Why I’ve never been able to delay gratification



“Couldn’t this have waited until morning?” Mum will ask tiredly when I call her late at night to ask a pressing question. And yes, I probably could have waited until morning to ask whether my old bedspread is still in storage, or what her plans are for the holidays, but then I would have been thinking about it all night. It is so much easier to just get it done now.

“Why didn’t you wait for your appointment?” my hairdresser will ask, shaking her head as she contemplates my uneven fringe. 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 waiting for anything. Two marshmallows might be better than one, but waiting for a marshmallow is far worse.

I am fascinated and awed by people who calmly wait for marshmallows. My elder daughter, for example, will realise she needs a new pair of shoes, and not buy them for weeks, or even months. She will think, “No biggie, I’ll get them later,” and park the desire in the back of her mind.

This is sensible and mature but it is not how my brain functions. My brain thinks, “I need a new pair of shoes.” Within minutes I am online, browsing through catalogues until I find a pair that will suffice. Often, I realise down the track that I would have found a better pair had I taken my time, but that is the price I must pay to eat my marshmallow now.

I have tried over the years to learn to delay gratification, with very minimal success. I once put a jumper on lay-by, way back in the days when Buy Now Pay Later was several inventions away. I paid a deposit, arranged to pay the jumper off in instalments, and left that beautiful jumper in the store.

It did not go well. I thought about the jumper all the way home, and in bed that night as I tried to sleep. I thought of how soft it was, how it would complement my jeans, how much I longed to wear it. The next day, I returned to the store, paid off the lay-by and never attempted that exercise again.

The Stanford marshmallow study found kids who could delay gratification grew into smarter, more competent adults than those who could not. (I know this because I skipped to the conclusion.)

Follow-up studies have questioned these claims and I’d like to add there are advantages to being a one-marshmallow person, which the Stanford team failed to note. For one thing, I’m extremely punctual. Whether I am meeting a friend for lunch, going to a movie or catching a flight, I will be there on time, if not early. I simply can’t wait a second longer than necessary.

For another, I never agonise over decisions. I like having issues resolved quickly, so if there are several options I’ll just pick one that looks okay and stick with that. I won’t spend hours debating which sofa to buy, or which holiday destination to visit, or which movie to watch. I’d rather have one good-enough 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 actually true? Two marshmallows in the hand are worth twice as much!”

But I am not listening. I am too busy eating the froth off my cappuccino. It’s my favourite part! I always have it first.

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