I’m 33 years old, and it seems that I’ve just recently learned that I need to work hard today to get results in the future.
I was never good at studying. Both at school and in college, I wasn’t as interested in learning: I was more interested in instant gratification. In activities that were fun and cool now. Back then, I would have definitely failed the marshmallow test. If someone had offered me a marshmallow, then offered to give me a second if I wouldn’t eat the first for fifteen minutes, I’d eat the first marshmallow without hesitation.
Instant gratification is the main reason for procrastination, and I was the champion of procrastination. Every time I used to have a big, overwhelming task, I delayed it day after day until I got so stressed out that I’d finally do it. (This feeling is probably familiar to any procrastinator.) The worst thing was that I wasn’t doing anything useful while procrastinating — just uselessly spending time on Facebook.
But then something happened. I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. He was looking for a job, he told me, and he got an offer from a company that had an office on the same block where he lived. It was such a great opportunity! Imagine my reaction when I texted him a couple of weeks after that, and he told me he never went to the interview. The task of preparing, dressing up, and going to the interview was too overwhelming for him. He said it was too big of a job for him because he’s used to freelancing. I hope he found a job eventually, but I’m thankful to him for this lesson: do the work now to reap rewards later. Wait for that second marshmallow.
Tame Your Instant Gratification Animal
Tasks that seem overwhelming to us aren’t that hard for other people. In fact, if we would do them in small, bite-sized pieces and make little but consistent progress every day, they won’t feel overwhelming at all.
It’s almost like there’s an animal inside of us that’s scared to do things that are unfamiliar and dangerous. But this animal can be tricked by doing small tasks that aren’t scary. Have you ever videos of dogs being rescued? Typically, the dog is at first very scared of the rescuer. So instead of even approaching the dog, the rescuer first give her some food. Then, he slowly approaches the dog and puts a soft leash on her. After some time, you see the dog wagging her tail and following the rescuer who tamed her.
It’s possible to tame your instant gratification animal in the same way — just show it that there’s no danger and that there will be a second marshmallow.
So if you have a big task, say, you need to prepare a presentation, and you really don’t feel like doing it, allow yourself to just outline the slides, and then do whatever you want for five or 10 minutes. If outlining is still too much work, just define how many slides you want to be there and write down the first one. Then allow your inner animal to relax, so that it feels like there’s nothing to run away from. Then come back after 5–10 minutes and do the next step.
This technique is very similar to the Pomodoro time management technique, except that Pomodoro is typically done in 25-minute intervals, which can still be overwhelming. Pomodoro is great when you’re already in a flow. But when you’re trying to start task, it’s important to get going, and knowing that you will have to do something for almost half an hour can be too much.
Instant gratification is the number one reason I sabotaged my success for years because it was so easy to let fear overwhelm me. Taming the inner instant gratification animal was my secret to success. You can begin learning or doing or making whatever you want to, right now, even if you can spend only 10 minutes a day at it. But it can be a challenge to keep at that every day, to continue to show up and invest your time and money, when you don’t instantly see results. I think that’s the number one reason why there’s so much free marketing and business advice out there. Because marketing is hard. You have to produce content. You have to distribute the content. You have to show up and work on your business every day. And you may see no visible result for years. Only the few who will be able to find their way around their inner animal will see results. But if you know that the result is out there, if you know that there’s nothing to lose and you can have all the fun you want after you do the work, you can trick your inner animal and be successful.
Here’s a bonus: check out this fun TED Talk by Tim Urban about the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster.