How can I stop caving in to Instant Gratification?
July 20, 2007 1:25 PM   Subscribe

My impulse towards giving myself instant gratification is ruining my life! How can I train myself to stop lunging for instant gratification and instead remind myself to consider what will be most gratifying in the long term?

I have been frustrated with several aspects of my life for quite some time now (years), and I am starting to realize that my difficulty in resolving these things is most likely because I am always going for whatever will bring me instant gratification.

Here are some examples!
  • I am quite overweight. It really is a big problem, and I *know* this and I *know* how to eat right and I *know* how to exercise in a way I find enjoyable, and I *know* how to lose weight. But when I am tired and hungry and grumpy in the morning, I know a couple of doughnuts to go with my coffee are going to cheer me up & perk me up right away. Thus, I justify getting myself what I think I *need* to feel good right then over what I know I *ought* to do to improve my overall life. I will rationalize it out by saying things like "Well, one day isn't going to make or break me" or "Well, TODAY I really need to be focused at work so I don't want to get to work feeling all craving-y and deprived."
  • I'm paying off some credit cards I racked up in college & the two years immediately following college. I truly want to pay them off as fast as possible, I know why they are evil, and the balances make me feel sick, just sick. And yet, when I see something I want, if it will cheer me up, I will buy it because "it's only $20, what's $20?" or "well, I would just buy it next paycheck anyway" or some other excuse. Needless to say my balances don't get paid down much when I keep making excuses to spend more money on stuff I ultimately do not need. But I cannot seem to resist my drive to have what I want when I want it!
  • I have a good job and I am very lucky to have my job and my awesome boss and my awesome coworkers and to work for the awesome company I work for. I really truly appreciate this opportunity especially because I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I do with my own position. And yet, despite all this, and despite the fact that I actually feel GOOD when I am doing work, I can't seem to resist the impulse to chat with friends in the background or browse amusing sites or ... er ... post questions / comments to Metafilter. And I know how to resist these things, I can add sites to block to my Hosts file or use Temptation Blocker, and set up regular breaks instead of making the day one big mashup of work & break. But I can't seem to just ignore my urge to check my buddy list or my favorite sites when the urge strikes.
I cannot go on living like this. I know in part why I do it - I am depressed and I am always on the hunt for a little burst of feeling good. So, yeah, the doughnuts and the new shiny store-bought whatevers and the internet amusements make me feel good for a few minutes, maybe an hour, maybe a couple of days. But never in the long haul.

How do I discipline myself and/or REMIND myself not to cave into instant gratification? How can I get my life back under my own control?
posted by tastybrains to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Did I post this in my sleep? Seriously, this is my life. I'll be watching this thread closely.
posted by peep at 1:36 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Many actions in life lead you to goals. What you're doing, unwittingly, is setting yourself up with the goal of being overweight, in debt, and unemployed every time you act on these actions.

Now, that might not make you want to not have the occasional donut or goof off for a day, but imagine life as a series of steps. If you're moving forward 90% of the time, you can stand to pause or go back a few steps. If you wait too long, life will leave you by the wayside.
posted by mikeh at 1:40 PM on July 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I find that instead of denying yourself the things you want, when you do something "bad" then do something good to make up for it. Say you eat a burger for lunch, then go eat a healthy veggie-filled salad for dinner. Say you watched 2-hours of TV, then go ride a bike for an hour. Say you buy some pretty shiny new toy, then put another $20 toward your credit card debt. At least you get the good things done as well as the bad things, and you can chip away at your goals without having to completely change your lifestyle.
posted by greta simone at 1:42 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am much the same way. But lately I have gotten somewhat better on some areas. I am no expert, but here is my off-the-cuff thinking:

Weight: I have been about 30 pounds overweight for a while, for the same reasons you say: instant gratification. It's easier to eat quick stuff and sit on the couch than do what's best in the long run. But lately, I started riding my bike to work, and anywhere else I can, and just for fun. What I found was, riding the bike BECAME the instant gratification because I enjoy it. I have lost about 10 pounds in a couple months, even without eating much better. But I feel so good with that accomplishment, that I am gradually changing my eating habits. They key for me is small changes. I'm not going to eat things I don't like just to lose weight. But I CAN eat a little less of things I like, or substitute some things that don't make a huge difference (diet pepsi for regular, etc).

Money: Thankfully I have avoided a lot of debt, but the major way was to NOT HAVE ANY credit cards. This is not easy, of course. And I know many people talk about having one "just for emergencies" and then those become maxed out. Don't believe the lie that you MUST have a credit card. I have just a debit card. Once in a GREAT while I desperately wish I had a credit card. There are times I have zero cash on hand until payday, but in those times, I just don't spend. That might mean no movies, no eating out, etc. If I did have a credit card, I would use it, and little by little that balance would creep up. I also drive an older car with no car payment and minimal insurance. I buy quality clothes, but only at outlet stores or on clearance. Unless it's at Ross or on clearance, I just don't even browse, because I know I will find something I want. (I'm a guy, so maybe my clothing-gene is a little weaker than a woman's, but it's probably stronger than most guys.)

I concur that depression is a huge contributor. I've gone through some recent issues that resulted in more depression than I have ever faced before. But little by little, once you start the cycle of doing the right things, it will pay off in less depression, which in turn will enable you to continue to make good choices. On the other hand, doing the wrong things feeds the depression, which in turn feeds the desire to keep doing the wrong things. It's tough but you can do it.

A couple other suggestions: see a doctor about the depression and the weight. Knowing my doc was going to follow up on my blood pressure and weight gave me some accountability and made me want to succeed. You may benefit from some behavior modification therapy about the depression.

Find a FUN activity, and don't worry about "exercising." Just have fun, and you won't think of it as work. For me, it's biking and tennis. I hate exercise, but I love those things.

ALL of your changes MUST be small. As you know, you didn't get overweight or in debt in one day. 3500 calories is a pound. 500 calories a day more than you need, gains you a pound a week. 500 a day less than you need, loses you a pound a day. 500 calories is a donut and a coke, or once latte, or couple cookies.

If you try to make huge changes, and suddenly be a "while new person" you will fail. Just do little things consistently. One day, someone will say "Did you lose weight?" and you will feel great. One day you will look at your credit card balance, and think it looks too low.

Sorry if this was disjointed, it was just stream of consciousness. Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 1:55 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The single most effective way I have figured out to deal with this is to set your goals in motion when you're feeling "strong"--well rested, well fed, motivated--and set things up so that you just don't run into the temptations as much in your life. (Or, just as importantly, make it more difficult for yourself to give into temptation.)

For example, you mention eating donuts with coffee in the morning. The mornings before work are a terrible time to be motivated. However, Saturday morning after a big breakfast is a good time, so maybe you do your grocery shopping then, and you just don't buy donuts or anything snackable--make sure the food in your apartment all requires some level of actual cooking or preparation. Or if you're buying donuts and treats once you're at work, make the decision when you're motivated to not bring cash to work, so you can't run down and buy some. For paying off credit card debt--go to ING or one of the online banks, set up a direct debit from your checking account the day after you get paid for whatever amount you think you're frittering away on useless crap. (Getting money out of those online banks takes 5 days, which will drastically reduce your ability to use it for anything on a whim.)

I mean, willpower is great, and I'm sure there are ways you can try to muscle it out and resist all temptations, but that can also make you feel really deprived and obsessive in the short term. Whereas if you remove the availability of those "bad" things--or even just make them more of a PITA to access--after a few weeks, you'll notice that you don't crave them anymore, and the willpower thing gets about a billion times easier. Humans get habituated to anything, including the lack of sugary snacks, the lack of play money, and no internet, surprisingly quickly. Use this to your advantage.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:56 PM on July 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

learn to enjoy the trip and not worry about the destination, such as learn to enjoy running and not worry about the weight loss or at work really get lost in the minute detrails of a project so that the time flies by, (try not to get too tied up that you never finish said project). make sure that youe needs are taken cared of and don't sweat the wants.
posted by kanemano at 1:56 PM on July 20, 2007

Not to go into the religious/spiritual direction... but personally I've always found the Buddhist concept of "awareness" helping. Meaning that whenever I have an urge to do something I feel is self-destructive to try and recognize it for what it is - an urge. Sometimes just reflecting on the emotion for a few minutes helps me put it in perspective and understand what it really is and what my true priorities are. Not easy, but it helps me.
posted by tundro at 1:57 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sometimes the question of free will seems really abstract, but the situation you describe makes is really concrete. I've actually overcome two of the three challenges you describe, and struggle with the third (not staying focused at work).

I could give you a bunch of reasons why you should lose weight, or pay of your credit cards, but you already know them. I could explain how to do those things, but you already know. The only thing that is left to do is to set your brain in the mode to actually do those things. Some people call this phenomenon "will power". I think that's bullshit. It's a phrase people use to make us feel like we have control over the chaotic universe.

When we actually get motivated enough to do something, it's easy to say we just "willed" ourself to do it. The truth is that, at some point, we just got in the mood to do it. Some people get in the mood, some people don't. I had wanted to lose weight and get my life in order for a long time, but it didn't happen until a particular point in time. Why didn't it happen sooner? Did I grow will power? Did I discover will power?

Now, I don't believe in free will, so I don't actually think we can choose to do anything. But I do believe in the illusion of free will, and I'm content with that. So let's say we do have the power to choose...

One thing is quite likely: if you continue doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you've got. You need to change the inputs to your system. You need to have new experiences, meet new people, change your environment, etc. Maybe one of those things will help you see your life in a way that you haven't seen it before, and that will be the trigger you need.

Good luck.
posted by mpls2 at 2:07 PM on July 20, 2007

Don't try to change them all at once. It makes success much less likely, which will depress you more.

The best way to reduce impulsiveness is to put things at a greater distance. You know this but you have been unwilling to do it.

Cut up your credit cards. Right now. Do it do it do it! Now! It takes 5 seconds!

Do it! Do it! Do it! Cut them up!

Throw them in the shredder. Twice. Hell, burn them! (With proper ventilation) Now throw those pieces away!

Now. Tell me how you feel? If there isn't some spark of good feeling in that action then you're not ready for help. Come back when you have health problems/collection agencies at your door/gotten fired from your job and we can try again.

If you do feel a spark of happiness in there, then concentrate on it. Why does that make you feel good? How exactly does it feel? Remember it, hold onto it for as long as you can.

Now every time when you fail to do something youknow you shouldn't be doing, remember that good feeling and know that you'll get it again (and again and again!) if you can just get yourself under control.
posted by Ookseer at 2:14 PM on July 20, 2007

First of all, way to go in recognizing these behavior patterns in yourself. I am an emotional shopper and eater. Too often I have given into my urges and I have a closet full of clothes and shoes that I do not wear, credit card debt up the wazoo and carry an extra 30 pounds on my ass. Not only that, I tend to feel a bit empty after I "indulge".

So, what works for me is that, I seriously ask myself what it is that I'm feeling when the impulse strikes. If I have an honest dialog with myself, if there is an emotion behind it, I can usually talk myself out of buying/eating that thing that I "just can't live without" in that moment. I have also set up a list of goals both big and small. The smaller ones that I've attained have given me a great sense of accomplishment and goad me further into reaching my bigger goals (i.e. paying off my high interest credit card by next year.) And when I just can't live without that donut or pair of shoes, I treat myself and don't beat myself up about it.

One day will certainly not make or break you, but a series of days add up to a lifetime that will. Try to be kind to yourself and treat yourself well. But be moderate in your fitness, eating habits, spending habits, work ethic, etc., and you can still treat yourself to the things you enjoy in conjunction to moving towards the bigger picture.

Just my two cents. Good luck.
posted by kelzabel at 2:15 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding the grocery shopping after a meal, that way you can make sure to make healthy choices.

But I think instead of not buying anything snackable, you should concentrate on buying quick, easy things that are healthy-- for example, buy some good fresh peaches and eat one of those in the morning rather than a doughnut. Better yet, eat some protein. (Beef jerky doesn't really go with coffee, though..)

Same thing works in general-- buying things you don't need, eating food that you know isn't good for you, etc-- I find for me it works better to replace those activities with other, equally easy activities. So much easier than trying to be "good" all the time.

Also, are the little breaks you take at work actually a productivity problem? This is really between you and your boss, but you could actually be more productive taking breaks than not. Time blocking can be a good way to get your breaks but also do your work.

To sum up: don't stop pampering yourself, just pamper yourself a little more wisely.
posted by nat at 2:27 PM on July 20, 2007

The realisation of my inner spoilt brat finally helped me to quit smoking. I haven't tamed the weight loss one entirely yet, but I'm getting there.

So here's the thing for me. My desire for instant gratification would often go "Fuck it, I'll have one (cigarette, doughnut etc) anyway and worry about it tomorrow." I think the trick here is to have some kind of alternative plan for when this happens. With the cigarettes, it became a refusal to even contemplate smoking. A "no" shouted in the inner cavity of my brain. With dieting, I'm trying to have a hot drink (it's winter here) everytime I think of eating when it's not on my plan.

I think about the sort of person I want to be, the sort of person I want to model for my kids and the pleasure achieving my long terms goal will get me. I try and hold onto those ideas when the IG moment hits, but it doesn't always work.

Oh, something else that's helping - a recent blog and I can't remember which one - Slow Leadership I think says "stop paying so much attention to how you feel." Bit of an epiphany for me that. I don'thave to gratify that desire just because it's there. Which takes us back to the Buddhist idea of awareness - there's the thought, there's the desire, know what you're thinking - and then choosing not to act on it - and doing that with a bunch of strategies which might even include Mefi's favourite self-help book for reframing (Feeling Good), I want this donut, I'm going to choose not to have this donut, I will not feel deprived because not having the donut is actually a gift to myself of health.

Oh btw, 21 days in for eschewing sweet things and fatty things, and an impulse bite of my kids' treat has made me realise my tastebuds are changing - I don't want cornsyrup and lard anymore (right now, anyway).

But I certianly don't hold the secret, far from being a poster child for strength of character, so I'm watching this thread to see what comes up.
posted by b33j at 3:09 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is a part in the book "The Art of Happiness" where the Dalai Lama talks about making lifestyle changes.

First of all, education is important. You have to be constantly aware of the negative impacts of your problem. Heart disease, bad credit rating, whatever. Keep reminding yourself. Over and over and over.

The next part has to do with willingness and desire. If you don't want to change, you won't change. If you are not willing to make sacrifices and discipline yourself, you will not change.

Remind yourself why this change will be good, and that it is worth the discipline & sacrifice.

You will see results, and they will be gratifying! Good luck!
posted by Gregamell at 3:32 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

A food-related practical example: I LOVE ice cream. If I deprived myself of ice cream, I would obsess about it, then end up eating a half gallon in a weekend. But I try not to buy half-gallons because whatever I put in the bowl is a "serving." And I have big bowls. Instead, I rarely buy it for the house, but I tell myself that if I REALLY want it, I'll go over the (wherever) and get a sundae. Sometimes the craving passes, which is great. Other times it doesn't, and I go get a sundae, and that's fine too. In any event, I don't feel deprived, but I eat way less than if I kept it in the house.

If I DO want some in the house, I buy a box of single serving cups, or bars. One of those is probably a 1/4 of what I would put in a bowl as a serving, but again I don't feel deprived.
posted by The Deej at 3:36 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: It sounds like your cheering yourself up with the wrong things. I do this, too. One trick is to find a pleasurable reward that won't interfere with your long-term plans. For example, I love to read and it's actually something that benefits me. So instead of rewarding myself with chocolate, I reward myself with a book. Or a hot bath or whatever it is. Make a list of things that make you happy (instantly) that don't interfere with long-term goals and see if you can't substitute for the donuts and the spending.

The thing here is that you need a few carrots to keep you going (it can't be all sticks).
posted by bananafish at 3:43 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I just started reading First Things First, which is a more day-to-day "life balancing" approach to the principles from Seven Habits. You might find it up your alley.
posted by mendel at 4:19 PM on July 20, 2007

If you're anything like me, you have a fundamentally contrary personality and any attempt to push yourself to change is going to end in failure. The more forbidden something is, the more attractive it becomes. Anyway, you already know the cause of your behavior, you've written it yourself: you're impulsive because you're not happy.

Why are you not happy? Probably because you're telling yourself hundreds of times a day that you're not good enough the way you are and you have to do a whole bunch of stuff you don't want to do in order to be better. Accept the way you are and you'll actually have a better chance of losing weight, but more importantly you get to feel good right now.

Weight problems, credit card debt, and slacking off are absolutely ordinary problems that you share with millions of other people. Remind yourself of this at every opportunity. Accepting these issues as normal is not the same as kidding yourself that they don't exist, or making bullshit rationalizations for your behavior that you don't believe. Rationalizations don't make you feel good, but acceptance does, and that feeling will give you the strength to deal with your problems, but more importantly is a wonderful thing in its own right.

(I am talking to myself here a bit)
posted by teleskiving at 5:49 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Everyone has given good advice here, I would point out somet things that had not been brought to the forefront

- Changing everything all at once is intimidating and you won't do it. Change one aspect of one thing for two weeks and see how it goes. Go from doughnuts to an apple. Or two apples. You'll be surprised how little difference it actually makes in terms of sugar-rush satisfaction.

- It may be helpful for you to keep a journal about this stuff, both food-wise and money-wise. Make sure all your choices don't feel like punishments (wanted a flatscreen TV but only bought batteries instead). They will at first, but then you'll realize that you're making smarter choices that dont necessarily deprive you of pleasure (the smaller screen TV fits better in your room anyway), and then you can see the cumulative effects of what you're doing.

- Don't reward yourself with some of your old habits, find new things to reward yourself with! (if you go a week without a doughnut, dont have a doughnut at the end to reward yourself, have steak, or something else you like and is in a healthier direction. This way you're not looking backward.

- Dont beat yourself up if you slip up, just start your count over again. Eventually it'll be easier to do the new thing than to slip.
posted by softlord at 6:03 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I share your woes. I think it's part of being human and that's not so bad, right? ;)

What I've come to realise is that a lot of these things are HABITS and can be changed. Of course, that means I have to WANT to change my habits which is a whole nother thing since giving up control can be exhilarating. However, giving up just makes me feel worse so, much as I hate the carrot snack/saying no to new toys/staying focused I know it's what makes me feel honestly good and doing otherwise cheats me out of feeling good.

How to do it? No gray areas. Everything is negotiated with myself (how many sweets, how much to spend, how long surfing). Once I make a decision I stick with it (so the theory goes... it works 85% of the time). I still spend way too much time surfing though... Good luck!
posted by MiffyCLB at 6:40 PM on July 20, 2007

"stop paying so much attention to how you feel."

That's really the key. You can't feel happy all the time and constantly catering to your demanding inner child is exhausting.

So many of my friends have blown good opportunites because they were afraid they might suffer some un-quantifiable loss of happiness if they chose a challenging path. Of course, none of them are happy anyway. Life is for living, not worrying about imho.
posted by fshgrl at 7:17 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Just some practical ideas to get you out of established behaviour patterns:

Debt - stick your credit cards in the freezer - in a bowl with a bit of won't use them to rack up more debt and if you desperately need one for a genuine reason you can still use it once it is defrosted.

Food - have healthy snacks in your bag (dried fruit and nuts are portable in a small zip lock bag, apples will last a few days in a handbag) so you won't get to the point where you are hungry and tired and make a bad choice. I have found that eating a piece of fruit on my journey home will take the edge of my hunger and I am much more likely to cook a proper meal when I get home.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:49 AM on July 21, 2007

A few years ago, I moved overseas. I had to get around in an unfamiliar place. I had to do my business in a second language. And my business was an inherently difficult form of volunteer work where there really isn't any way to make it any easier. I did not have a computer, much less the Internet. And my plans, well-laid and otherwise, ganged agley about as aft as any plans could, solely because I guessed wrong about which road would be best to catch a taxi on, or which market might carry the food I was hoping to find, or because I didn't know what weight made the difference between hassle-free small-parcel mailing and hasselicious fill-this-out-in-triplicate real-package mailing, or because the copy shop that I planned to use closed for lunch an hour earlier, or an hour later, than everyone else did.

Why do I bring it up? Simply because of this: I learned a ton about sticking to a thing I really want. And I learned a ton more about letting go of things that don't matter so much. And I liked what that did to me, so much that I've gone to live overseas again twice since.

Now, I'm not saying that you ought to ditch your present situation and work for room and board at an orphanage in rural Kazakhstan. (I totally have dibs on that one.) But if you make some sharp changes that are inconvenient, you will discover that you can be happy and efficient without them. Cut up those credit cards. Go cash/check-only for three months. Or unplug your Internet cable except for two email checks a day (you think you can't do your job without it, but you're wrong). Or make a completely retarded rule like "The doughnut shop is only open on days when I didn't have to wait at the Fourth Street stoplight," and then really live it. Make some gratifications not your choice and stay with it long enough for your soul to rise up and say, "I'm still me and I can still have a good time even if I don't have X".

You can learn that you don't need the things you think you need. What's more interesting is that you can learn that you don't even want the things you want as much as you think you want them. But you can only learn this by experience. Arranging the experience through some strategically planned brat-breakers is your own task; no one can tell you exactly what you need for it. But I'm here to tell you it can be done.
posted by eritain at 3:44 AM on July 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

Are you sure you like your job? What you wrote sounds like symptoms of a different problem: boredom. You say you are lucky to have the job but not that you love doing it. In fact you admit you're often seeking distractions. Advice from my own experience would be to find something you love. Many, many things will fall into place after that because your day, week, month will have a new sense of purpose that you never knew existed.
posted by ads at 8:41 AM on July 21, 2007

It's a bit cheesy (okay very cheesy) and might not seem directly relevant at first, but...

I found that Flylady has helped me so much to feel more in control of my life, better about myself, and more optimistic/can-do in general. It's a lot of the things mentioned in this thread - baby steps, habits, routines, etc, and some other stuff too. Check it out (, it might be worth a try, especially if you also have issues with a messy house/room etc!
posted by Salamandrous at 10:55 AM on July 21, 2007

What I do about impulse buys and stuff: before I go through checkout, I nitpick the hell out of whatever is in my hands. Maybe it didn't fit *exactly* right, maybe there's some small detail that I wasn't really keen on, maybe it will be on sale for cheaper in a couple weeks or it might be available online for much less, maybe it was produced using cheap labor and cheap methods and will fall apart in three months. I let whatever I can think of that isn't perfect with it keep me from buying it, and remind myself that if I reeeeeally want it anyway I can always come back later.

Walk out empty-handed, congratulate self on having saved cash and successfully resisting mass-market consumerism. Of course I am too lazy to come back later.
posted by casarkos at 6:00 PM on July 21, 2007

every night before you go to bed, write down a very short list about things you will achieve tomorrow. wash the car or finish work or ride a bike or whatever. then carry the list with you all day. then every night tick off what you achieved and make a new list. simple
posted by edtut at 4:01 AM on July 22, 2007

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