How to Use Instant Gratification for Long-Term Growth

chocolate cake

by Vlad Dolezal on August 3, 2010

Instant gratification. The evil enemy of all long-term pleasure. The bag of sand to your fire. The essential singularity to your contour integral.

At least, that’s the popular perception. And for a good reason – instant gratification has a strong emotional pull, often pulling you away from your long-term goals and happiness.

But that same emotional pull can be used for good. In fact, it’s sometimes not only useful but necessary, because the prospect of long-term happiness has very little immediate emotional pull by itself.

So today, I’ll show you how to tame the wild horses of short-term gratification, and harness their immense power to drag your carriage of life forward!

How short-term gratification can align with your long-term goals

I was talking with a friend about life coaching the other day. She thought life coaching is mostly for people who want to give up responsibility for their life, let someone else tell them what to do and become more and more dependent on outside advice and help.

I struggled to explain why life coaching is about something completely different. And I came up with the following analogy:

Imagine you’re learning to play the guitar. You could completely refuse to learn any chords, or understand the music, and simply ask someone to show you how to play one particular song. You could memorize the hand/arm motions, and eventually be able to play this one song, without generalizing any of the knowledge, and seeing how it could apply to other songs.

Yes, you could do that. But who the hell would learn to play the guitar like that?

More likely, you would start strumming the guitar, and discover some pleasant sounds. Maybe ask someone to show you some chords, or learn to read chord notation, and have fun with it and start learning to play some simple songs.

Then, one day, you would come across a beautiful song that would capture your heart, and make you think – “This is what I want to be playing! No matter what!”

But soon you’d discover the song is harder than anything you had learned so far, and you would need quite a bit more skill to play it.

Now, you could decide to keep practising as you had until now. You would slowly build up your skill level, and maybe in half a year, or one year, you would be able to play that song.

Or… you could ask for help. Hire a teacher, and have them explain what you’re missing. Teach you some new hand/arm motions. Take you by the hand and guide you in your learning, so you can master the beautiful song much faster and better than you could alone.

And you would learn. And you would take away the new skills, and be able to apply them to other songs in the future.

That’s what life coaching is like. It gives you many useful tools and techniques that will greatly improve your life over the long term… but it’s all done through the immediate motivation of a burning desire to change one particular aspect of your life.

Like with the beautiful guitar song tugging at your heart, the immediate challenge provides the necessary motivation, even though you will reap the benefits for years to come.

And that got me thinking. What if… instead of waiting for for months for powerful short-term motivation to appear, you ARRANGED the motivation to appear!

What if you actively went looking for a short-term project that would get you excited and energized and eager to get learning, in alignment with your long-term goals…

How to arrange short-term gratification aligned with your long-term goals

So you have a long-term goal. Maybe you want to learn to play the guitar. Or you want to learn French. Or you want to start your own business.

But you lack the immediate motivation to get started on it. All those goals are far away and abstract. Which gets us to the first step…

1. Why do you really want to achieve that long-term goal?

No, you don’t want to start your own business to earn money. Money is just a means to an end. You don’t want to learn to play the guitar to produce sound, because sound in itself is meaningless.

Your motivation is based on emotions. So dig deeper, and figure out what emotional payoff will your goal give you.

Then think about an ideal scene that sums up what will happen when you have achieved your goal. Maybe you’re sitting around a camp-fire, playing the guitar while half a dozen of your best friends are singing along. Or you’re visiting a local French person in their home, marveling at their way of life and having them show you around their hometown, all done in French.

Whatever your long-term goal is, find a scene that sums it up. Because this is the key to what you really want to achieve through that goal.

2. Set an immediate short-term goal that gives you a taste of your ultimate long-term goal

Break down your big challenge into small short-term goals. Or, if your long-term growth goal is building a skill, figure out what milestones you will meet along the way as you build this skill.

Then figure out what’s the next immediate short-term challenge. Find something aligned with your long-term goals, that you really want to be doing.

For example, if your goal is playing the guitar like above, your short-term goal might be getting together with just one friend and playing and singing together a single song you both like. That’s a short-term and immediately gratifying goal 🙂

And now on to a little-used yet just as important step…

3. Turn up the emotional pull of your short-term goal

Most people, once they have their short-term goal set, fail to get the most out of it.

Setting the goal is just the start. Turn up the motivation so the goal really sucks you in and gets you flying towards your long-term goal!

Do things like:

  • telling all your friends about your new goal
  • telling the whole world (via facebook, twitter, whatever)
  • getting a friend to get involved in your goal with you (ask them to personally keep you accountable, or be there with you, or set a similar goal so you can keep each other in check)
  • keeping a diary every morning or evening, checking on your progress
  • taking a few minutes to visualize your ultimate dream outcome, and feel all the great emotions that go with it. Then realizing that your short-term goal is the first step along the way.

…and anything else you can think of that kicks up the motivation.

All of the above examples increase the immediate pleasure of achieving your short-term goal or increase the pain of failing it. And as you might know from the pain and pleasure principle, all motivation essentially comes down to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Voilà, instant motivation!

Give this a try

Does this sound too easy? Of course it does. But don’t let that fool you!

A lot of people think personal development should be hard. And if it isn’t tough and painful to go through, surely it can’t be that good for you. Right?

But that fact is, real personal development is easy. Not in the sense of taking little effort – but in the sense of making the effort fun and interesting! Just like playing an interesting game – you put a lot of effort and energy into it, but it’s interesting effort and fun energy. Fun Life Development.

So don’t just nod your head and then move along without trying the techniques in this post. It’s precisely because they seem so easy that they make for great personal development.

So unleash those wild horses of short-term gratification, and let them work for you instead of against you!

(image courtesy of footosvanrobin)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

liz August 12, 2010 at 02:31

I have been having the hardest time with my long term goal executions. So much so that I hired a therapist to help me with them. She taught me about instant gratification–which I always do–and long term gratification which I always sabotage. This article points about adding fun and interesting to you short term goals to compliment your long term goals are great! Thank you.

Reply

Vlad Dolezal August 12, 2010 at 06:45

@Liz:

Here’s hoping the long-term gratification thing is working out for you 🙂

Reply

Hollinder Grey August 15, 2010 at 10:58

This is just what I needed. Just the other day I’d started asking myself, “How can I turn my long-term goals into daily habits that can give me enjoyment right now in the present moment so that I’ll stay motivated even when the bigger picture seems so far away?” I was really struggling with that question, too. But thanks to you, it’s become so easy–and I feel a little silly for not thinking of it myself.

Now off topic . . . I was wondering how your last name is pronounced and whether that’s a common name in the UK. I think it’s quite neat.

Reply

David Lawson August 18, 2010 at 23:13

Thanks Vlad.

Another great post. The times I really enjoy PD are when short term pleasure and long term growth coincide!

Reply

Vlad Dolezal August 21, 2010 at 14:58

@Hollinder:

Congrats on thinking of the same question yourself! Figuring out the right question is usually 90% of the battle 🙂

My name is pronounced… Do- as in “dork”, -le- as in “left”, the z is actually supposed to have a squiggle on top and be pronounced like the s in “usual” and the -al is pronounced like in “alcohol”. Do-le-zal. And it’s a Czech name, I only live in the UK at the moment for my university studies. Since you asked 🙂

@David:

Word.

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