Category: Decisions

The Trap that is Instant Gratification

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It is more prevalent today than ever before.  Enabled by the internet, smart phones, social media, and all sorts of other technologies that connect people with information, experiences, and entertainment at a faster and faster rate, our culture has come more and more to expect, and seek out what is commonly referred to as “instant gratification”.

Instant Gratification is defined as the desire for, or expectation of, some sort of result with minimal to no wait.  It can easily be summed up as having an “I WANT IT NOW” attitude.  A good example of this is the expectation that a web page be displayed on a computer screen or tablet pretty much as soon as one finishes typing in the web address.  In fact, some smart phones have taken this concept one step further, trying to anticipate where users are trying to go, or what application they are likely to want to use before they even take the time to type something in.

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Society’s move toward instant gratification did not begin with the internet.  Several decades before most people gained access to the net, fast food and television were already directing people towards choices that produce quicker results.  But, changes over the past quarter century have definitely accelerated the move in that direction.

In the early 1990s, being a demanding and highly impatient person was often still considered a negative trait.  Today, we are commended for making anything and everything operate quicker (unfortunately, sometimes at the expense of quality).  And, when people await what likes they will receive on an Instagram post within minutes of posting it, they are certainly acting within what is now the bounds of normal human behavior.

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This shift toward instant gratification has penetrated nearly all aspects of our society.  It has become so prevalent that, despite the fact that many people have become aware of the adverse effects of constantly searching for instant gratification, and have even begun to look for ways to rehabilitate their attention spans, it is a cultural shift that is nearly impossible to avoid.

For example, studies have shown that the average introduction to a song has reduced from 20 seconds to 5 seconds.  So, even those who have wholeheartedly chosen to reject the culture of instant gratification and seek out different experiences, are now listening to songs with shorter introductions, produced to cater to a culture that now demands to hear the hook sooner- otherwise, they will press the button and turn to the next song!  At work, regardless of one’s views on instant vs. delayed gratification, people are being increasingly asked to produce shorter presentations, shorter documents, and the types of products that produce rewards for users quicker.

It is for this reason this topic must be addressed.  Nobody exists in a vacuum.  Cultural trends find a way to impact nearly all people, including those who did not actively chose to participate.

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The incentives that drive people towards instant gratification are easy to understand.  A “reward” is received for little to no effort.  And, when humans perceive effort, time is often factored in.

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However, the unfortunate truth that many people are observing is that this new barrage of precieved great deals, with respect to effort vs. reward, have not necessary resulted in a better life.

The time has come to reconsider choices, especially those that pertain to choosing between endeavors that require more effort vs. less effort, or more time vs. less time.  While selecting the latter, instant gratification does often feel good at the moment, but the truth is…

It is Often the Less Healthy Decision

This it true for the mind, the body, and the spirit.  It is easier to go to a fast food restaurant, or heat up a hot pocket, than it is to plan out a healthy meal that provides balanced nutrition.  It is easier to get a mental “high” of sorts from drugs and alcohol than it is to feel rewarded from long strenuous exercise.

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And, unfortunately, it is easier to respond to a message on Facebook, or to SnapChat, than it is to have an actual conversation or experience with someone (which is what builds actual friendships).

The Happiness is More Brief

Due to certain aspects of how the human brain functions, the quicker one receives a “reward” (that being the good feeling one receives due to a specific event or occurrence), the shorter lived the positive feeling tends to be.  For example, there is a dichotomy with regards to people’s use and responses to any controlled substance, which has a direct impact on the brain.  One can smoke marijuana and be high almost instantly, but for modestly potent strains, the feeling will typically last less than an hour.  One can be high for several hours from a fat soluble edible of the same potency, but must wait 30-60 minutes before feeling the effect.

The same dichotomy exists for different drugs, and different potencies.  The quicker its impacts can be felt, the quicker the impacts recede.  A similar pattern can be seen with regards to the brain’s response to normal food and drink, as well as pleasure delivering experiences.  Think of sex with absolutely no foreplay, no build-up.

Even the Same Experiences are Less Satisfying

When the wait is shorter.  Look at how excited Cubs fans were, and still are, about having finally won a World Series.

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We Lose Patience

Over time, being the constant recipient of instant gratification can cause people to lose patience far more easily.  This will cause people to abandon pursuits of all kinds far more quickly.  In fact, in the United States, the rate of entrepreneurship is down over the past several decades, with a particularly steep decline that corresponds with the proliferation of social media and smart phones in the mid to late 2000s

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We Don’t Think Long Term

When the brain is consistently occupied with everything on short time frames, the capacity for long-term planning is diminished.  According to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. personal savings rate is nearly 50% lower than it was during the 1970s.  Saving money is one of the many long-term pursuits, along with building relationships of all kinds, health, and knowledge base development, that have a significant impact on life satisfaction.  All these pursuits appear to be diminished when one constantly pursues what is quick, easy, and short-term.

There are Some Unforeseen Negative Consequences

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Yeah, it is great that one can log onto their favorite social media site, and post something that either validates their opinions, helps diffuse their anger, or gives them a sense of moral superiority on something.  And, that is a quick reward.  But, what is it doing to friendships with those who happen not to feel that way.  From personal experience, it feels as if social media has done just as much to damage relationships as it has to enhance them.

And it is not just social media.  It is common for unforeseen adverse consequences to follow short-term thinking and communicating.  Companies that prioritize next quarter’s earnings over long-term planning may find themselves obsolete in a few years.  Communications in any form, even in person, can be taken the wrong way when not thought out, or expressed properly.  And, who hasn’t felt the 10 A.M. regret that results from having one too many drinks the night before, and/or waking up somewhere they do not recognize?

It Takes us Away From More Fulfilling Experiences

Yes, there is a place in the world for instant gratification.  The human experience is full of challenges, some of which require short-term thinking, short-term solutions and short-term rewards.  Most of the problems listed above are a result, not of one particular pursuit of instant gratification, but of people having become conditioned to primarily pursue instant gratification.

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Often times, the most fulfilling experiences are the ones that take time, effort, and planing.

Instant gratification is tool in our lives, the same way long-term planning is, the same way social interaction, meditation, and exercise are.  All have their purpose, and there are many purposes for which instant gratification serves.  The key is to recognizes that western society has become way to obsessed with receiving things with little to no effort or wait.  And to understand that instant gratification needs to be thought of as a tool, like medication, or the occasional ice cream binge to get over a bad situation, it should not be the default!

 

When was the last time YOU decided?

Life at age 4 is a strangely beautiful thing. I do not remember the details of my own life at age 4, nor do I know the details regarding the life of any present day 4-year-old. It’s probably a lot of running around aimlessly, and asking questions; the proverbial “why”. As I observe more and more of my friends having children, and remember my own childhood, one distinction between life at that age, and life as an adult, or even as a teenage comes to mind. 4-year-olds, having yet to enter school, rarely spend any time sitting around wondering what they should be doing. From what I see, the average 4-year-old has some kind of box of toys they just simply dive into. Either that or they are running around the yard. The commonality is, though, these 4-year-olds are not looking to someone else’s guidance when determining what they should be doing or what they should be thinking about and such. There is something simply magical about it.

I think I was 7 or 8 years old the first time I approached one of my parents and simply stated “I’m bored”. Little did I know that this would become an all too familiar theme throughout my life. Boredom is a concept I am quite fascinated with, as I have a personality type that is particularly prone to boredom. But, what is boredom? There are several theories, some involving people being afraid of their own thoughts, some believing it’s a healthy manner in which our brains ensure they are using their full capacity, and yet others stating it’s a symptom of an individual lacking imagination or creativity.

The final theory is the one that is the most disturbing. It suggests, in the most blunt terms possible, that a person being bored is really a person being boring. But, how did that come to be? How would we have transitioned, each one of us, from our 4-year-old selves, to these people who, given spare time, cannot even think of what we would like to do, or what we would like to think about?

One quite disturbing possibility is inadvertent, well-intentioned conditioning. At age 5, most of us enter a world (school) where the way we use our time, what activities we take part in, what topics we fill our minds with, is suddenly determined by someone else. This is quite a significant change from the days where the only instruction we received would be the occasional behavioral correction from our parents. It is possible that, having now been relieved of the duty of determining our own activities, day after day, year after year, the skills of self-determination we developed as a child simply atrophy. So accustomed to having an external forcing determine what we should be doing, and what we should be thinking about, we lose the ability of self-determination.

I see this process manifesting in high school. With the exception of a few leaders, and a few loners, most people join in peer groups, and accept a great degree of outside control from others. It is common for one “leader” to determine the activities for the night, and some combination of trends, pop culture, social norms, and the “in crowd” to determine most else.

Our present day society offers adults plenty of opportunities to continue to avoid having to determine their own thoughts and activities. Jobs are very much still structured so that anyone that wants to can have their boss or supervisor determine all their tasks for them. In fact, as much as things are starting to change, the world is still harsh for those of us that do want to have some say in what kind of work we would like to be involved in.  That covers 40-60 hours of the week.  For all else, outside of work, there are plenty of opportunities to turn to social media, news feeds, television, and advice, both solicited and unsolicited, to determine where our hearts, minds, and energy should be focused.

That leads me to one question, for all adults out there. When was the last time you decided what you were to do with your time, an hour, a day, or even a week?  By this, I am not talking about looking at a list of options and making a choice.  I mean choosing something you want to be doing, or thinking about, with no other influence besides your thoughts, feelings, and inspiration, much the way a 4-year-old would.  And, when was the last time you acted on something, without worrying about what is considered appropriate, what others expect from you, or what “needs to be done”?  While there is a reality to life, and we all have responsibilities, I have a feeling that pretty much every adult today has at least enough wiggle room to do so every once in a while.

 

Common Decisions We Make

First thing in the morning, many of us are already faced with a decision to make. For those of us fortunate enough not to live with a noisy roommate, or next to noisy neighbors, the first sound we hear in the morning is that of our alarm clock. And, while some of us are natural “morning people”, many of us are prompted to wake up by our alarm clock at a time when we would prefer to remain asleep. With nearly all alarms having a snooze option, we are faced with a choice; wake up as planned, or snooze, allow ourselves some extra sleep, and hope to get back on track for the upcoming day.

Regardless of whether we wake up at the previously planned time, set by our alarm clocks, or sleep a little extra, we will make plenty more decisions over the course of the day. On a working day, we will probably have to choose what tasks to prioritize, or how to do the specific tasks. As adults, we have to make choices every day regarding what food we are going to eat. And, despite what many say about “not having time”, we all do have spare time (more on this in a later entry), which we will have to decide what to do with.

And then there are the big ones:

Is it time to change career paths?

Should I stay in my current relationship?

What people should I try to surround myself with?

Is it time to move to another city?

Should I stand up to my boss, or some other kind of authority figure in order to remain true to myself, or accept something less than ideal to avoid the risk?

…. And so on

Many, but not all of our decisions in life present a similar type of conflict within ourselves. Often times, with decisions both big and small, there is a choice we can make that presents an “easier” path. Then, there is a choice we can make that would lead to a path that requires more from us, more time, more effort, or more risk. With this choice, we will follow a course that can be more challenging, but also has the potential to be more rewarding.

While the “easier” path may be enticing in some way, in most situations the following results will come to be:

  1. Whatever “reward” that does come from taking this path will be far more temporary
  2. The “reward” will often falls short of expectations
  3. Continuously Following the “easier” path will lead to an underwhelming feeling of stagnation in life

Take, for example, the alarm clock decision made first thing in the morning. In this situation, the easier way out is to allow ourselves extra sleep. After all, we could skip going to the gym before work, or making ourselves a nicer breakfast- there are granola bars we can grab and eat on the train. But, we are invariantly depriving ourselves of whatever activity we had planned for the morning, which, for nearly all non-drug addicts, would have had a positive impact on ourselves and our lives.

In addition, sleep pattern studies often indicate that post-alarm clock sleeping is among the least effective when it comes to sleep’s purpose; repairing body cells. For many of us, it does not even take until 7:00 A.M. to experience first-hand how taking the easier option of two possible choices leads to a “reward” that falls short of expectations.

In the 21st Century, we are commonly, and subconsciously choosing the “easier” path on a regular basis thanks to technology that offers us that option nearly constantly. Normal life hands us multiple situations a day, from waiting for a train, waiting for a friend to arrive at a bar, to waiting in line for lunch, where we have a simple choice between simply waiting and entertaining ourselves with the smart phones we now all have. Although it takes some physical effort to pull that phone out and decide which tweet to look at, it is by far “easier” for the masses to distract themselves with their devise than to face boredom, their own meandering thoughts, or even a potential awkward conversation with a stranger. That is why, everywhere we go these days, we see legions of people staring at their phones. Sometimes we even people out to dinner in a group all looking at their phones rather than interacting with one another!

That same distraction has been available in nearly all of our homes (although that is starting to change), for over half a century now. It is called a television set, and it offers the easiest possible choice to the decision of what to do with our spare time. Calling up a friend and arranging a get-together takes more work. Choosing an activity takes more effort, and anything that requires physical exertion, such as hiking, certainly takes more effort. Heck, even reading takes more effort. But, all are more rewarding.

Over time this all adds up. It is said that the average American spends roughly five hours watching television per day … five hours! This is just over 20% of our time, and adds up to 76 days in a 365-day year. Can you imagine what kind of rewarding life experiences we all can have if we were to free up just half of this time, 38 days? That’s enough time to read dozens of books, keep a whole new circle of friends, or even bike across the country! All of these are opportunities lost when we as a society continually take the “easy” route while make small scale decisions regarding what to do with our spare time!

Larger decisions, such as what to do with life, whether to have kids, etc., can be much more complicated. Generalizations like the ones presented above cannot be made regarding which choice is the “easy” one. And, a lot more needs to be considered when making these life-changing decisions. For example, at any moment in time, thousands of people are asking themselves whether to stay in a relationship that has been going on 6-12 months, or end it in search of somebody different. For some, staying together represents the “easier” of the two choices, but for others trying to work out their current relationship is the option that requires more effort. There are still others, in this exact same situation, where neither option is clearly lower effort.

Decisions of this nature are made based on a variety of considerations, and this easier vs. more rewarding conflict may not necessarily exist. However, there are still times when people chose to stay in mediocre relationships, at uninspiring jobs, or chose to keep meeting unnecessary obligations to their friends and family because they do not want to take the risk, or put in the effort that a major positive change would entail. There are always those questions. What if my new business fails? What if my ideal mate breaks my heart? What if confronting those closest to me point out a distressing aspect of who I am I was hoping to never have to confront?

Sometimes we will fail to overcome our fears. Sometimes, we simply lack the energy to put in the effort to try something new. Every one of us has had that night that we were invited out by our friends but were just too exhausted from the day at work, or the drama from the past two evenings, to bring ourselves to go out. And, every one of us has at some point concluded that the risk was too high to take on some kind of new endeavor. Still, we should not make a habit out of taking the easier path, when confronted with a choice, too frequently. By doing so, we all run the risk of missing out on opportunities, and falling victim to stagnation.