The lost art of delayed gratification and how to get it back

Delayed gratification is necessary for success—but it's a skill that exists along a continuum. Here's how to get better at it.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
18th Apr 2018 • 6m read

In the late 1960’s, a very interesting experiment was going on in the back rooms of Stanford University.

Researchers were feeding marshmallows to a bunch of 4-year-old children.

Walter Mischel and his research team had a very simple goal. They wanted to find out about the strategies that preschoolers used to resist temptation. If you haven’t heard of the Marshmallow Experiment before, this is how it worked—researchers offered kids marshmallows and gave them two options. Either they could eat the marshmallow right then and there or, if they waited 15 minutes, they would be given an extra marshmallow and allowed to eat both. The premise was simple—small reward now, or big reward if you wait. Naturally, some of the children gave in to temptation immediately, while others were able to delay their gratification and wait for their second marshmallow.

Mischel was interested in two things—how the cohort of kids who delayed their gratification were able to withstand temptation and also, how this ability to resist temptation would impact their lives in the future. On the first count, Mischel’s team found that the kids who waited enlisted the help of distraction techniques to resist the marshmallow. They would cover their eyes, sing a few songs, play, hide under the desk, or imagine that the marshmallow was cotton fluff and inedible. They actively pulled themselves away from the seduction of the marshmallow in anticipation of the greater reward. What Mischel discovered later on was particularly interesting. His team followed up with the delayed-gratification cohort and found that they had a significant advantage over their peers. As teens, they did far better at school, were described as being more mature, had higher self-esteem, and coped better with stress. As adults, they were far less likely to be overweight, to show rejection sensitivity, have drug addiction problems, or get divorced.

As a physician, chances are you were one of those kids. To survive the gruelling years of study and hard work required to get into the medical profession, you’re likely to have a lot of practice resisting temptation for the greater good. So then why does this experiment matter to you and why am I bothering to write an article about it?

Each of the children in the Marshmallow Experiment had a different threshold. It’s true that some ate the marshmallows immediately, but many others at least tried to hang on! There was a lot of delayed gratification going on, but it existed along a continuum and some were much better at it than others. Some held on for three minutes, then caved. Others held on for ten minutes, but struggled to wait any longer. Only a select few managed to cross the finish line and earn those two golden marshmallows. We all fall somewhere along this spectrum too. You, my dear reader, have at least some delayed gratification skills or you wouldn’t be a medical professional reading this blog right now. But the better you can get at working hard for that great reward, the more likely you will be to achieve whatever it is that keeps you motivated throughout the day.

Osler and the purposeful life

William Osler lived an intensely purposeful life. He was driven by an intense curiosity and a desire to work with meaning. Everything he did—both at work and at play—related back to his insatiable desire to be more, help more, and achieve more. And it worked! His achievements span a very, very long list, and his impact on medicine has lived on for over a century. Osler was so committed to his work and impact that he delayed marriage into his forties, which was a pretty big deal in those days. He understood that living purposefully went hand-in-hand with the enabler of achievement—practicing iron discipline. He was no stranger to discipline. As the son of a minister, he was accustomed to living a disciplined life and was introduced to the power of routine at a very young age. As an adult, he segmented his life into day-tight compartments and focused intently on the power of routine to build up enough of these compartments to achieve whatever it was he set his mind to.

Like every other luminary living on in the annals of achievement, Osler delayed the smaller rewards of life for the rewards that would cement his name in history. Though that may not have been his intention, his disciplined approach to life meant that he was able to achieve far more in one lifetime than many of us could ever hope to in several.

The good news is that you can cultivate that discipline in your daily life by using a few techniques to help you sharpen your self-control skills—three techniques to help you delay gratification and build discipline. Let’s take a trip down Imagination Lane for a moment. One of your colleagues just celebrated her 40th birthday and there’s some cake in the work fridge that keeps calling your name. You desperately want a piece, but you’re about to head off to a friend’s wedding and you know that heavenly slice of red velvet cake will make you bloat (You’re sensitive to gluten. Lucky you!).

Here are your options: eat the cake and feel like a puffer fish or don't eat the cake, wait a few hours, and have a piece of gluten-free cake at the wedding (your friend happens to be very considerate!). What can you do to help the second option seem somewhat less painful?

Play mind tricks

Instead of focusing on the positive qualities of the cake (the buttery frosting, delicate crumb, heavenly taste), consider the negative aspects (the feeling of being bloated, skyrocketing glucose levels) and then distract your mind with other things you like. As humans, we have the unique ability to manipulate our cognitive representation of things outside of us to help us meet a goal. Psychiatrist and addiction expert, Judson Brewer, spoke about this ability in a fascinating TED talk about mindful smoking. Smokers were asked to focus on the negative aspects of smoking (the smell, taste, irritation in the throat) instead of the positive aspects. As a result, many of them ended up quitting because they were in control of how they framed the experience. But be careful not to focus too much on what you’re trying to avoid because it can sometimes have the exact opposite effect—caving in and eating that cake!


This one is obvious, yet often forgotten. In the case of the imaginary wedding (where you probably want to look and feel your best), focus intently on your goal when the craving gets too strong. In life, this manifests as connecting with your long-term goals when the drudgery of daily discipline gets you down. Letting our minds wander gives us the headspace to reconnect with what we really want to achieve and alerts us to the prospect of never achieving it if we cave in to the present temptation. Focusing on the greater reward forces us to reconsider whether we really want that piece of cake, Netflix binge, or snooze button right now.

Show gratitude

We’re more likely to make bad decisions when we’re stressed and worn out. Since willpower dies out as the day wears on, we need to actively remove the triggers and temptations that we know will catch us out. But that’s not always enough. When the impulse to do that-thing-you-know-you-shouldn’t creeps up on you, research shows that expressing gratitude can actually help you tune that impulse out. When that temptation comes along, take a moment to pause and be thankful that you have the opportunity to make the right decision, and ride the impulse out as it washes over you. This is a powerful way to remind yourself that, ultimately, you are in control of your own decisions and that is something to be endlessly thankful for.

Ultimately, you are as strong as you allow yourself to be. Being disciplined about your goals and recognizing the pull of temptation when it comes along, is the first step to exchanging transient rewards for more valuable ones.

Do you have some tips for delaying gratification when that impulse takes over? Let us know how you deal with it below.

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