How the Simple Power of Waiting Can Radically Improve Your Life and Your Wealth

Not “eating the marshmallow” is a big key to your success — here’s how to pull it off.

Many of us head straight to Twitter now to get a 140 character synopsis of major world events. And in today’s business world, everything needed to be done ten minutes ago.

Unsurprisingly, this mentality of “I want it now” also frequently extends into how we frame our goals and seek out fulfillment.

Today’s hyper-speed environment means a lot of us make the dangerous mistake of looking for short-term gains and pleasures at the expense of the long-term goals that truly impact our success.

Yet studies prove that the exact opposite of this — delayed gratification — is one of the most pervasive traits of successful people. In fact, the long-term success of children, including their SAT scores, their health, and other major life outcomes, can all be predicted by their ability to not eat a marshmallow.

Psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies in the 1960s and 70s where a child was offered a choice between a small reward provided immediately (like a marshmallow), or a larger reward provided later. The tester would leave the room for 15 minutes and see if the child could delay their gratification for the larger reward. When follow-up studies were performed, it was found that the children who were able to wait for longer periods of time had better SAT scores, body mass indexes, educational achievements, and other telling life outcomes.

This simple test shows the power that the ability to delay gratification can have on our lives — and for you, it can lead to rewards that are much bigger than a marshmallow.

Benefits of delaying gratification

One example of how delayed gratification can help you reap huge benefits is in the world of investing. It may feel good to sell that stock when it takes an upturn, but it’s important to think about the rewards you could see if you stuck to your long-term goals instead. This is illustrated by the famous story of Ron Wayne, the co-founder of Apple who sold his stock for $800 before it turned into the multi-billion-dollar company it is today.

Another related way that you can delay immediate rewards for bigger returns is in saving. Americans are notoriously bad at saving — in fact, 63 percent of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. But savings are all about making small choices towards your long-term goals every day — whether it’s a $4 coffee every morning, or putting that money towards a bigger reward, like a house, car, or retirement.

Though delaying gratification seems like a new topic, many great thinkers have expressed this same sentiment in one way or another: that success in basically any field requires putting off something easier in favor of working harder. Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule illustrates this concept by arguing that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master something. In Outliers, he describes Bill Gates’ thousands of hours of coding and the Beatles’ nonstop practicing as examples of delayed gratification that reaped huge rewards.

Here are some easy ways to start harnessing the power of waiting to achieve long-term goals in your own life:

Making small commitments to yourself each day.

Yes, it feels nice to daydream and imagine the great things that could happen when we finally achieve what we’ve been longing for — from opening a business, to finally fitting in a dress two sizes smaller.

However, as the iconic author and poet Maya Angelou said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

Dreams don’t come true just because you spaced off during the workday. Successful people don’t only know this, but they use it to push themselves forward. The commit themselves to taking actionable steps towards those dreams daily.

They realize they’ll achieve their dreams eventually, but they don’t get discouraged when it takes a whole lot of elbow grease to get there. You can too — a great way to start is by evaluating your progress every month.

Pausing before you make a decision

A tip you can file in the “so simple its brilliant” cabinet is to pause before making a decision, especially if it’s emotional or if it involves your finances.

Science has proven that even 50 millisecond delay can drastically improve our decision-making abilities. And as the old saying goes, “don’t make a permanent decision out of a temporary emotion.”

When successful people find themselves in situations where they’re extremely angry, sad, or frustrated, they let themselves ride out those emotions without acting on them. They know the few minutes (or even hours) spent waiting for their emotions to cool down is well-worth making a rational decision that plays out well in the long-run.

And while increased spending is a great method for temporarily feeling happy, it’s no way to build true long-lasting wealth or to be prepared for unexpected road bumps. Wealthy and successful people know to pause and evaluate those choices in light of their long-term goals, whether it’s buying a new shoe or investing in the stock market.

Most importantly, learning to love the journey

“It makes no difference how many peaks you reach if there was no pleasure in the climb.” Oprah Winfrey said.

You don’t run a marathon by thinking “only 46,111 footsteps to go!” after the starting gun goes off. Similarly, to be successful in business, you need to adopt Winfrey’s mentality and appreciate the small victories. You need to learn to love the journey, not just the destination.

Because your success won’t happen overnight, but it will happen eventually.

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more at my latest project, Love The Hustle, and in my column for Inc. Magazine.