Doing hard things sucks – but it's worth it.

March 20, 2021
7 min read

In an age where we spend our days checking our phone every 2 minutes, and access to media is as omnipresent and self-consuming as ever, we have forgotten how to do hard things. Instant gratification has become the new normal: we want everything and we want it now (as beautifully set to music in the Arcade Fire track "Everything Now"). Our great ancestors would contemptuously envy our easy lives absent of any major hardship, be it in the form of gathering food (thank you, supermarkets) or quickly moving from A to B (hello e-scooters). According to science, our lives have never been easier, but we are still unhappy. Why is that?

The marshmallow experiment

Back in the 1970s Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment, where he would place a single marshmallow in front of a child and offer them a choice: either eat the one marshmallow now, or abstain from eating it for a short time and get a second one.

Some kids immediately ate the marshmallow upon Mischel leaving the room. Others were able to put off the urge to indulge in the treat until the scientists return. Those who did would get the second marshmallow.

Mischel kept checking in with the experiment subjects and conducted follow-up studies during later stages of life. He found out that those who were able to delay the gratification of the treat would do better in school and many other areas of life.

What does this mean? Are you, the average smartphone junkie, destined to have a life of coming in second place? Not necessarily...

Why it's so hard to wait

Let's say you are waiting at the train station. You are on your way to work, but the train is late. Sigh..., you are thinking in agony, Not again. I've got this really important meeting today. Important meeting aside, you stand on the platform with a bunch of other commuters.

Let's examine these two possible environments.

  1. The stations' digital timetable doesn't work. You have no idea, when the train will arrive and how late you will be.
  2. The timetable shows a 5-minute delay. Your estimate to being late is 5-10 minutes, depending on if you can catch your connecting train at the next stop.

Number 1 shows a classic case of temporal uncertainty. Not knowing how long you have to wait will make your perception of time-passing feel even slower. You get more agonized and stressed by the minute.

Number 2 on the other is still annoying, for sure. But at the very least, you can send your boss or coworker a message that you will be a couple of minutes late.

The same goes for the waiting room at a doctors' office. Since you don't know when you will be called in, it seems like an eternity sitting in that white room with the stack of boring old yacht-magazines.

I know what you're thinking:

Ok, now get to the point...

We have trained our brains to crave instant gratification through continuous abuse of social media, television, gaming, junk food, and pornography. The definition of reward has lost all its meaning – we constantly reward ourselves for doing nothing.

Not even 50 years ago you had to drive to the movie theater or comedy club for entertainment. Those were – at most – once or twice a week events. You didn't spend hours in the library looking at Reddit memes because that shit didn't exist. When you were bored at night your only options were monotonous television, reading, or listening to the same records you had for the past year. Playing Pong on an Atari console got boring quickly. Even chocolate had less sugar than today.

There was no Netflix, Fortnite, Facebook, or Tiktok. No late nights and sleepy hangovers due to being chained to the YouTube algorithms recommendations (just one more video, mom!). Pornography addiction probably wasn't a thing until the mid-2000s, and – fun fact – it's one of the most common addictions in young adults today.

Instant gratification equals weakness

Our minds have gotten weak from the aforementioned abuse, and as a result, every task that's not instantly rewarded seems rather hard. Learn this cool song on the guitar? Nah, I'd rather play candy crush. This form of escapism in the long term results in us being unhappy with ourselves, we achieve nothing yet again, and the cycle repeats.

How do you break the cycle?

Have you read the entire article up to here? If so, you are on the first step to recovery. See, I could have told you the solution in the first two lines of this blog post, but that would undermine my point. Most of the time these Instagram motivation accounts have figured it out: hard work truly is the key to success. But besides the outcome (money or fame), overcoming the obstacles, putting in the time, and getting mentally stronger by the day is the real gift of taking this path.

All work and no play?

This doesn't mean you have to become a monk in the monastery of gratification and abstain from those vices for the rest of your life. It means you should reward yourself – after you've done the work, not before it, and certainly not for not doing anything.

Broke a new PR in the gym? Celebrate it with your favorite burger.

Had a productive day at the library? Grab a beer and watch an episode of your favorite show.

Do you even lift? How to make mental gains

Going back to the experiment in the beginning and many more studies in this field, there are 3 factors you need to address to train this "waiting muscle" correctly:

  • Start small: don't change every habit at once
  • Set a time goal for the reward: otherwise temporal uncertainty will break your spirit
  • Have realistic standards: e.g. weight loss: aim for one pound per week, not five
  • Always reward yourself: don't say Oh waiting was not that bad, you won't build the muscle that way
  • Give it time: you broke your reward system over years and years, don't expect it to return to normal after two weeks

The bottom line

What happens when you do this? You'll be damn proud of yourself for every step of hard work you take. You'll build that muscle over time and your willpower and discipline will be stronger than ever.

Here's another example of delayed gratification: subscribe to my email newsletter down below, and you'll get more information and tips on how to implement this behavior in the future. You won't receive the tips right away, but try out what is said here, and I'll give you the advanced steps in the next 3 months.

Success doesn't come easy for most people. It truly needs hard work, great goals broken down into smaller, relatable steps, and a lot of patience from those who want to harvest its full potential. It's the same process – whether you're trying to lose weight, build a business or become a great piano player. So sit down, put in the hours.

Further reading

40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed

Delayed Gratification and Impulse Control


Photo by Jordan Whitfield

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