Worth the wait: Learning how to delay pleasure

Do you buy things before you can really afford them, or have trouble meeting your goals? Learning to delay gratification will strengthen your character. Read on for ideas to help you start.

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  • My daughter, like many 4-year-olds, loves candy. After receiving a bag of candy from a birthday party, she wanted to eat it all immediately. I gave her one piece and told her we were going to save the rest. The next day we had a long car ride. She asked for her candy the minute we got in the car. I gave her one piece and then asked her to wait as long as possible, up to an hour, for her next piece. Four minutes later, she asked for the next piece of candy. My husband and I looked at each other and laughed.

  • For preschoolers, delaying gratification is difficult. Some adults struggle with this concept as well, needing the newest cell phone the minute it's available or wanting the perfect job without getting an education or climbing the corporate ladder. Learning to delay pleasure will lead to greater success. These three ideas will help you learn to wait for what you really want.

  • Remember the marshmallows

  • A now famous study done at Stanford in the 1960s is oft-cited for explaining how we learn to delay gratification. Simply put, children were placed in a room with one marshmallow on a plate. Then, the researcher gave a simple instruction: eat the marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and receive another marshmallow. When researchers checked in on the children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow without eating the first, they found those children scored better on standardized tests, had better health and were less likely to have behavior problems.

  • Now, don't submit your children to the marshmallow test to see how they fare. The parent-child relationship is too complicated for an objective assessment. Instead, apply this principle as you think about of self-control in yourself and your children. Are you able to wait for things you really want? Do you squirm and struggle, or remain calm and focused? How do you feel when you lose willpower or give up on a goal too soon? How do you feel when you succeed. These questions may be hard to ask, but they'll help you improve.

  • Start small

  • I used to hate waiting for my birthday or Christmas. I'd look for hidden presents and try to peek at wrapped ones, so curious that the wait seemed impossible to endure. If this sounds like you, consider small steps toward self-control. Say you want a new pair of boots, but don't really have the money. Instead of buying them on credit and facing the consequences later, save $10 a week by skipping lunch out with friends. Soon you'll have enough for the boots and the satisfaction of paying cash.

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  • Another example of starting small is when you have a big goal in mind. It will take time to lose 50 pounds or be in shape to run a half marathon. Cutting a big goal down into smaller ones will help you stay focused. If you need to lose 50 pounds, start by trying to lose 10. If you want to run 13.1 miles, start by running two. Willpower and motivation will increase as you make and meet small goals. You can even reward yourself for reaching the small ones, like losing the first 10 pounds. The gratification comes when you can wear a smaller size, feel healthy and live the life you want to.

  • Out of sight, out of mind

  • I want to move into a different house, but it's not the right time for our family to move. We need to save more for a down payment and make sure my husband's job situation is secure. I was spending time perusing real estate websites and going to open houses, but that was just making me want to move even more. To exercise self-control and feel happy with my current situation, I've focused on making the home I have efficient, organized and comfortable. I feel more content now.

  • If you cannot have the thing you want now, don't focus on it. Put away the vacation brochure, the fashion lookbooks and the tech reviews. Find ways to be happy with your current situation and work toward what you want in life. Sometimes job training, education and saving money take longer than we'd like.

  • The patience we exhibit while waiting says a lot about our character, and the satisfaction you'll feel when you get what you want after working for it will be sweeter than a whole bag of marshmallows.

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Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.

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