Everything felt boring. At the end of last year, I sat down to reflect alongside a burning candle and my crystals. Setting intentions for the new year, I kept returning to an overwhelming sense of boredom. On paper (and according to my BeReal recap), I’d had an exciting year. I traveled, I hit major goals, I made new friends. But when I thought back on my day-to-day, I could barely see past all the days spent sitting on my couch, feeling uninspired, unmotivated, and unsatisfied.

“When I thought back on my day-to-day, I could barely see past all the days spent sitting on my couch, feeling uninspired, unmotivated, and unsatisfied.”

Maybe these were false memories. Could I just be clouded by my end-of-year ennui? I flipped through my journal to set the record straight. Surely enough, between bursts of excitement, the pages confirmed my fears. For months I had wrestled with the same constant need to somehow escape from my life.

How many of us have felt this? Even when, by all accounts, things are going well. Gratitude lists just make me feel guilty for having so much but still feeling unsatisfied. And trying to give myself an escape through things like travel or shopping is always only temporary. (Yes, I’m guilty of more than a few impulse buys that I swore would change my life but alas, no pair of ballet flats has ever transformed me into Mila Kunis in “Black Swan.”)

Tapping my pen against my desk, I thought back to advice I’d been given in countless writing workshops. When you feel stuck, don’t try to change what’s not working — go to the beginning of the piece and start there.

The root of the problem wasn’t, like I thought, my life. It was how I was living it — or, better yet, trying to escape it. I was always in a rush to get something done or get something new, so of course the still moments felt like restlessness. Instead of sitting in the stillness, I tried to fill every moment with pleasure. Quick dopamine hits like social media, late-night takeout, and big thrills like travel were all part of the same search for stimulation.

But it was clear that rushing through my life and filling it with these momentary pleasures had gotten tedious. Even the things that had once felt special and luxurious barely registered as pleasurable anymore. Treating myself to ordering in didn’t feel like a treat when I did it every other night. Online shopping was more common than I’d like to admit. And I could scroll through every streaming service and still feel…bored.

“It was clear that rushing through my life and filling it with these momentary pleasures had gotten tedious.”

I was doomscrolling through my days. On my phone, I’d get trapped in endless cycles of switching from various social media apps for low-level stimulation that weren’t entertaining or enriching me. In my life, I was doing the same.

This realization felt significant, but it didn’t come with readymade answers. There wasn’t one thing I could change to feel like I was living my life again. Quick fixes were the problem, after all.

I can’t be the only one, I thought. My research led me to the concept of delayed gratification. While I was familiar with this in theory, I hadn’t thought to apply it to my life. Simply put, delayed gratification is the process of prioritizing your future needs over your present impulses. Sounds simple enough, like something we cultivate in childhood (and we do), but our current culture of convenience has made it easy — necessary, even — to have everything we want, now.

“Delayed gratification is the process of prioritizing your future needs over your present impulses.”

Next-day shipping, buy-now-pay-later apps, on-demand entertainment, and more. I indulge in these conveniences daily. And of course, convenience services have immensely improved some aspects of my life. But are they robbing me of others?

According to social worker Matthew Werkman, LLMSW, “Our relationship with instant gratification developed in a world where survival was perpetually front of mind. Instant gratification was a key factor in ensuring survival by securing attainment of one’s needs on any one given day. As a result, we developed an eye for immediate rewards, even if they are not sustainable solutions in the long-term.”

This biological impulse isn’t inherently bad, and I wasn’t ready to give up instant gratification altogether. However, when I realized that my constant pleasure-seeking behaviors were robbing me of lasting satisfaction, I knew I had to make a change.


Why practice delayed gratification?

One of the cosmic lessons I am always relearning is that cultivating happiness is an internal process. As a reformed overachiever, I used to seek external validation for happiness. Then, I retreated into myself and confused contentment with complacency. Now, I am trying to uncouple the idea of a truly happy life from constant convenience and stimulation.

“I am trying to uncouple the idea of a truly happy life from constant convenience and stimulation.”

For this new phase, I realized delayed gratification was the difference between seeking serotonin (which is associated with real happiness) and dopamine, which is often confused for happiness but is distinct. Serotonin promotes feelings like satisfaction, optimism, focus, and calmness, but dopamine is associated with rewards and motivation. There’s a place for both — if you’re not confusing one for the other.

Often, the pursuit of dopamine actually gets in the way of long-term satisfaction. In my case, I was depleting my ability to be satisfied with anything by trying to find quick pleasure in everything.

Plus, delayed gratification plugs us into the community that surrounds us. “Delayed gratification allows us to develop a greater appreciation for the perspectives of others and a deeper understanding of what is truly important in our relationships, leading to more meaningful and fulfilling connections with those around us,” says Werkman.


How to train your delayed gratification muscle

For me, this journey of embracing delayed gratification came with the new year. Past years have seen me make sweeping promises to change my life, only to fall back into my old habits as if they were the comfortable, worn-in spot on my couch. It’s easy to do as you’ve always done — especially when there’s no reward for changing (or no consequences for not changing).

“It’s easy to do as you’ve always done — especially when there’s no reward for changing (or no consequences for not changing).”

With a goal that was literally about delaying immediate rewards, I knew I would be fighting against many natural impulses and years of mindless habits. But if the reward was a year I could — regardless of any big milestones and major events — look back on with warmth rather than listlessness, it would be worth an attempt.

When I started my journey, I had the momentum of New Year’s resolutions propelling me forward. I was on my way but I didn’t quite yet know what this new, slower life would look like. I didn’t know what was realistic for myself yet. I had identified the most common ways I was cutting corners and choosing mindless convenience. But how would I quantify what the “right” amount was?

It might sound counterintuitive, but in my quest for balance, I cut myself off completely. In the three areas that I was most susceptible to seeking instant gratification, I decided to do a few challenges. While my friends were trying dry January, I was doing my own elimination challenge. In January, I quit sugar and online shopping. In February, I deleted my food delivery apps. In March, I re-evaluated.

Here’s how it went.

The least successful: Quitting sugar

Don’t get me wrong, I did it. And then on February 1st I had the sugariest breakfast I could imagine. But I managed it — despite how hard it was. I quit caffeine last year and, while I felt tired for a few days early in the process, it was easy to focus on how much better I felt to distract myself from missing my daily matcha. However, my sugar cravings were constant. It proved that I did, in fact, have a dependency on the quick rush that sugar gives me. But it also proved that I definitely didn’t want to give it up entirely.

My sugar-free month did teach me new habits that I am trying to be consistent with now: Reaching for nourishing foods first, eating intuitively, and listening to my body instead of avoiding my emotions. But a sweet treat once in a while will always be part of my life. I’ll just consider it more before I take that first bite.

The most successful: Quitting online shopping

I consider myself a pretty mindful shopper. I research the companies I buy from, I try not to fall into trends, and I think a lot about cost-per-use before I make a purchase. Most of the time. However, a few times a year, I’ll frantically make a succession of expensive impulse buys in an attempt to turn into someone else overnight — or however long it takes the package to get to me. I almost always regret these buys. So this new year, I forced myself to resist. Any purchase I wanted to make went on a list, then on a mood board, then in a text thread with my extremely stylish sister. Taking these steps wasn’t just a successful deterrent, it also made clothes shopping more fun.

“Taking these steps wasn’t just a successful deterrent, it also made clothes shopping more fun.”

I’m partial to an in-person shopping experience when possible because the tactile experience activates my imagination and helps me filter out most of the clothes that catch my eye. But with so many brands being exclusively online, all these steps kind of simulated the brick-and-mortar experience. Texting about the pros and cons of a piece felt like wandering around a store with a friend. And moodboarding allowed me to channel my fantasies into something tangible, and then let the piece go. When February came, I bought one or two of the items on my list, then moved on. I’ve implemented this process into my life long-term and am so much happier with my buys. No packages to return so far.

I will have to try again: Deleting food delivery apps

I am the most guilty of rewarding myself with takeout. Cooking has never been enjoyable to me, and meal prepping has never worked for me either. I was resolved to try something new this time around. I ordered a fancy meal delivery kit; made a meal plan and grocery shopped specifically for it; and even cooked for a potluck and a picnic with friends.

Of all my challenges, this was the one that illuminated what convenience can rob us of. In this case, it was community. Instead of planning my meals around takeout and, well, leftover takeout, I found myself looking for opportunities to make meals more fun — and ended up seeing friends more often because of it. I’ll definitely try this challenge again to make myself get out more. And the money it saved didn’t hurt either.

“Of all my challenges, this was the one that illuminated what convenience can rob us of.”

I knew what I hoped to find with these challenges, but I ended them more in tune with myself than I imagined. When I wasn’t just reaching for familiar comforts, I had to pause and ask myself what I really wanted. Checking in with myself on this didn’t only strengthen my delayed gratification muscle, it also helped hone my self-knowledge and self-trust. I was better at giving myself what I needed, and I was more connected to myself and my friends, too. Suddenly, the ephemeral things I have always wanted but didn’t know how to get were starting to appear.

I understand that these challenges won’t be the right method for everyone. So, I asked Werkman about tips for investing in delayed gratification. He suggested the following steps:

  1. Set specific goals, and keep them front of mind as you progress.
  2. Create a plan (and start small). This means focusing on tangible steps that won’t overwhelm.
  3. Practice self-control. Here’s the hard part, but laying the groundwork with inspiring goals and solid plans should help.
  4. Find support. Share your journey with others in your life.
  5. Reward yourself. Yes, there are still rewards along the way! Keep reading.

You can still have a little instant gratification, as a treat

Completely reorienting to delayed gratification isn’t easy — and it might not be necessary, either. “While delayed gratification is often seen as correlating with long-term benefits, there are many situations when it is beneficial and necessary to opt for instant gratification,” Werkman reassures us. “The key is to strike a balance between instant and delayed gratification, using both in moderation to support personal growth and well-being.”

“Being a little more mindful changed my life in such big ways.”

Just like my discovery that I do, in fact, need a little sweet treat every once in a while for long-term happiness, I am not prepared to give up on everything that makes me feel good. And I don’t have to. Being a little more mindful changed my life in such big ways. While I plan on undertaking more, similar challenges, my quest is to integrate my mindful, slow practices with my life — not take everything enjoyable out of it completely.

Will it work? Ask me next year, when I face my crystals and journals again.


Langa Chinyoka is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade. She is a writer and strategist based in Los Angeles.