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How to Overcome Instant Gratification

Leadership & Inspiration

Mason Carter wrote this article


There is no better time to people watch than while riding public transportation.

From a marketer’s perspective, it’s a fascinating scene, because you can see all of the little ways people entertain themselves when they have nothing else to do but sit and wait.

When people are alone with only their thoughts as company, their proclivities toward instant gratification usually come into full force.

You know the drill.

At this point, it’s probably second nature to you in your own life to whip out your phone to fill every awkward silence between conversation; to get some entertainment in every moment of non-action.

Public transportation is arguably the best embodiment of awkward silence and non-action rolled into one packaged experience.  Virtual strangers have been shoved together for a inordinate duration of time ,with nothing better to do but stare off into space, glue themselves to a cell phone, tap away at a tablet or flip through the pages of a book.

It is in these moments when our penchant for instant gratification rears its impatient head.

I know nothing about what people are looking at on their phones, but I do look for some visual cues. I can infer they are probably on social media if they’re mindlessly scrolling or that they’re probably texting if they’re typing furiously.

But it suddenly feels like cellphone usage has gone beyond just filling the little moments in between.

Recently, I peeked over at my friend while he was using his smartphone at a concert, thinking maybe he was capturing some footage to relive the event later on.

It turned out he wasn’t even living the event in the moment.

Instead, I watched as he aimlessly scrolled through his emails and various social media profiles as our favorite band strummed the night away.  Later, when I mentioned peeking over his shoulder and noticing he was on his phone a lot, he had no idea what I was talking about.

And that’s just it. It’s become a mindless, automatic behavior to check your smartphone constantly.

Believe me; I am no saint when it comes to my smartphone. But I’ve actively tried to become detached from it and treat it more as a tool than a fact of life.

And so should you.

Smartphones have exploited humans’ need for instant gratification – but it’s not the cause

It would be foolish to say that smartphones caused an entire generation of people to become instant gratification zombies.

Instant gratification is the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment – so this could relate to anything that gives you pleasure (tea, much?) It all depends on what you associate with gratification.

The smartphone simply plays into these more primal impulses of ours.

I’ve found, for example, when I don’t post on social media for a while, I feel no need to look at my phone in my real life. BUT, when I’ve posted something that I really want people to like, that need for gratification comes creeping in. Suddenly, I’m giving in to my most primal impulses. I’m looking at my phone as often as I’m able to get that notification juice.

The smartphone allows you to learn anything you want, any time you want. Think about when you’re talking to your friends, and you’re wondering something out loud.

“Let’s look it up,” a friend suggests.

Before the smartphone, you all would have had to wait for this bit of information until the next time you could get your dial-up internet cooking (and god forbid, anyone try to use the house phone at the same time). I remember a time before that even where I had to glue myself to the radio dial in the unhappy circumstance they played a song I liked and I neglected to catch the name or artist.

You couldn’t just whip our your phone and ask Google or Siri what the song is. Scary times, indeed, but the silver lining was we all had a finely-honed sense of patience.

Now, you can get this information whenever, wherever you want as long as you have WiFi or an app handy. And that’s a big deal, because it’s completely rewired the way we think and our expectations as a society.

According to most psychological models, humans are believed to act upon the ‘pleasure principle’

At its core, I think we tune into instant gratification to resolve underlying tension or anxiety.

Whether this tension is felt or unconscious, the pleasure principle does not discriminate.

It is basically the driving force that compels human beings to gratify their needs, wants, and urges across the entire spectrum of life. Without it, we might be brought to our knees by the weight of our own consciousness.

But the dopamine shots we get from anything pleasurable can also trick us into thinking we’re moving ahead with things when we’re really not. This can lead you into thinking you’re satisfying your long-term wants instead of what’s actually short-term pleasure.

The demand for instant results is seeping into every corner of our lives, not just through smartphones.

Retailers are jumping into same-day delivery services. Smartphone apps eliminate the wait for a cab, a date, or a table at a hot restaurant. Movies and TV shows begin streaming in only seconds, and suddenly releasing the whole season of a show at once is the expected norm.

It feels good, but it also erodes our sense of patience.

Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users in a study. Specifically, he wanted to know how long subjects were willing to be patient?

The answer?

Two seconds!

This is something that all content creators and marketers need to know.

How to embrace instant gratification but still keep our patience

I’ve talked to several teachers in my home city of Philadelphia who say their biggest challenge these days is students who constantly text because they can’t wait to send a response.

I see this with a lot of people – texts feel urgent enough to reply to right away.

I know I used to be that way, sometimes stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to shoot back a text.

Teachers anticipate for students to have grown up with the need for instant gratification always being met with all the amazing technology that surrounds us. So, what are some things you need be aware of when you are trying to embrace a sense of delayed gratification in a world of instant gratification?

It all stems from self-awareness. This means, when you commit to delaying gratification, stop and think about the moments as they are happening in real-time.

1. I mentioned “dopamine hits” before – dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain. This is a naturally-produced chemical giving you feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. Think about when you get a notification on social media. Think about when you’re validated for something. The pleasure system of the brain really gets into a tizzy when it’s caught in a social validation feedback loop.  Once your brain has identified all of the ways it can feel a dopamine rush, it seeks out ways to satisfy that behavior. But it’s not real pleasure, because what’s happening is that you are now seeking these behaviors that made you feel good for a brief second. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out and search. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. In fact, humans adapted to this mindset out of evolutionary need. Your dopamine seeking system keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn, and survive. The question is, what are you seeking?

2. I took a psychopharmacology class in college that taught me the distinction of “liking versus wanting”. It goes back to pleasure vs. seeking in #1. Are the behaviors you are doing really making you happy or do you spend your life wanting things? Think about that. Liking versus wanting is the merging of two systems in your brain: the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid). If you like something that has satisfied your wanting, the seeking should be able to turn off for awhile. But the problem becomes when the liking and wanting just becomes an endless loop. Dopamine is strong. I found that I wanted to be on my phone more than I liked it. When I started to think about it in that way, that’s what began my distinction of treating it as a tool rather than a way of life.

3. Start keeping track of your dopamine loops. As a marketer, I need to live in social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. Spending more time than ever on social media, even if it’s for work, has skewed my dopamine loops. What I’ve done to calm these urges down is to ask myself this question every time I act on my phone – is this truly urgent or can it wait? The practice of waiting to do something sounds obvious, but it is something that can rewire your brain back to patience if you keep doing it. I now keep myself accountable, even if it’s just to tell myself while I’m responding to a message right away by thinking out loud, “I don’t really need to do this.”

Instant gratification is fleeting – there’s no long-term satisfaction whatsoever

The point is, instant gratification is not designed to leave us satisfied for the long-term.

It is intended to keep us coming back for more, just like with any addiction. That brief satisfaction quickly fades, and in its wake is a need for further connection.

Keep this in mind the next time you are experiencing the compulsive need to scroll through your phone.

Identify your other compulsive time-wasters and keep track so you can try to avoid them in the future.

One thing to do is just slow down a little bit – we can still slow down, enjoy a more patient way of life, and still utilize our smartphones for the incredible tools that they are. We are an app developers, after all – this is what we do.

Think of these triggers like Pavlovian cues – the dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. These cues are often visual and auditory, especially visual. And anything that is visual is more persuasive to your brain.

Phones themselves do trigger these cues – so in my spare time, I make sure that I turn off all notifications except for the essentials like texts.

I don’t even keep email notifications on. There are many tasks I’ve realized I can reserve for doing at my computer instead, especially being that I’m usually working on a computer 8+ hours each day.

The point is, many things in our lives are much less urgent than we think; especially the notifications flashing on your smartphone screen.


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