Breaking the Habit of Instant Gratification


OCT. 26, 2017

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now
— Queen

When’s the last time you allowed yourself to be bored?

It happens to all of us—boredom, that is. When you see a line stretch ahead of you at Costco, your first reaction is probably to whip out your phone and scroll through Instagram or play Candy Crush. Then, before you know it, it’s your turn to flash your Costco card. Boredom eliminated!

Our phones are the ultimate boredom-killers, but there’s a small price we have to pay for these marvelous devices: the elimination of patience and awareness of the world around us. (Okay, maybe it’s not that small a price.)

I Don’t Wanna Wait

Instant gratification is a powerful force. After all, when you want something you don’t want to wait, you want it now. And so it’s pretty easy to start mixing up “wants” with “needs.”

They’re not the same thing. What you need are things like food, water, shelter, and all the other stuff that’s required for survival and well-being. What you want are things like that cute pair of shoes or the hot new phone. But when you want something, really really want it, the line gets blurred, and stuff like “I’ll just die if I can’t get those shoes!” starts flying out of your mouth.

Just Gimme Another Hit

It’s all about instant gratification. You want something, and when you get it you feel a little rush, a little blip of pleasure in the back of your brain. The blip is caused by dopamine, an organic chemical in your body that’s released every time you receive a reward. When you chow down on cheesecake or post a photo that gets a bunch of likes, it’s the dopamine that makes you feel so good.

Problem is, the rush doesn’t last very long. You feel good, and then it’s gone. It felt so good, you want it again. And the more often you feel it the more you can’t wait for the next hit. If this sounds like taking drugs, well, that’s no coincidence. Most of the addictions you can think of, like drugs, alcohol, and gambling, are all connected to surges of dopamine.

The Technology Drug

Thanks to modern technology like smartphones and social media, it’s easier than ever to feed our hunger for instant gratification. Why wait for anything when watching videos, bingeing on TV shows, and listening to almost any song is only a couple of taps away?

Technology is the ultimate enabler: If you want it, you can have it. Right now.

So What’s the Problem?

The negative side of instant gratification becomes clear when you don’t end up getting what you want, right when you want it. Remember the last time you posted a photo of your meal and you didn’t get any responses right away? How did you feel? Frustrated, impatient, maybe a little (or a lot) anxious? Is this the way you want to feel all the time?

Another thing that happens when you’ve lost your sense of patience is that you’ll feel like you’re not able to accomplish anything. You go to work and throw everything you’ve got into your job and get overwhelmed by a sense of frustration and failure because it’s been a year and you haven’t achieved your goals and so you leave for another company and start the cycle all over again.

If you had a more patient perspective, though, you might realize that a year isn’t that long when it comes to a career. For most people it takes a long time, a lot of work, and a bunch of changes in direction to achieve their goals. But when all you know is instant gratification, all you care about is reaching the summit of the mountain, even though it’s the hike along the way that’s really important.

Take the Slow Lane

Hopefully by now you agree that maybe, just maybe, having all your desires fulfilled right away isn’t such a great thing. You might even be sick of it, but breaking free of this nasty habit isn’t easy. Our phones are always within arm’s reach, and always ready to fill in those slow moments with dopamine-triggering rewards.

But it can be done. If you’re willing to try and pull yourself out of the endless dopamine spiral, here are a few things you can try:

Be Bored

Resist the temptation to pull out your phone the next time you have an idle moment. When you’re stuck waiting for your drink at Starbucks, take the opportunity to look around. Observe the people around you, or take a few deep breaths and pay attention to how your body feels.

Appreciate the Little Things

The next time you’re eating on your own, put your phone away and pay full attention to your food. When you’re walking along the street, look around and notice the street around you. There’s an entire world out there, filled with endless variety. Soak it up.

Be Present

Our phones are extremely good at immersing us in a parallel reality filled with cat videos and viral blog posts and photo streams. Instead, every once in a while, try pulling yourself away from this technological portal and live in the moment.

Talk to the person sitting across the table from you, instead of texting a friend who’s miles away. Watch your kid scrambling across the monkey bars at the playground. Feel what’s happening, right here, right now, and let it wash over you.

Retrain Your Brain

Keep at it, and eventually you’ll find that your palm doesn’t itch for the cool, flat surface of your phone quite so often. By paying more attention to the little things and resisting the urge to satisfy your desires as soon as they pop up in your brain, you’ll be able to shift into a slightly different perspective. Maybe you can slow down the pace of your life, just a little, and rediscover the sense of patience that seemed to have disappeared long ago.

So the next time you’re bored, embrace it. See it as an opportunity, not a burden. Give your brain the opportunity to drift and dream, and think about how the hike is just as important—if not more so—than reaching the summit. 


Written by Paul Meen Park
Published Oct. 26, 2017

feature image: Tony Lam Hoang