Is patience overrated? The challenge of dealing with instant gratification

Do you get easily irritated? Patience is the ability to tolerate frustration or adversity, and often seen as a personality trait but is also an emotional state. Patience is without a doubt viewed by most people as an admirable strength and desirable virtue. Living in India over the last 8 years has definitely made me a more patient person but I still get frustrated and wish I had more of it. I hate that feeling of losing control and letting those little things bring about a negative mood and upset me, particularly when those around me are unfazed and poised.

Research also has a favourable view of patient people, and patience, as a form of decision making. In the famous Stanford ‘Marshmallow’ study, Mischel gave children a choice between a small reward (one marshmallow) they could eat immediately, or a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they would have to wait alone, with the small reward, for up to 20 minutes. Years later, researchers followed up and found that children who had waited for the larger reward and didn’t eat the temping marshmallow fared better in life, e.g. higher SAT scores and lower body max index (BMI).

In further studies, Schnitker found having the patience trait is linked to higher levels of goal pursuit and levels of achievement, especially in the face of obstacles. Aghababaei also found patience to be a unique predictor of well-being and higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

When is impatience a good thing?

Impatience can also be a good thing, especially in situations that require higher levels of intensity and urgency, such as leading a turnaround or finding oneself as a victim and the only thing you can do is fight back. Showing impatience can also spark the initial motivation to get things moving. The impatient trait compels leaders to act in order to reduce the gap between their vision and the current reality. Leaders who are not able to mobilize urgency and behaviour change have been found to struggle to capitalize on opportunities as well as adequately deal with problems that demand immediate action.

Given that we live in an increasingly fluid and interconnected environment, and age of instant gratification, where waiting may cost us opportunities as well as put us at risk of complacency, is it time to let go of patience as a virtual and opt for immediate action and short term rewards or is it still a valuable trait?

We need both!

Alongside from the polarity, we need both to succeed. Given the importance of speed in competition in the digital age, on-demand culture and increasingly demanding expectations from consumers who ‘want it all’, to stay successful it will be those who can mobilize instant results, build capability and provide instant gratification yet also those who can avoid impulsiveness, maintain poise and uphold the long term and strategic view. Sounds like a piece of cake doesn’t it. Of course this journey won’t be easy and will require an abundance of discipline to maintain both styles. For the impatient this will mean periodically unplugging and slowing down, scheduling reflection and recreation time to balance short vs. long term rewards. It will also mean creating enough thinking time to weigh up the pros and cons of different options before reacting and succumbing to the power of instant gratification. And for the patient, it will mean forcing yourself to act quicker, making more intuitive based decisions and working harder at creating urgency and in-the-moment impact to generate quick wins and immediate results which are valued. The buzz we get with instant gratification will also feel good and help you balance out both styles effectively. How have you managed this polarity? I’d love to hear from you.

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