I have a love-hate relationship with my yard. There are few things I love better than the look of a freshly mowed lawn, trimmed bushes and a neatly kept flower bed. But maintaining it is a different story.
Mowing my yard is the most rewarding. The grass is long and then an hour later it’s not. This is immediate gratification at its best.
Managing the flower beds, bushes, and trees is different. It requires ongoing attention in the form of weeding, feeding, and pruning. Regular, short-term interventions go a long way. It’s the small investments that pay off later when everything is healthy and groomed. This process doesn’t thrill me as much.
And therein lies my ultimate dilemma — Immediate gratification or patience and long-term benefits.
According to the research, we seem to be hardwired for immediate gratification. The rush we get is both a reward and a destination. That’s why we humans eat, drink, and seek merry (or Mary, as the circumstance might be) when it may not be in our best interest. We’re looking for the thrill of immediate gratification rather than the long-term benefits of health and balance.
An example of this is addictive behaviors which often come from a difficulty in delaying gratification. I have a tendency towards many types of addictive behaviors. For instance, at Halloween, my wife can eat one of those tiny “fun size” candy bars in the same amount of time that it takes me to inhale ten. The pleasure center in my brain loves to fire its neurons when gratification is at hand. So, I often give in. Luckily, I have enough control to manage my health and stay out of trouble. Others are not so lucky and succumb to all kinds of havoc with their bodies and their relationships.
When it comes to our work, we might think that immediate gratification plays much less of a role. But look at how easily we’re drawn away from the important things. For instance, I’m halfway through this article and so far, I have checked my email about seventeen times, walked to the mailbox, gotten two cups of coffee, and clipped my nails. All of those tasks gave me the immediate rush of accomplishment whereas this article, which I suggest is slightly more important, will take more time to write, edit and re-write thus delaying the gratification of completion until tomorrow. Ugh.
This dilemma is very real for me right now because I have three projects I’m pursing and all three require that I buckle down and delay my need for immediate gratification. First, I want to develop my photography skills. Since I gave up my motorcycle (see previous article), I’m looking for a fulfilling hobby. I love photography but I’m not that good at it, yet. Over the next couple of years, I want to develop (so to speak) my skills and eventually sell the photographs. This will not happen overnight and the the only way to succeed is to take time to study and practice. Second, I am considering an idea for my next book. It will require more research than my previous books and I realize I can’t expect to finish a quality product too quickly. Lastly, I am developing material for new presentations based on my supervisory experience as a licensed clinical social worker. I need to reexamine the material and apply that knowledge to my current work. It will require diligence and certainly won’t happen this week or even next month.
So, how do I stay focused on these goals so that I don’t have to write an article next year explaining why I let my need for immediate gratification lead me to binge-watching weekends of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones? Good question. Here are a few thoughts.
Awareness. The first step to most personal improvement is awareness. When we recognize the patterns in our behavior, we can see where we need to change. So, first and foremost, I need to pay attention to my actions and the outcome of my actions to determine what’s working and what’s not.
Small Steps. We tend to forget that the process of running a marathon begins with a few small steps. Sometimes the finish line seems so far away, we can’t imagine taking the steps to get there. But, when we focus on the steps themselves, we can keep moving forward. I need to realize that each step I take leads toward my goal rather than trying to take a short cut and getting lost.
Re-framing. Rewards come in many sizes. There’s the immediate rush of mowing my yard. There’s the intermediate satisfaction of writing the first draft of an article (which, by the way, I’ve almost accomplished here). And there’s the not-so-thrilling-but-equally-important-rush-less contentment of not giving in to the temptation of immediate gratification. By reframing success, I am rewarded in different ways. So, I need to see all accomplishments as beneficial — not just the ones that feel good.
Accountability. One of the most powerful ways of sticking with your goals is to have an accountability partner — someone who helps you stay focused. My wife, Wendy, is a great partner in life and work because she helps me stay on track. By sharing my goals with her, she can help me achieve them.
The irony is not lost on me that this entire article was inspired by a major weed pulling adventure this morning. I got a rush with every weed I pulled. And just like those weeds, the roots of our need for immediate gratification run deep. But once we recognize that and then practice good mental landscaping, we won’t be victim to a life that’s overrun by our, well, weediness.