Why I could never delay gratification


“Couldn’t that have waited until morning?” Mom will ask tiredly when I call her late at night to ask her a pressing question. And yes, I probably could have waited until morning to ask if my old bedspread was still put away, or what her plans were for the holidays, but I would have been thinking about it all night. It’s so much easier to do it now.

“Why didn’t you wait for your appointment?” my hairstylist will ask, shaking her head as she gazes at my uneven bangs. I wanted to wait, I really did, but my hair was too long, and the scissors were in my bathroom, and a week felt like an eternity.

I am genetically incapable of expecting anything. Two marshmallows might be better than one, but waiting for a marshmallow is much worse.

I am fascinated and impressed by people calmly waiting for marshmallows. My eldest daughter, for example, will realize that she needs a new pair of shoes and won’t buy them for weeks or even months. She’ll think, “No problem, I’ll buy them later,” and park the desire in the back of her mind.

It’s sensible and mature, but that’s not how my brain works. My brain thinks, “I need a new pair of shoes. Within minutes I’m online, browsing catalogs until I find a pair that will suffice. Often I realize along the way that I would have found a better pair if I had taken my time, but that’s the price I have to pay for eating my marshmallow now.

I have tried over the years to learn how to delay gratification, with very minimal success. I once put a sweater on hold, back when Buy Now Pay Later was several inventions away. I paid a deposit, arranged to pay for the sweater in installments, and left this beautiful sweater in the store.

It didn’t go well. I thought about the sweater all the way home and about bed that night as I tried to sleep. I thought about how soft it was, how well it would complement my jeans, how badly I wanted to wear it. The next day I returned to the store, paid the wait, and never attempted this exercise again.

The Stanford Marshmallow Study found that children who were able to delay gratification grew into smarter, more competent adults than those who couldn’t. (I know because I jumped to the conclusion.)

Follow-up studies have challenged these claims, and I’d like to add that there are benefits to being a marshmallow person that the Stanford team didn’t note. For one thing, I’m extremely punctual. Whether I’m meeting a friend for lunch, going to the movies, or taking a plane, I’ll be there on time, if not early. I just can’t wait a second longer than necessary.

On the other hand, I never agonize over decisions. I like problems to be solved quickly, so if there are multiple options, I’ll just pick one that looks okay and stick with it. I won’t spend hours debating which couch to buy, or which vacation destination to visit, or which movie to watch. I’d rather have a pretty good option sorted now than a better option further down the track.

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“A marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush!” I tell my partner.

He shakes his head. “You know that’s not true? Two marshmallows in the hand are worth double!”

But I don’t listen. I’m too busy eating my cappuccino froth. It’s my favorite part! I always have it first.

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