Delayed Gratification: The Secret to Long-Term Success?

Delayed gratification is something I didn’t learn about until very recently.  But when I studied the concept of delayed gratification and the role it plays in a healthy lifestyle, it made so much sense!  

Most of us are familiar with “instant gratification”, a form of desire or temptation that we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives…

The opposite of delayed gratification

Instant gratification is a positive feeling that results immediately after a given action.  On a cellular level, it’s a temporary rush of dopamine or serotonin.  Of course, it feels fabulous for a few minutes, but is usually fleeting!

For example, when I was a kid, I decided  more enjoyable in the moment to watch TV after school instead of doing homework.  😉  However, when my choice to watch TV and procrastinate was left unchecked for too long, it didn’t go so well!  We’re really doing ourselves a disservice when we live a life dominated by instant gratification more often than not.  (I wish I could have shared this wisdom with my high school self!)

What is delayed gratification?

Delayed gratification is the ability to resist a short-term temptation in exchange for a long-term benefit.

When faced with temptations, we often need some guidance and incentives in order to hold out and connect to something called “delayed gratification”. We also need to know that what we’re holding out for is reliable and worth the wait.

The delayed gratification experiment

Psychologist Walter Mischel ran a famous study called the “Standford Marshmallow Experiment” (1970) in which preschool children were given a choice to eat one marshmallow now, or two later. 

delayed gratification experiment
The researcher left the room for about 15 minutes, and if the child still had not eaten the first marshmallow, he/she was given a second one. 

This experiment was repeated a bunch of times.

Low and behold…

  • The kiddos were followed for another 40 years or so, and those who had demonstrated delayed gratification (i.e. waited for the second marshmallow) were found to eventually have higher SAT scores and better health outcomes compared to those who chose to eat the one marshmallow immediately (1)
  • Those who had previously experienced unreliable circumstances (“empty promises”) during their early years were more likely to discount the future and give in to the present moment.
    • This is rooted in fear of uncertainty: They didn’t believe the better “delayed” outcome (2 marshmallows) was 100% guaranteed to happen.  This is not a matter of willpower but rather our ability to trust the people/process. 
  • Some kids who were LESS focused on the future outcome (2 marshmallows) were more likely to successfully demonstrate patience and delayed gratification compared to those who kept getting reminded of the second marshmallow! This group was given coping techniques such as distraction (closing their eyes).

Fortunately for us, delayed gratification is like a muscle that just needs to be used often in order to get stronger!

Tips on how to flex your delayed gratification muscles

Celebrate the small victories

Start giving yourself the credit you deserve.  Have you been swapping your soda for green tea?  Have you been making time for a lunch break?  Adding greens to dinner?  Whatever positive habits you’ve been working on adding into your routine, they matter. 

Success and momentum in the realm of health do not result from extreme behaviors or massive leaps, but rather lots and lots of baby steps that are so subtle and gradual, you may forget how far you’ve come.  Make sure you celebrate all the positive changes in your routine – both big and small! 

Get a good night’s rest

Sleep helps to boost and re-charge our “energetic bandwidth”, which is limited and finite.  If we’re spending all our energy points on mundane tasks/chores, we’ll tap out!  We can’t pour from an empty cup. 

When our energetic bandwidth is maxed out, we feel depleted and it becomes exponentially more difficult to follow through with health habits. 

Find gratitude

Instead of focusing on lack (or an outcome that you don’t yet have but are working towards), what have you accomplished that you’re proud of/grateful for?  (Science associates more gratitude with more patience! (2)

Explore what you value most

At the core level, if you don’t really value your health, you’ll never make it a top priority. There will never be a right time to address something unless it’s truly important to you.

If you don’t feel you value your health, I recommend doing some inner work.  (I personally think everyone should have a therapist or coach!)

For more information on how to shift your mindset and connect with your “why”, you may find my nutrition conviction article helpful too. 

Trust in the process

Focusing on the journey helps us to detach from a specific outcome.  Attachment to outcomes is what holds us back from moving forward.(I know… easier said than done!)

I recommend trying to focus on the gifts/skills that you got from stepping outside of your comfort zone. 

For example, on my healing journey, I was forced to tap into a tremendous amount of strength I didn’t know I had.  Making dietary changes that go against the grain was difficult, and also totally outside my comfort zone!  No magic pill could have taught me to stand my ground and live in alignment with my truth.  I also feel grateful for the amount of valuable information I learned along the way… I’m now able to share and offer so much more for my clients and community!


What kinds of gifts have you been able to extract from your healing journey thus far?  Let me know! 


If you have found this post helpful, please share it with someone you love who may need to hear it. 😉

Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll talk to you soon!  

<3 Jenna


  1. Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). “Attention In Delay Of Gratification” ( Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337.
  2. Dickens, Leah DeSteno, David. (2016). “The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting” ( American Psychological Association. 16(4): 421-425.