Delayed Gratification: The Key to Attaining Your Goals

Contrary to the late night infomercials you are not going to find your six pack in a matter of minutes. Neither are you going to completely transform you body in seven days. Sure you can make a ton of noticeable progress quickly, but after that time period you need to keep at your goals to continue making progress. The people who have the most success realize this, and they are willing to continue making the hard choices and sacrifices day in and day out as they grind it out, pursuing that long term goal. They know the long term payoff will be worth it so they are willing to delay gratification in the short term.

The practice of delayed gratification is not undertaken by many people in today’s society. We live in a fast paced world of instant everything. Information at the tap of a smartphone screen, five minute oil changes, overnight delivery, 24 hour eateries; we’re used to getting what we want when we want it. Businesses have had to adapt to the growing demand and those that haven’t have either faded away or have found ways to counter this growing demand. By offering a superior product that is of such a high quality that consumers are willing to wait for (and pay for), these companies have managed to stay in business. They’ve tapped into the consumer’s willingness to delay gratification.

Of course not every one will pay for the quality option. Most choose the quick option, the cheap knock off, or the deal that’s too good to be true. It’s choosing the McDonald’s burger from the drive through over a grass fed beef patty prepared on your stove or grill. You know you should invest in the high quality ingredients and take the time to cook it yourself, but instead you choose the cheap, quick, near-instant option. You didn’t delay gratification and suffered the nutritional consequences.

This is also a huge reason why most diets fail. Most people will experience noticeable results early on. Eliminating problematic foods can shed a lot of water weight and reduce inflammation to the point where you may look much better in a short amount of time. Sustained fat loss, on the other hand, takes time and sticking to your guns from a dietary and exercise perspective. Even contestants on the Biggest Loser take months to drop their weight. Large people in the real world take even longer, and it’s only wanting that end result bad enough that keeps them on track.

Few people truly want it bad enough. Most people have a relatively good idea of what to do to be healthy, but few actually do it. Giving up certain foods and leaving the relative comfort of the couch is difficult and scary. For those that do, all the temptations, all the daily decisions that could provide some short term gratification are ignored and handled to experience the satisfaction of achieving the long term goal. They’re ignored and handled even when progress toward that goal is glacially slow. That goal, not the distractions and temptations, is the only thing that matters. For the average dieter, however, the first roadblock is an opportunity to give up. Obstacles present themselves as excuses, rather than opportunities to test the resolve and ability to delay gratification.

Unwavering focus on a long term goal like that can be a double edged sword though. For those that put the work in day in and day out, delay their gratification, and ultimately achieve that superbly satisfying goal, it can be difficult to know how to proceed from there. Too often it’s viewed as an end point, and before long, without constant vigilance, the weight is right back on.  Yo-yo dieting at it’s best. You see it in the majority of those Biggest Loser contestants when there is no longer money on the line or fear of stepping on the scale in front of millions of people.

Two things happened: Failure to truly incorporate new habits into their lifestyle (or allowing old ones to take hold like a weed once they loosened the reigns a little bit), and not staying hungry. I’m not talking hunger from dieting, but rather hunger to keep progressing and improving some aspect of health or fitness. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more. In fact, I believe it’s preferable to a state of “maintenance.”

If you had the resolve to accomplish a formidable goal through daily sacrifice that demonstrates you are capable of delaying your gratification. That’s huge! It shows you can do anything you put your mind to. So now, rather than resting on your laurels, what’s the next feat of awesomeness for you? Don’t settle. Stay hungry and get after the next big thing.

This is why I love training goals. You can always keep shooting for more weight, improve your work capacity (conditioning), or learn and/or improve a lift or skill. Weight and body fat percentage can only be lowered so far before it becomes detrimental to your health. Besides you may be surprised how training for strength, skill, or athleticism can deliver those desired physique goals without you obsessing over it.

These sorts of training goals are met much in the same way as dietary goals: by delaying gratification. You sure as hell don’t get strong or fast overnight. It takes hard work, day after day, week after week, month after month. Sure there can be a period of “newbie gains” when you first start out where you progress quite quickly, but if you want to progress to the level of an elite crossfitter or professional bodybuilder it is going to take years, not months.

To often we start a program expecting results right away and get frustrated when that doesn’t happen. While part of the problem is dishonest marketing, our expectations are often more to blame. Slow or no gains? Well surely it must be the program’s fault. Never mind that we didn’t actually put in the time necessary for it truly work.  This leads to program hopping. Chasing that instant gratification for the next best shiny thing full of promise.

We love to start new things partly for the thrill of it. It’s new, exciting, and full of promise. We say, “THIS is the diet that will finally work for me!” When that rush wears off we look for that next thrill. Finishing something provides a similar thrill, but usually that is so far off that we’re not willing to delay our gratification that long to experience it. It’s just easier to start something else and get that cheap, instant thrill again.

People who are successful with health and fitness goals don’t see it this way. They see the cheap thrills for what they are and keep an eye on the true prize.  Achievement is what thrills them. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach that end goal. So they work day after day. They sacrifice.

Let’s say you want to build a house. Sure you can stab a few two by fours into the ground and string a tarp over top of them and you can have “shelter” relatively quickly. We know that will not stand the test of time and the elements so we delay the gratification of having shelter for weeks and months until we can build something solid. Dig a hole, pour a foundation, construct walls and a roof that keep the elements out. A quality structure like this takes a lot of hard work and effort. It doesn’t pop up overnight. It’s built with painstaking detail along every step of the process, and every step is done in order to ensure the integrity of the structure.

Now imagine if we took the same painstaking care with our health and fitness goals. Every workout, every meal, every decision carefully considered and executed according to plan. Even when we don’t want to execute. We stick to the blueprint even when another, better looking one comes along. We scrutinize the details every day to ensure we are moving things along toward the respectable end goal.

Don’t build a shack with rotting wood and dirt floors. Take the time and build something worthy of your attention and effort. Delay that gratification until you’ve built a house that you are truly proud of.

Kettlebell Thruster and Burpee "Fun"isher
Kettlebell and Pullup "Fun"isher

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