How many times has this happened to all of us? Were in the middle of something, caught up within a fervour to complete whatever mission we have chosen for ourselves, and feel an intense relief when it is complete. I'm sure everyone can relate to this at some level. Whether it be the the act of finishing laundry, or an extremely difficult assignment problem, the purely pleasurable sense of relief and gratification floods us the moment we finish the task at hand. But what is interesting, and lost in the moment, is what happens after that.
When were feeling the gratification, it is easy to think about relishing or savouring the moment, reasoning with ourselves about having a break, or even just thinking that youve done well, youre a step ahead, and that calls for a mini-celebration. All of the above states, no matter how joyous they make us feel, are ultimately delaying the completion of the next task.
When we feel gratified, we lose sight of the bigger picture - completion of the bigger task. We relax, and we lose the zeal and enthusiasm that we started out with. When we get back to working on the next phase of the task, we are a lot more dull, slow, and distracted. This slows us down in the long run. The argument here is not that gratification and short-breaks are wrong, but that they can lead to stagnation of our state, and make us slow in completing things in the long run.
Theres an interesting study called The Stanford Marshmallow experiment that looked at strategies pre-schoolers (really, really young kids) used to resist temptations. The kids were given two options:
- have one marshmallow at any given moment
- wait for about 15mins and get two
The study tested the idea of how kids behave under situations that follow the general rule of - small reward now, big reward later. Some kids had the marshmallow before the 15 mins were over, while others successfully resisted the temptation and received two at the end. Through further studies, the researchers found that kids used techniques that distracted them from the rewards (the sweet taste of marshmallow) in order to resist until the end. Kids used singing, hiding somewhere, or pretending they were receiving pretzels instead of marshmallows, all in a bid to not think of marshmallows. The kids who had resisted until the end were found to have greater competitiveness, self-assurance, and self-worth; and were thought of to be more mature, and as someone who planned ahead.
This is also called as "delayed gratification", which is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. There are active studies and discussions that link delayed gratification to success, psychological health, and competence. In a nutshell, by waiting for a bigger payoff, we can be more happy, more content, and better geared for success.
Delaying gratification depends on the person's willpower, or their self-control, which they use to prevent themselves from getting too caught up in the gratification of smaller moments. So a big celebration and break after finishing a small task, feeling that were off to a great start is actually not good for it's continuation. Instead, by keeping the distraction in strict regulation, we can channel the feelings of joy and achievement into being further motivated and enthusiastic about completing the bigger tasks.
Most people have the mentality that believes or is habituated to enjoying every small moment as much as they can, which is termed as "delayed discounting" in psychology. It is the preference for smaller immediate rewards over larger, but delayed rewards. People who follow this principle believe or think that the value of the reward decreases the longer it is delayed.
All of this brings the application of all this information to one very important challenge in any task undertaking - procrastination. The studies related to delayed gratification have also found that the ability to want immediate rewards is related to procrastination, which is termed as an avoidance-related behaviour. People who indulge in procrastination are more likely to stop mid-way through tasks for a smaller reward than seeing it through for larger rewards.
So the next time you find yourself completing a smaller task, and want to take a break, or just let go of yourself into feeling gratification for the moment, remember to focus on the bigger picture, and to use that joy and energy to achieve the bigger picture.