Why we failed at delayed gratification and what to do about it

Let’s pretend for a moment that you are a zebra in an African savannah landscape.

Every now and then, you get human visitors on safari taking photos of you.

The biggest difference between you and your zebra peers and the humans taking your picture is that nearly every decision you make provides an immediate benefit to your life.

  • When you are hungry, you walk over and munch on the grass.
  • When a thunderstorm comes, you take shelter under the trees.
  • When you detect a lion stalking you and your friends, you sprint away.

On any given day, most of your choices as a zebra—like what to eat or where to sleep or when to avoid a predator—make an immediate impact on your life. You live in what researchers call an Immediate Return Environment because your actions deliver immediate results. Your life is strongly correlated with the present moment.


You could be playing the fool too with your peers – a daily routine

The Delayed Return Environment

Now, let’s reverse the role and now, as you are, a human vacationing on safari. Unlike the zebra, you live in what researchers call a Delayed Return Environment.

Most of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately.

  • If you do a good job, you’ll meet your KPI and get good salary increments at the end of the year.
  • If you save money now, you’ll have enough for retirement later.
  • If you don’t exercise, you’ll eventually get fat, and later obese.

Many aspects of modern society are designed to delay rewards or consequences until some point in the future.

This is true of our problems as well. While a zebra is worried about immediate problems like avoiding lions and seeking shelter from a storm, many of the problems humans worry about are problems of the future.

Unfortunately, living in a Delayed Return Environment tends to lead to chronic stress and anxiety for humans. Why? Because your brain wasn’t designed to solve the problems of a Delayed Return Environment.

The Evolution of the Human Brain

The human brain developed into its current form while humans still lived in an Immediate Return Environment.

The earliest remains of modern humans—known as Homo sapiens sapiens—are approximately 200,000 years old. These were the first humans to have a brain relatively similar to yours. In particular, the neocortex—the newest part of the brain and the part responsible for higher functions like language—was roughly the same size 200,000 years ago as it is today.

Compared to the age of the brain, modern society is incredibly new. It is only recently—during the last 500 years or so—that our society has shifted to a predominantly Delayed Return Environment. The pace of change has increased exponentially compared to prehistoric times. In the last 100 years we have seen the rise of the car, the airplane, the television, the personal computer, the Internet, and smartphone. Nearly everything that makes up your daily life has been created in a very small window of time.

A lot can happen in 100 years. From the perspective of evolution, however, 100 years is nothing. The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for one type of environment (immediate returns) and in the blink of an eye the entire environment changed (delayed returns). Your brain was designed to value immediate returns.

Why we failed at delayed gratification

The mismatch between our old brain and our new environment has a significant impact on the amount of chronic stress and anxiety we experience today.

When we cannot take the stress and anxiety, naturally we say “Screw it!” and drop whatever we are doing.

Thousands of years ago, when humans lived in an Immediate Return Environment, it does not make sense for us to delay action in the face of immediate problems.

For example:

  • A lion appears across the plain > you feel terrified > you run away > problem solved.
  • A storm rumbles in the distance > you worry about finding shelter > you find shelter > problem solved.
  • You haven’t drank any water today > you feel stressed and dehydrated > you find water > problem solved.


This is how your brain was built for solving short-term, acute problems. There was no such thing as delaying actions which we solve  future problems in an Immediate Return Environment. It just does not make sense in this environment.

Today we face different set of problems.

  • Will I have enough money to comfortably retire or be financially independent by 50?
  • Will I get the promotion at work or remain stuck in my current job?
  • Will I have more paper loss if I don’t sell my stocks holdings now due to bearish sentiment, knowing very well these are resilient counters?

Problems in a Delayed Return Environment can rarely be solved right now in the present moment.

What to Do About It

One of the greatest sources of anxiety in a Delayed Return Environment is the constant uncertainty. There is no guarantee that working hard in school will get you a job. There is no promise that investments will go up in the future. There is no assurance that savings money now and investing will secure you a comfortable retirement.

Living in a Delayed Return Environment means you are surrounded by uncertainty. It is inevitable.

So what can you do? How can you thrive in a Delayed Return Environment that creates so much stress and anxiety?

The first thing you can do is measure something. You can’t know for certain how much money you will have in retirement, but you can remove some uncertainty from the situation by measuring how much you save each month. You can’t be sure that you’ll get a job after graduation, but you can track how often you reach out to companies about internships. You can’t predict when you find love, but you can pay attention to how many times you introduce yourself to someone new.

The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known. When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation. Measurement won’t magically solve your problems at all times, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening.

If you disagree, well, is there any better realistic option?

Furthermore, one of the most important distinctions between an Immediate Return Environment and a Delayed Return Environment is rapid feedback. Animals are constantly getting feedback about the things that cause them stress. As a result, they actually know whether or not they should feel stressed. Without measurement you have no feedback on your progress or how much further you are from your goals.

Shift Your Worry

The second thing you can do is “shift your worry” from the long-term problem to a daily routine that will solve that problem. The other analogy is not to eat the elephant but eat the bite size parts of the elephant. Here are some non-monetary examples:

  • Instead of worrying about living longer, worry about taking a walk each day.
  • Instead of worrying about whether your child will get a college scholarship, worry about how much time they spend studying today.
  • Instead of worrying about losing enough weight for the wedding, worry about cooking a healthy dinner tonight.

The key insight that makes this strategy work is making sure your daily routine both rewards you right away (immediate return) and resolves your future problems (delayed return).

Our brains didn’t evolve in a Delayed Return Environment, but that’s where we find ourselves today. My hope is that by measuring the things that are important to you and shifting your worry to daily practices that pay off in the long-run, you can reduce some of the uncertainty and chronic stress that is inherent in modern society, especially when it comes to money.

Adapted from JamesClear.com

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