Getting Gritty: Learn to Delay Gratification

It’s Saturday night, and you need to study for a big test on Monday. A friend calls and asks you to dinner. You go. After all, you have all day Sunday to study. Then Sunday turns out to be a beautiful day, and some buddies are playing football out at the park . . .

College often seems all about delayed gratification. You pay tuition and buy books now so that you’ll have a good income later. You stay home and study so that at the end of the semester you’ll have good grades. And so on.

But delayed gratification seems to go against most things in our society. Why wait to buy a car when we can drive a new one off the lot today with easy payments for the next five years? Why wait to hear from a friend when we can call, text, or tweet this very second? Delaying gratification seems a little old-fashioned, something our Puritan ancestors would be inclined to do.

But it’s a necessary skill for success. So if you are always grabbing the short-term gain instead of waiting for the longer-term, bigger pay off, you’re going to have to develop the skill. Here are some tips:

  • Set up your environment so that it’s conducive for study. You won’t have to battle temptation quite as much if it’s not loudly calling you away. Put away and silence your phone. Find a quiet and private place to work. If you meet your friends in the library to study but end up chatting for a hour instead, you will need to set up study time without them. 
  • Set intermediate and short-term goals. Graduation can seem very far away when you’re starting out in college. It can be hard to maintain the momentum during the daily drudgery if your only motivator is two, three, or four years away. Set goals that can be achieved along the way. Make them learning and “getting better” goals:
    • By the end of the semester, I will be able to do a quadratic equation.
    • At the end of this hour of studying, I will be able to answer the questions on page 356.
    • If I pass my midterm tests, I will go to the movies and buy the extra-large bag of popcorn.
  • Start where you are and build on the skill. Let’s say that right now, you sit down in a chair in the library and open your textbook to read the chapter. Five minutes later, you find yourself checking Facebook and Twitter to see what your friends are doing. Don’t beat yourself up. Use this knowledge as a baseline. Put a timer app on your phone and set the goal for fifteen minutes studying before you check your messages. (Set the timer again for five minutes of ‘fun.’) Then start building up on your study time. 

Some people seem to naturally be able to delay gratification. I am not one of those people. But I have been lucky enough to discover it is a skill that can be learned.


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