zenhabits : breathe

A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification

By Leo Babauta

It’s no secret that we live in the Age of Instant gratification.

That’s not news. But Paul Roberts has written an excellent essay at The American Scholar looking at the breadth of this phenomena on our society — it’s a must read.

A sample quote from Roberts’ essay:

‘The notion of future consequences, so essential to our development as functional citizens, as adults, is relegated to the background, inviting us to remain in a state of permanent childhood.’

And while he concludes that we need to change as a society, not just individuals, I’d like to show a path for individual change that might highlight a larger path for us as a whole.

This is a personal guide to overcoming the instant gratification to which we’ve all grown accustomed.

Why? What’s wrong with instant gratification — isn’t it true that You Only Live Once and that Life is Meant to Be Enjoyed?

Yes, life is meant to be enjoyed, but perhaps not wasted. Let’s take a look at a couple different ways of living to see what I mean.

The first way is Instant Gratification: pleasurable food, the riches of the Internet, video games, TV, drink, online shopping … anything we want, anytime we want it.

No limits, no restraints. This first way leads to debt, clutter, bad health, distractions, mindlessness. I’ve lived it, and it took me a long time to climb out of it.

The second way of living is the opposite: eat simple food in moderation, enjoy the Internet but with limits so that we can focus on important work, get away from TV and computers once in awhile to enjoy nature and being active and exercising, shopping less and having less possessions, finding focus and being mindful. It’s not that we don’t indulge in the treats of the first way, but we do it with a little restraint, and consciousness.

This second way leads to simplicity, health and fitness, focus, achievement, mindfulness, appreciation for all the gifts of life.

The first way is the result of the childish mind that we all have. The second way is the way of mindfulness and consciousness.

How to Overcome Instant Gratification

If the first way sound perfectly fine to you, there’s no need to read on. But if you’re interested in a bit of conscious living, a more mindful life, simplicity and health … how can we cope with the urge to be instantly gratified?

Here are the simple steps:

  1. Watch the urges. We all have urges, to check on email or social media, to eat something sweet or fried, to procrastinate or find distractions. They arise in all of us, but that doesn’t mean we need to act on them. The first step is to see the urges arise. What I’ve done is carried a pencil and piece of paper around, and put little tally marks on the paper each time I’ve had an urge. It’s a great tool for mindfulness.
  2. Delay. Instead of acting on the urge right when it arises, pause. Don’t act right away. Put some space between the urge and your action. Let your heartbeat return to normal, your breathing become a bit deeper. Calm down.
  3. Make a conscious decision. If you decide to indulge in a sweet, that’s perfectly fine … but do it consciously, not just following every whim and urge. Decide that this is a healthy thing for you to do, that you can afford it, that it’s a compassionate act for your body. Each decision is best made consciously, instead of just trying to gratify our desires.
  4. Learn over time. There will be many times when you give in to your urges — that’s OK. We all do it. There’s nothing wrong with giving in sometimes, but the key is to see how that makes you feel afterward, and learn whether the decision was a good one or not. The next time the decision comes up, think back to the previous time, and make a conscious decision not to make yourself feel greasy and bloated (for example), if that’s how you felt last time. Over time, your decisions will get better if you pay attention to how they turn out.
  5. Enjoy the moment without following the urge. Life is meant to be enjoyed, but there are different ways to enjoy it. You can eat that donut, or you can breathe, pass on it, and mindfully enjoy a handful of berries. Both are delicious! Both can be done mindfully. One is healthier. Either decision can lead to equal happiness if done mindfully and consciously.

And that’s the simple guide. It’s not an easy method by any means, but I can attest that living in a more conscious and mindful manner is a wonderful way of being. And the benefits I’ve found have been too numerous to name.

May your day be lovely and mindful.


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