be able to put off immediate satisfaction is a hallmark of consciousness and suggests that the individual is at a higher level of awareness.
Some might wonder why “all the pleasurable things hurt us”. For starters, I would say what is pleasurable is entirely relative and even things that may seem unpleasurable (exercise) can be made to seem pleasurable. That is simply the power of consciousness and why we must learn how to live, precisely because we are conscious. Because we have the ability to manipulate our perception of reality.
Sensation is on a spectrum, so what is perceived as pleasurable simply comes down to what you are used to. Being constantly exposed to pleasure will make most everything else seem dull and boring. The constant stimulus of pleasure from TV, food, sex, and video games makes just sitting for a minute without anything to do seem incredibly uncomfortable. This is a huge roadblock in building a meditative practice. Constant stimulus trains impatience and such constant stimulus is easier than ever to get.
All pleasurable things don’t necessarily hurt us, it is just that most people perceive what is pleasurable as what is immediately rewarding. Unfortunately their attention span and memory makes them unable to link the future dysfunction and discomfort (e.g. disease, impatience, the relative comparison of sitting alone with your thoughts for a minute) to the past actions that led them there. They are unable to see the second and third order consequences to their actions.
At a more fundamental level, I’d like to apply an interpretation to this thought that “all pleasurable things hurt us”. I call this idea the “Great Filter”. Perhaps consciousness is what the universe is after. Nature wants to be aware and experience itself. But to be conscious requires, at some fundamental level, the concept of time. There needs to be the ability to consider the future. Perhaps there is some profound benefit to survival in being able to consider future consequences of actions.
In this way, nature could have put an automatic “fail safe” mechanism in place. Delaying gratification can be seen as splitting the species into two groups. Those who can delay gratification and those who can’t. Those who cave in to immediate satisfaction are probably less conscious and are unlikely to sacrifice for the good of the community or species. In this way, they are a hindrance to the progression of the species and the evolution of consciousness.
In the eyes of nature, those who can’t delay gratification don’t serve the species and should be killed off. Those who can delay gratification are likely to support the evolution of the species as a whole, more likely to take care of nature itself, and more likely to be at a higher state of conscious awareness. Therefore, those who can delay gratification should be those who get to reproduce and continue on in the gene pool.
It is as if nature has something big planned at the end of tunnel that is called reality. At this conclusion of evolution and existence, nature needs only the strongest and fittest beings. For whatever awaits, nature only wants those who can handle hardship and struggle well. The whole process of evolution agrees with this. Those that are unfit to function well in their environment are killed off and less likely to have their genes continue on into future generations.
Those who are able to delay gratification are usually those who are more consciously aware. They tend to have a better grasp of future consequences. They are the children who can put off that marshmallow for the promise of a better future (i.e. 2 marshmallows).
The point here is that delaying gratification is a vital skill to develop and that it may even be a useful metric in determining how conscious an individual is. A shorter attention span and a weaker ability to delay gratification might be strongly linked to weaker intelligence. By caving into comfort and satisfaction you are making yourself more and more unconscious, making it more and more difficult (and frustrating) to achieve what you want and to get your life in order.
Practically, developing your ability to delay gratification starts with becoming aware of the times in your day that you look for immediate satisfaction. Build awareness around that immediate and unconscious behavior of reaching for another sweet treat.
Once you have a decent level of awareness you can move on to the next step. Now you begin putting a few moments between you and each and every pleasure that you encounter throughout the day. When you notice yourself reaching for that sweet treat and the thought of delaying gratification pops up, hold your hand there for a moment or pull it back. After a few moments then you can have the treat.
The point here is to simply… delay gratification. How do you improve at your shot in basketball? You take more shots in basketball (deliberately). How do you increase how much weight you can bench press? You add more weight (over time) to the bench. It is a gradual process. This is in line with the Principle of Compound Impact, where everything in nature is incremental. To improve your ability to delay gratification you simply begin delaying gratification, more and more.
The issue that people run in to is usually impatience. This is especially tough for delaying gratification because impatience is rewarded with an immediate satisfaction. This requires the training that a reward is even more enjoyable when it is earned. This is where the necessary character changes for delaying gratification comes in.
Firstly, you must hold yourself to a higher standard. You must believe that you are capable of putting of a reward. And you must believe that doing so will pay dividends later. The main objective here is to associate a reward in the form of pride and self-accomplishment to delaying gratification.
During the interval of delaying gratification, it helps to avoid thought all together. Don’t think about the process or technique. Certainly don’t think about how great consuming the pleasure would be, that will just make it far harder. But don’t necessarily distract yourself either. The objective is to empty your mind of thought and explore the sensations.
Exploration is incredibly powerful because it bypasses the primary influencers of thought: labeling things as good or bad. Exploration is simply experiencing whatever sensations are there without any judgement or expectation. There is no anticipation, just acceptance. This removes psychological resistance and streamlines you into the present moment. It is a feeling of a “blank stare”, a recognition of your inner body, the subtle feelings within. It is a a strong sense of curiosity and wonder.
Exploration and curiosity have had such a profound impact on my ability to struggle well and thrive under stress. I’ve gone in a LOT of depth on these topics in my Effective Living series.
For example, consider there being an itch bubbling up that you feel a strong urge to scratch. Delaying gratification would request that you put off scratching it for longer and longer durations. During this time you would simply experience the sensations. Notice how they take a wave-like form. There is a peak, and then it subsides. No judgement, no positive or negative labeling, just experiencing with a sense of curiosity. This can make a great meditative practice, where the essential idea is “stay”, no response to the sensation, just experience.
This realization of sensations taking a wave-like form is incredibly powerful. Once you experience this a few times you begin to realize that discomfort is temporary, even when continuously exposed to the same stimulus. The sensations subside over time. The discomfort felt from running long distances peaks at a point and then begins to diminish. This is powerful.
It is incredibly important to emphasis the importance of not quitting during the climax of a struggle. Make it a habit to always push further than the strongest desire to quit. Ride that wave out. If you do quit, wait until a little after it begins to subside. I go deeper on this important point in my post on Challenge.
How Many Mountains Have You Fully Climbed?
Here’s an analogy to illustrate this. It is like someone climbing a mountain for days in foggy weather. They feel like quitting because they can’t see when it will end and it seems to go on forever. There are two scenarios to explore.
They may quit, and then climb another mountain at another point, under the same foggy conditions. They quit then too. After awhile they stop climbing mountains. They never found the reward to delaying the gratification of reaching the peak and only experienced the struggles.
But, in the other scenario the individual stuck with it just a little longer. Their legs burnt and it was a struggle the entire way, but they soon reached the peak. They believed in their ability and held themself to a higher standard. Standing above the clouds they have gained clarity and are overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment. The rest of their journey is downhill, making each step seem much easier in comparison to the ascent.
They arrive at another mountain and begin climbing it again. They have the same doubts and frustrations as they climb this one, but after sticking with it they finally reach the top once more. Mountain after mountain, they climb up and then down. They learn that there is a peak at each mountain, and furthermore, they are capable of reaching it. After this peak things begin to subside, it isn’t as hard during the descent and even enjoyable after having pushed through the worst part.
The mountain illustrates the wave-like form that all sensations and emotions take. Most people quit before the descent, they have only experienced the struggles leading up to the peak and have quit. From their perspective, there doesn’t seem to be anything good that can come from all that work.
But, if you just stick it out for a few times you begin to realize that the sensations subside and the experience even becomes enjoyable. Of course, this won’t last. During a run, for example, there will be many waves that you’ll experience, each of varying lengths and durations.
The beautiful thing is, you can influence how long these struggle periods last by the power of your interpretations and expectations. Athletes tend to see a given distance as being shorter than unfit individuals. This means that something a mile away is perceived as being a shorter distance to gritty individual than to someone who is caves into temptations a lot. The same distance, but if asked to guess how far the distance is, individuals who are good at delaying gratification perceive the distance as shorter.
A Brief into My Experience
This is an experience that I can relate to. I’ve found that I have built optimistic tendencies when starting new challenges. It has become easy for me to pay stronger attention to the future reward than the struggles that lead there. Or at least stronger attention to the benefits of experiencing the struggle.
I have even began seeing the journey as being full of rewards as well. For example, character building traits and the possibility of experiencing a new novel feeling. It also gives me opportunities to train my ability to remain present and still during moments of struggle.
The journey is often more desirable than the destination, for this exact reason. I so deeply want to improve my ability to struggle well and persevere through hardship. I see this as a vital skill that can always be developed more and gives me the super power to be able to focus intently and do hard things for long periods of time.
With this ability I strongly feel that there isn’t a thing that I can’t accomplish, every dream is achievable. My ability to be of value and help others would be limitless. It is because of this that I find the journey far more rewarding. It is an opportunity to progress me further along in developing this superpower.
This is a trait that has been developed through perseverance and delaying gratification. All of what I’ve talked about in the post on Challenge has been things I’ve utilized and found useful in developing this. For example, lifting weights for up to 2-3 times the reps past where most would consider “failure”, even if it is with bad form. The only purpose of these “punish reps” is to prove to myself that there is ALWAYS MORE.
I’ve applied similar tactics to running, cold showers, long-term fasting, and any sort of discomfort that may come up throughout my day. This is the sort of full commitment, embodiment, and absorption that I am referring to. This is what changes personality the quickest and most profoundly. It isn’t easy, but it is incredibly worth it. After getting over your first few peaks, you’ll begin to gain more and more clarity. The struggle will seem more and more worth wild.
A Useful Metric Worth Emphasizing
Here’s a metric that can be useful in determining how well you are progressing with developing your ability to delay gratification. It utilizes the analogy of mountains as waves of sensation. Simply ask “How many mountains have you fully climbed?” Fully climbed means gone up the ascent of the sensations and past the climax through the descent.
Never quit at a peak of struggle. This relates closely to the idea of transition periods. If your objective is discipline and building grit, then you don’t want to place a transition period at the peak of struggle. This simply means to not stop the action until you are in the descent of the sensation.
The metric basically states that you develop your ability to delay gratification by acquiring more times that you’ve delayed gratification. You will progress much faster when you engage in the experience and explore the sensations as opposed to distracting yourself with thought.
The more you engage and approach the sensations with curiosity, the more you’ll acquire insights such as how sensation takes a wave-like form. It also trains an approach to discomfort that can be applied in any situation, avoiding the resistance that comes with labeling and thought and simply experiencing what is.
Big Idea: Struggle is perceived differently by those who have trained their ability for grit.
Basically: Delaying gratification is a fundamental indicator of success.
To build your ability to delay gratification you must start by building awareness around times throughout your day where you unconsciously engage in some pleasure. Then expand out these moments such that the satisfaction is delayed a bit.
It is best to avoid thinking altogether. This includes thinking about the technique or the process. The emphasis is on experiencing the sensation without labeling.
The more frequently and consistently that you practice delaying gratification, the quicker and more profound the personality adjustments will be. This is a hallmark of a disciplined individual and can be developed in anyone, at any age.
Your Call to Action
Thank you for reading!
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I want to hear from you. What has your experience been like with delaying gratification? What have you discovered during your own exploration about the sensations of struggle? This is a really big idea and I would love to hear feedback and further input. Share in the comments section below!
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Don’t put off contemplating what the insights from this article mean, find a quiet location and think deeply about what it might mean for you. Just 10 deliberate minutes can make a large difference, set a timer, do it regularly and you will notice the changes within a few weeks. You improve your ability to think and therefore make effective decisions by spending more time deliberately thinking about the relevant subject. Consider applying journaling and meditation to see more profound changes, these are just more deliberate and concentrated forms of quiet and focused thinking. Slow down, find stillness.
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