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By Chris Egan
Most of the things I buy are indulgences that, to some degree, I later regret. Making purchases based on immediate gratification is like adding extra sugar to a crappy cup of coffee to hide the bitterness. In the end, it’s just going to make you feel bad.
My wife and I moved into our new home about a year ago and on the walls in the rooms we hang out in the most, we haven’t hung up any pictures, artwork, or decor to speak of. In fact, most of the decor from our old home is still packed away or it was sold at our yard sale.
It was during the move that I really started leaning toward a more minimal lifestyle, though the true commitment was yet to come. I was hesitant to throw any old photograph or piece of art up on the wall. So we just kept the walls bare.
A couple weeks ago while killing some time before a work appointment, I stumbled upon a Bed Bath and Beyond sidewalk sale. I blacked out for what was probably 15 minutes and found myself driving away, the proud new owner of a 3’ x 5’ canvas print to hang in my home. It was a photo of someone’s rock and metal cassette tape collection perfectly arranged in a pleasing pattern. I thought it was cool! I am a musician, I like music, my walls are bare, why wouldn’t I buy it! Fast forward to today and not only do I have no intention of ever hanging it up, but I plan to include it on the next day of my decluttering challenge. It was fun to look and reminisce over the bands I used to listen to, but I don’t need to see this thing every day. It will bring me no more joy than it already did when I looked at it for free in the store.
Most of my unplanned purchasing decisions are made this way. They are based solely on short term pleasure rather than also considering how I’ll feel about this thing tomorrow, next week, next year.
I think this approach to decision making is present in other areas in my life too. I often choose immediate over delayed gratification. I don’t know how I was as a child, but I imagine I’d have been one of the kids that ate the single marshmallow in the Stanford studies rather than wait and get two marshmallows (see Stanford Delayed Gratification Marshmallow Study).
(The above video is an example of a similar experiment to the Stanford Study and not footage of the Stanford study itself.)
Fortunately, we do not have to suffer indefinitely from the flaws we develop. Delayed gratification may be a marker for success in children but it’s also a skill that can be learned in adults.
I’ve been looking for opportunities to practice this skill and I’ve already found several.
I was going to have beer on Sunday afternoon before I cut the grass but decided to delay gratification until I was done. It would taste better then anyway.
Another day, I was going to have a big chunk of chocolate after dinner but decided to wait until after putting my son to sleep. It was delicious.
That night, I was super tired and ready for bed but decided to take a shower first so I wouldn’t have to in the morning. I was able to take my time getting out of the house the next day.
Today, I was going to read more of a book I’ve been enjoying but decided to write this post first.
Going even deeper, “experts” have said that 90 percent of all purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. This means that most of the time we don’t even realize WHY we want to buy something, we just know we do. In the case of the canvas print that I bought, it evoked the power of nostalgia in me.
So not only do we have to overcome the need for immediate gratification, but we have to recognize, in the moment, that we are being manipulated.
Delaying gratification is a skill that will transfer to all kinds of situations in my life, not just shopping, so I believe it’s worth the effort to develop it—plus I enjoy the challenge. Hopefully, next time I black out and go shopping, I’ll make my purchasing decisions based on future needs, not current wants.