There’s a reason why you usually go for the cookie, instead of the celery stick. It’s the same reason why you will be scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed when you should be doing your laundry or paying your bills. It’s not your lack of willpower or weak character or bad genes and it’s not entirely your fault. It’s your brain. Now the bad news is that this is the only brain you’re ever gonna have, so you’ve got to work with it. The good news is that you can train your brain to be a little less greedy about grabbing onto the lowest hanging fruit, so you can climb up higher to where the really good stuff in life is.
I am the last person to bad mouth technology because, hey I freakin’ love technology. After all, it’s brought us together, hasn’t it? I mean I wrote these words on a MacBook, not a typewriter. And then published them on the a cloud based platform, and you are probably reading these words on some kind of device right now. Technology is amazeballs, in my opinion. But there’s no denying that our brains are not quite ready for the avalanche of information and stimulation that digital technology and the use of screens has introduced into our lives in the last few years.
Although I am not a scientist and don’t want to bore you with research studies, the use of screens is making us more prone to giving into immediate gratification than ever. I don’t like it, but it’s a proven fact. The technology behind social media, in particular, is being engineered to be addictive and we are all being exposed to one giant science experiment. Think about it. Why are you more likely to reach for your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store than you are to start up a conversation with an attractive stranger? Immediate gratification. The phone has an endless number of exciting options like social media, email, and games to entice you.
At the very least you will be distracted and either engaged or entertained for a few moments rather than standing around with nothing to do while waiting for your turn. And how many humans can you meet at the grocery store that will be so predictably interesting that they can compete? Do you know that there are now residential treatment centers all over the US for internet addiction, gaming addiction and other forms of technology addiction? The reason is simple, human beings are hardwired for immediate gratification and technology is putting that tendency on crack, metaphorically.
Remember our old friend, dopamine? Well, once again, dopamine is the one responsible for the immediate gratification effect. It’s like this. Dopamine is the chemical our brain makes that rewards our effort and motivates us to keep going. If you do something that you get positive attention for, you get a squirt of dopamine. Some things feel rewarding to the majority of people, like getting a compliment for a job well done. But not everyone likes that kind of attention, so in the case of someone who hates being praised, no dopamine is released. That person might get more dopamine from managing to fix a problem at the office without anyone knowing it was them. Anyway, once you get some dopamine for taking action, it rewards you, so you want to keep taking that action. Dopamine is the reason people persist at something until it is finished. Those of us who have brains that make less dopamine naturally have a harder time getting all the way to the finish line. This is especially true for people with ADHD who are notorious for being great at staring but sucky at finishing. We simply run out of dopamine long before we get to the end zone.
So, what does this have to do with immediate gratification? Plenty, as it turns out. When faced with the choice between something that will give us instantaneous dopamine, like opening TikTok or IG and starting to scroll, or opening our personal accounting software app to start balancing our monthly finances, you know damn well which app will win. While we will definitely get a shot of dopamine when we finish the monthly finances, that might take 30 minutes or more, while TikTok delivers the goods within 15 seconds. It’s no contest.
Back to the cookie and the celery sticks. Which one do you think delivers more dopamine? You guessed it, the cookie. And not just because the human brain prefers sweetness, which it does, but because when you eat the cookie, you are rewarded with both dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good chemical. Those celery sticks haven’t got a chance. What are we poor humans to do? How do we outsmart our brains when it comes to immediate gratification?
Well, first and foremost, we need to take account of the facts and be honest with ourselves about our own potential to get hooked. Don’t lie to yourself and tell yourself you are “only going to check” when you know damn well that nine times out of ten, you will still be scrolling 45 minutes later. Pay attention to what times of day and what emotional states leave you most vulnerable to falling face first into a screen sucking state of unconscious scrolling and make some rules for yourself that keep you out of the danger zone.
For example, I made a rule for myself that I must “create before consuming” which means if I have a blog post to write or a podcast episode to record or a social media caption to add to a graphic, I do that first. If I violate this rule, I waste time and lose momentum. I also don’t allow myself to indulge in TikTok (the most addictive app for me at this time…) when I am bored, lonely or tired because I will lose track of time and end up feeling unmotivated and mentally foggy, like I have been hypnotized because that is the effect these apps have on me after the first 5–10 minutes. I use these apps as a reward for reaching a productivity goal or for getting a challenging task done and I don’t use my phone in bed because it’s just to easy to lose track of time and lose control of my consumption. My goal is to enjoy the time I spend on these apps by being intention about how, when and why I use them. I respect their addictive nature, and I know my ADHD brain’s tendency to get hooked. Immediate gratification brings fun, pleasure and spontaneity into my life, but it will never make me proud. I need the ability to delay gratification to get there.