How to Overcome the Desire for Immediate Gratification

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can the desire for immediate gratification lead to procrastination? Is it possible to overcome your aroused-state desires to pursue long-term goals?

Procrastination stems from your aroused-state desires for immediate gratification. This can lead to the abandonment of long-term goals, such as pushing off your diet to have a slice of cake. However, these tendencies can be overcome.

Keep reading to learn how to overcome your desire for immediate gratification.

Immediate Gratification Ruins Long-Term Goals

It might not be obvious, but procrastination also stems from the discrepancy between your cool-state decisions and your aroused-state decisions. Procrastination is characterized by pushing long-term goals aside in favor of immediate gratification—that is, you abandon your rational plans in order to indulge in whatever will appease your aroused-state emotions. 

You can recognize this process playing out around you every day. You’ve promised to start eating healthier but you see a delicious chocolate cake—you tell yourself, “My diet starts tomorrow.” Or, you’ve committed to studying in the library all night, but your friend invites you to get drinks. “I can just cram before the test tomorrow morning,” you tell yourself. 

You set your goals with the best intentions—while in your rational cool state. When your desire for immediate gratification is triggered, you naturally act in ways that aren’t aligned with what you want to do. Humans aren’t able to predict how they’ll act in an aroused state—therefore, it’s not possible to just commit yourself to your goals. How, then, can you consciously work against a procrastination problem? The following experiment will clarify how simply knowing that you have a procrastination problem can set you up to find ways to work against it. 

Experiment: Essay Deadlines

Three groups of students were assigned three essays over the course of a semester. Each group received different instructions about their deadlines and possible penalizations:

Group 1: The professor let each student set their own deadlines, which would be set in stone at the end of the first week of class. They could space the deadlines evenly, or set all three for the last day of class. If they handed in a paper past their deadline, they’d receive a penalization of 1% off the grade each day it was late. The professor suggested setting deadlines every four weeks, and most of the students chose this option. 

Group 2: The professor set no deadlines for their papers—students simply had to hand in all three papers before the last day of class. Subsequently, there was no risk of losing points on missed deadlines throughout the semester.

Group 3: The professor set firm deadlines every four weeks.

At the end of the semester, the three groups had varied results. 

  • Group 3, with strict deadlines, finished the semester with the best grades overall. 
  • Much of Group 2 rushed all three papers at the last minute and received the overall worst grades. 
  • Group 1, with deadlines they’d put in place themselves, finished the semester with average grades. 

How Does This Experiment Translate to Everyday Procrastination Issues?

We can draw several conclusions from this experiment. First, as we know, the worst way to deal with procrastination is to assume that you know what decisions you’ll make in the future. Much of the third group may have started the semester with the best intentions, thinking they’d hand in papers every few weeks, but in the end, desires for immediate gratification took over and they ended up sacrificing quality by rushing through their assignments. 

Second, the very best way to deal with procrastination is to have someone impose a task on you, with the promise of a threat—such as a lower grade on a paper, or losing your job. Of course, strict enforcement isn’t a feasible option in many personal situations of procrastination, and many of the small things we procrastinate on aren’t high-stakes enough to motivate us. 

Third, the most practical way to deal with procrastination is to use available tools and opportunities in your cool state to hinder irrational decision-making in your aroused state. We see that many students in Group 1 were aware of their procrastination problems—this is why most of them chose to follow the professor’s suggestion of regular deadlines. They knew it would be a useful tool in preventing problems down the line.

Being aware of your procrastination tendencies puts you in a great position to create guidelines that will help you act in line with what you actually want, instead of getting distracted by what will give you immediate gratification.

How to Overcome the Desire for Immediate Gratification

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  • Why getting something for free can cause you to make bad decisions

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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