Lighthouse No. 4

Conquering delayed gratification

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Awww crap.

Morning already! You had promised yourself you’d wake up and start meditating today. The warmth and comfort of your bed is so much better than sitting with your back upright and cross-legged to quieten your mind.

The rational brain convinces you that sleep is a much needed resource for your body. You can push meditation off for now. Irony is — the same brain kept you awake late into the night scrolling your Social Media feed on a loop. It could not Delay Gratification to go to sleep and wake up early to meditate.

Delayed gratification is when you embrace pain and hard work in the present for a better future. The future reward would be bigger and better in comparison to the immediate one if you would have foregone the pain.

“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” — Epictetus, Discourses

In Stoicism, Delayed Gratification arose from the principle of resisting impulsive behaviour. Why is it so hard to resist impulsive behaviour? Looking back at our own history might give some insight.

In Sapiens, Yuval Harari provides an impressive narrative on the evolutionary history of humans. Human beings have a whopping 2.5 Million Years in the evolutionary bank account. But, the human brain was short changed. It did not have time to adapt to the radical changes it was subject to.

Till about 12000 Years ago, majority of the human population lived in small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Life was uncertain. The only food available was what ever was on hand at the moment. The evolutionary need had to be satisfied immediately, else there would be no history to write about. Shelter in place piggybacked on the Agricultural Revolution about 12000 Years ago. Survival was not threatened.

Delaying gratification is something that you are doing against your evolutionary history. Hence, a difficult stunt to pull off. Betting against a staggering 2.5 Million years of odds is not going to be a walk in the park. The brain is not hardwired to resist impulses as it involves a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Every time we seek gratification the brain releases small doses of Dopamine. Dopamine is also called the “seeking” or “wanting” chemical. The seeking effect causes the brain to seek more and puts us in an endless loop. The brain keeps wanting more without an end.

The human brain is an energy expensive organ. It consumes 20% of the body’s energy. To conserve energy it is always working on taking the optimal path to seeking pleasure. The easier it is to seek pleasure, the better it is for the brain as it expends lesser energy. Lesser effort, lesser energy.

How do we overcome this?

The Stoics were well aware of the benefits and challenges posed by Delayed Gratification. They debated on how to overcome this obstacle and use it as a stepping stone to success.

They discovered the answer to this question in an exercise — premeditation malorum. An exercise on the premeditation of evils. In simple terms this is know an the principle of visualising negative outcomes.

A negative outcome in this scenario could be Instant Gratification. What would happen if one resorted to instant gratification instead of delayed gratification? Turning towards every thing instantly gratifying would result in chaos. It will turn you in to a gratification junkie. Always seeking short term pleasures, life would implode. Always looking at the gratification in the immediate moment, you lose sight of the road ahead.

Instant gratification has a long term negative outcome. With the brain harping on every handy opportunity to keep itself happy, it will have to keep making decisions leading to fatigue. This also hampers effective decision making.

Premeditation malorum has immensely benefitted me in my life. I am grateful for coming across this technique.

Alcohol used to weaken my immunity and cause me to have repeated attacks of cold and flu. This was a negative outcome to cracking open a cold beer. Visualising this negative outcome made me give it up completely about 5 years ago. I’ve never felt better!

Running a business involves making a wide range of decisions — people, financial, strategic and what not. Lack of sleep isn’t exactly a booster to this. I visualised a situation where a lack of proper judgement could lead me to make a decision that would damage the lives of everyone in the organization. My body made good amends over this thought and I now get 7 hours of sleep.

About 7 years ago I was diagnosed with migraines. The Doctors told me it was something I had to live with. Pop a pill everyday to contend with the pain. One of these painful days I went riding my bicycle. After the ride the intensity of the head ache was lesser. I repeated this a few times and the end result was the same. Once again I visualised a negative outcome — one where in I could pop a pill a day for the rest of what would be my life. Or, I could flex my muscles. I’ve made it a point to get some form of exercise 4–5 times a week and I’ve now forgotten what a migraine is.

Visualising negative outcomes is also one of the most under-appreciated habits. Avoiding mistakes is a path to success too!

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them, not because we needed them but because we had them.” — Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Face small pains everyday and you will end up having a pleasurable life. Put this off for small pleasures everyday and life you will realise, will be a big pain in the ass.

Now, here’s some interesting stuff I came across this week:

  • The Backfire Effect: “Because this Universe of ours is so achingly beautiful...and we’re all in it together...we’re all going in the same direction...I’m not here to take control of the wheel...or to tell you what to believe...I’m just here to tell that it’s okay to stop...to listen...to change…"

  • It’s Time to Build by Marc Andreesen: "Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building?"

  • Entropy: Why Life Always Seems to Get Complicated by James Clear: "This insight—that disorder has a natural tendency to increase over time and that we can counteract that tendency by expending energy—reveals the core purpose of life. We must exert effort to create useful types of order that are resilient enough to withstand the unrelenting pull of entropy."

  • How Not to be Stupid: "Oh, I remember what the final one was, and it’s so funny I should forget it because it’s the one that usually triggers stupidity. Rushing or a sense of urgency. So funny I would forget that one. It’s usually the first one I say. By the way, if you’re outside your normal environment and you are rushing, you are in big trouble, which is why often people are rushing on the way to the airport and they forget their passport or they do something. It has to do with information overload."

  • Being Ethical is Long Term Greedy: "If you build a reputation for being ethical, people eventually will pay you just to do deals through you. Your involvement will validate deals and ensure they get done; because you wouldn’t be involved with low quality stuff."

A thought I’m ruminating on - “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you say and think.” - Marcus Aurelius

Till next weekend, 

Prashanth