Suppose you are told you can have either two marshmallows nowor four later. Which do you choose? (Or replace “marshmallows” with a more attractive reward, like “a million dollars”!). No matter what the reward, the choice is between a smaller-sooner reward and a larger-later one.
So, how to decide? More generally, how do you decide whether to obtain what you desire presently or make sacrifices for something better in the future like saving for retirement, or for a nice vacation, car, or home? The answer depends on both your ability and desireto exercise self-control.
Increasing the ability to wait
- Distract yourself. If you are sitting by the phone waiting for a call, for example, turn on the TV, listen to music, or find other ways of entertaining and distracting yourself.
- Do not make big decisions in a need state (e.g., feeling thirsty, exhausted, in pain). For instance, do not shop for food when hungry or respond to a critical email when tired.
- Pre-commit to being patient. In other words, long before you are faced with temptations, make the decision to wait for the larger-later reward.
- Use reminders for the steps you must take to receive the larger reward. Without reminders and a plan, it becomes tempting to choose an immediate option just to have closure.
- Put yourself in a positive mood. Research shows it is easier to be patient when you are happy than sad.
- Reframe the thing you are waiting for in a way that reduces its emotional appeal. While waiting for, say, hot chocolate, reframe it as a black liquid – not a hot, sweet, creamy, and rich drink.
Increasing the desire to wait
- Wait before making a choice (“wait-to-choose technique”). For instance, looking over a restaurant menu at home may increase your appreciation for dishes that usually take longer to prepare (i.e. larger-later reward).
- Increase your level of certaintyand trust in the belief that you will receive the larger reward if you are patient. This is important because as the wait becomes longer, uncertainty naturally increases.
- Improve the personal connection to your future self – the self who will benefit from your patience.
- Change how the options are framed, so the delayed outcome appears more valuable. For example, another way of saying you could have “$10 now or $20 later” is to say you could have “$10 now and $0 later, or $0 now and $20 later.” When options are framed in the second way, people are often more willing to wait.
Willpower and self-control are associated with a variety of positive outcomes, such as improved health, better relationships, and greater success in achieving goals. The difference between desire and ability to self-control is important because so often in life we are faced with difficult choices between a smaller-sooner and a larger-later reward. Some examples are:
- Choosing a medical treatment that works immediately but is less effective overall, or an intervention that may take longer to work but is more effective.
- Getting a low-paying job now, or focusing on your studies for the next few years to get a better job after you graduate.
- Going on your usual summer vacation next week, or saving money for a couple of years to go on your dream vacation and travel the world.