What do doughnuts, sex, and cocaine have in common? They’re pretty danged pleasurable, that’s what.
How about the post-workout high, acing the exams you’ve been studying hard for, and finishing the first draft of your novel? Awesome too, right?
Most of us would lump all of the above under happiness, and rightfully so, but there is a certain distinction between the two (which we’ll be exploring shortly).
We’ve all heard this before: delayed gratification is better than instant gratification. But why? Why is snorting coke off a stripper’s bum not as good as eating salad and working out?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the question of pleasure versus gratification.
Pleasure? Gratification? Aren’t they the same?
Look, I’m not going to bore you with another mention of the Marshmallow Test (because God knows I’ve seen enough of this study during my research for this post), but what I’ll do is try to explain pleasures versus gratification from my point of view.
Getting a job after a long run of unemployment. Sleeping on new bedsheets. Scratching that indentation from wearing your socks all day. Spring cleaning the house. Going on a drinking bender. Finishing a tub of ice cream. Handing in a well-researched assignment before it’s due. Playing video games from sunrise to sunset.
Chances are, you’ve experienced most of the above, and by reading the list alone you’ve gotten a good gauge of what’s what.
And in case you missed the memo, gratifications are things you can enjoy without guilt. Yes, you can still feel guilty from a healthy diet if it meant not feeding your child in the process, but let’s not dive into semantics just yet.
For now, let’s just assume that happiness comes in two forms: full-guilt and guilt-free.
Your first task is to identify which of your daily habits currently fill you with guilt. Is it the hours you spend on YouTube when you should be writing? Or is it the two packs of chips you eat per day?
Now onto your gratifications.
What do you enjoy without guilt? Is it the satisfaction of a clean house? Or clearing off your debts?
Once you have a rough idea on the types of happiness that are sustainable—or not—to you, then we’re ready to move on to the next part.
Align yourself for success
By now, you might already have an idea on how you want your days to look. For starters, you might be thinking of pursuing more gratifying goals instead of mere pleasure.
That’s exactly where our challenge lies though—we’re programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So it’s not as simple as lessening one and increasing the other.
I falter all the time too. I still struggle with my workouts to this day, and nothing conjures more dread for me than having to warm up before I start my exercise. Sometimes I even postpone my workouts from mornings to lunchtime.
But now I have a new weapon to aid my fight against pleasure seeking, and that’s guilt amplification.
Every night, I take into account the things I regret, and I trace the feelings back to the actions—or lack thereof—that caused them. Then I use them as a guiding light. So my plans for the next day involve being on the opposite end of those actions. Most days, that means exercise.
For you, your pain might come from that six-pack you drank, or waking up after lunchtime. That means you’ll want to clear the beers from your fridge before tomorrow arrives.
Or, you might want to walk straight to the kitchen and drink a glass of water in the morning to lessen the temptation of the snooze button.
Either way, you’ll want to own your day instead of letting it own you.
More tips to supercharge your future
So what other concrete steps can you take to make the most out of delayed gratification? Well, I’ve already done the legwork for you, so here are some handpicked strategies that I’ve found to be effective. Give them a try and see if they do the same for you!
First, a quick disclaimer. It’s important to know that no matter how wired for pleasure you think you are, it’s very possible to build your willpower. To use a hackneyed term, it’s just like building a muscle.
I myself had spent the first thirty years of my life doing nothing but chasing pleasures. Now? I’m still chasing pleasures, but not as pointlessly as I used to. Yeah, probably not the pep talk you expected, but if I can cut down on some of my fruitless pursuits, then so can you.
So without further ado, here are some of the techniques you can start applying today.
1. Plan ahead
Say it with me guys: He who fails to plan, plans to… go through life without a specific direction, resulting in useless pursuits throughout the day. Yup, a famous saying, that one.
Have you ever looked forward to a free weekend? Finally, you can do all the things you’ve wanted to. You’re going to polish your car, write that novel, tend to your plants…
The next thing you know it’s Sunday evening and you still hadn’t gotten anything done. Now you’ve gotta wait an entire week before you try again.
What’s going on here? Didn’t you have a direction? Wasn’t it straightforward enough? That’s the problem when you don’t plan ahead and make concrete goals.
When you don’t draw a plan for yourself, you spend extra energy deciding on what to do. Then there are the variables. Is it going to rain? Do you need to outline your novel first? Should you do the gardening before or after exercise?
All these little thoughts can nibble away at your motivation, turning the normal into impossible. If you want to execute your day well, you’re going to have to plan the night before.
Write down the things you want to accomplish. Break them down into smaller, concrete tasks. And I mean small. Make them foolproof. So easy that a five-year old can do it. Seriously.
Then list down the possible challenges you may face and come up with a contingency plan. You don’t need to waste too much time on this.
I myself tend to skip writing in the evenings because that’s when I like to browse YouTube. So my contingency plan is to write with pen and paper.
Sounds nerdy, I know, but it really takes the thinking out of your next day. And when you don’t have to think, you get that much more mental bandwidth to actually do what you need to.
2. Stack pleasure and gratification
I love googling for inane crap. That’s my pleasure. Tasks like food prep and writing go out the window once my scumbag brain comes up with questions like ‘Is it better to journal in A5 or A6 notebooks?’
Just ten minutes ago, I mulled the pros and cons of writing with a pencil and pen. That led me down a rabbit hole of famous authors and their favourite pencils. Now you see the need for a contingency plan?
However, just because they’re pleasures doesn’t mean they can’t be reframed to serve you.
So in my case, I redirected my pointless googling towards keywords such as ‘pleasure versus gratification’. So when I fell down the Marshmallow Test rabbit hole, at least I came out on the other end with useful information for this post.
This technique is inspired by James Clear’s ‘temptation bundling’ method. In his book Atomic Habits, Clear describes this method as pairing a task you dislike with the one you enjoy. Do that long enough and you could actually begin to look forward to your ‘gratification’ tasks.
Want another personal example?
I pair weeding with audiobooks. I hate dirt and earthworms, but since I get to catch up on an interesting book of my choice, I now find reaching for the weeding tool just a tad less painful.
3. Get bored
This is a tough one, because it involves you putting down the very thing that supplies you with constant hits of pleasure all day: your phone.
But you’ll want to err on the side of boredom from now on if you truly want to walk down the path of gratification.
Why bore yourself to day?
Because being bored enhances the appeal of ‘gratification’ tasks. Like, how bad does doing the dishes sound when the alternative is to do nothing? In fact, it could even sound appealing.
Neil Gaiman uses this exact technique to coax himself into writing. His options during his writing hours are to do nothing, or to write. He can stare out the window, but he’s not allowed to sketch the tree. He can’t listen to music, nor can he look at his phone either. It’s either write or nothing. I guess his amazing body of work is a testament to this method.
The second benefit of being bored is that it allows you to turn inwards instead of relying on outside stimulus. It’s hard to chase gratification when you’re getting your dose of pleasure from articles like this (but please don’t leave just yet).
And trust me, I know exactly how you feel. I’m currently fighting the urge to google ‘what is a healthy resting heart rate’, but we gotta do what we gotta do, eh?
So put your phone or laptop away. Unplug from the collective consciousness and just be you for a while. Maybe then you’ll discover your true line between pleasure and gratification.
The case for pleasure
Having said all that, I’d just like to add that pleasures aren’t all bad. In fact, indulging in a pick-me-up could set you on the path of gratification, so it’s not to say that the occasional doughnut or beer is the devil.
But if you’re ever in doubt, guilt-free happiness is where you want to be. Because at the end of the day, having your shit together will always be the greatest source of pleasure. And you don’t need to read the Marshmallow Test to figure that out.