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4 Ways to Overcome Urges for Immediate Gratification

1899823572_ee92d1298e_o“Anything worth having in life is worth working for.”

This quote by Andrew Carnegie often comes to my rescue when my inner four-year-old is on the verge of a tantrum – she wants something, and she wants it right NOW. She shows up in many aspects of my life:

“I want to make more money – now!”
“I want to be toned and fit – now!”
“I want a perfect relationship – now!”
“I want a new car, a vacation in Tuscany, a cookie, a bigger house, a new pair of boots, etc. – all right now!”

Sound familiar?

The inner four-year-old can be attributed to a part of the brain that seeks immediate gratification and pleasure. When we satisfy an indulgence, the pleasure center of our brain releases a chemical called dopamine and we experience a temporary high. Once the dopamine levels off, we look for the high again.

Historically, this pattern commonly would temper with age. Most adolescents would outgrow their impulse to instantly satisfy urges as they developed the capacity to think beyond the present moment. For example, they might have learned how to save their money for a bigger purchase that they wanted or to rely more on natural energy than the quick fix of sugary, highly caffeinated beverages.

Additionally, as adolescents would learn to accept circumstances out of their control, such as waiting for a package to arrive in the mail, their capacity for patience would expand. To cope with the discomfort of waiting, they might have instinctively turned to activities that stimulate the part of the brain that manages contentment: talking with neighbors, cooking a nice meal or weeding a garden.

Long gone are the days of waiting. With Amazon Prime 2-day delivery, texting, Comcast OnDemand, and 24/7 takeout, the expectation today is NOW.

Although our brains are wired for efficiency, it seems that the expectation of NOW is being applied to areas of life that inherently require effort over an extended period of time, such as healthy relationships, getting promoted, saving for a house, or losing weight.

So how can you overcome an urge to buy something you don’t need, watch an extra hour of TV, or give in to a pretzel from Auntie Anne’s at the mall?

Here are a few tips:

1. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck theorizes that having a growth mindset is key to success. Attributes of a growth mindset include embracing setbacks as learning experiences – not failures, holding the perspective that effort is a deliberate practice, and maintaining focus on the “why” driving your goal. If you are trying to save money, it is a lot easier to forego unnecessary conveniences when you feel deeply connected to what you’re saving for. For instance, you might be more willing to give up your daily $3 coffee if you know that the savings will one day add up to a nice vacation or a down payment on a new car. [1]

2. Take Responsibility

It’s hard to identify your next steps if you’re not sure where you’re starting. Examine your current practices and ask yourself if they align with the person you are striving to be. I recommend this to managers who are frustrated with their employees’ lack of performance and might have the urge to lash out or give up. I ask, “What kind of leader do you want to be known for and are you being that man or woman now? What vision do you hold for them and are you engaging with them at that level?”

3. Breathe and Wait

Deep breathing physiologically disables the arousal center of the brain and allows you to access your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that possesses foresight, patience and wisdom. When we consciously choose to indulge – as opposed to indulging mindlessly – subconscious patterns are not reinforced in the same way. For example, I often hear clients say that the sweet treat they used to blindly indulge in doesn’t taste as good when eaten with full awareness. [2]

4. Remember the Power of Choice

So you haven’t made it to the gym in two weeks? You can go through the cycle of beating yourself up and creating excuses in an attempt to feel better, or you can choose something different with whatever time you have left in your day. What is beautiful about choice is that each moment presents a new opportunity to do something different and create life-enhancing patterns.

The secret sauce that ties this all together is writing it down and sharing it with a buddy that supports with accountability.

What will you do differently the next time your inner four-year-old wants something NOW?


Image: Paul Farning


Stacey, Patillo, Manager, Engagement Specialist


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