There is a lot in our lives that we can’t control. Traffic, rent prices, and searing summer heat are some of the most topical examples at the moment.
While we can’t control every aspect of our lives, much of what we can control falls into the bucket of “self-betterment,” like healthy eating, exercising, and living a healthier lifestyle in general. And while it’s great that we do have self-control over these parts of our lives, it doesn’t always feel like we have the ability to control them.
We’d all like to have more self-control, but most of us don’t know how to get it. And anyone who’s been on the receiving end of “advice” like “buckle down” and “just do it” knows just how frustrating it is to hear.
Maybe you do have a lot of self-control, but it may not last as long as you’d like. You start incorporating a habit into your lifestyle but before you know it, your self-control is slipping through your fingers like sand.
So what can you do?
You may have heard of the famous “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment,” from the 1960s where young children were given a marshmallow and a choice: Eat the marshmallow now, or wait and get two marshmallows. In later follow-ups, it was discovered that the children who waited ended up performing better in schools, had much higher SAT scores, and had fewer behavioral problems than the children who ate their marshmallow right away.
There is a lot to be learned from delaying gratification. And if you’ve ever done something like eaten a delicious meal and saved part of it for the next day’s lunch, you already practice it! Having a better understanding of how to delay gratification might help you implement more self-control throughout your life, especially when it comes to living a healthier lifestyle.
But delayed gratification can be tricky to implement. In the real world, we aren’t always guaranteed to get the result that we want. Just because we skip the ice cream for dessert doesn’t automatically mean that we’ll weigh a pound less the following Monday. It can be pretty frustrating to delay gratification if the gratification never comes.
When we delay gratification, more than likely, we feel some type of discomfort. Even if the reward that comes later is greater, the one that comes sooner is the one that seems to matter more. It’s only natural to want an escape from that discomfort, to make it go away because it’s unpleasant to feel.
Instead of immediately quelling that discomfort, what would happen if you sat with it? The first answer that probably comes to mind is that it probably wouldn’t feel very good.
Emotional discomfort is as much a part of our lives as feeling at peace. Labeling the discomfort as “bad” might work for a little bit, but it might cause us to behave in ways that aren’t aligned with our goals because that discomfort needs somewhere to go. Instead of shoving away certain feelings or labeling them as “bad,” it can be worthwhile to find peace with them. It’s a tricky concept, but accepting the “bad” feelings helps us build psychological flexibility, which can help us clarify what we truly value.
Learning to sit and be at peace with our discomfort can strengthen our self-control. This is especially true if you tend to eat emotionally.
If you’d like to practice delayed gratification (whether it’s staying on the couch for another minute before getting up to exercise or feeling stressed and not automatically reaching for the snack cupboard), try sitting with the discomfort, even if it’s only for a minute. Breathe through it and understand it for what it is
Be present in the moment and acknowledge what’s really happening in that space in time. Accept what you’re feeling and that it’s okay to not feel okay.
As a word of advice, this exercise isn’t always easy. It can be difficult to accept discomfort and sit with it. So if you do end up trying it and being unable to delay your gratification, don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep going, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.