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6 Ways to Break the Instant Gratification Habit

Break Instant Gratification HabitBy Linda Gabriel

Instant Gratification Is an Illusion

When things aren’t going your way, do you comfort yourself by reaching for a treat? In a perverse way, this sort of instant gratification gives you the illusion of having some control over your life – if only for a moment. Whether conscious – or subconscious – the thought is, “I may not have what I really want (love, romance, money, power, success), but right now I can choose to have this chocolate bar!”

Childhood Conditioning

The problem is compounded by the fact that most of us learned as children that food – especially sweet, high-fat food – is a “treat.” Did your parents ever buy you ice cream to cheer you up?  Were you ever given cookies as a reward for cleaning your room or dessert for having finished your dinner? Did you look forward to excursions to McDonald’s for your “Happy Meal”? Can you see how you have been conditioned to reach for a “goodie” when you feel bad or when you think you deserve a reward? How could you not?

We’ve also learned to associate food with love. Part of the reason for this is inevitable: as baby mammals we learn to associate warmth, comfort, and a pleasantly full belly with Mom’s love. Family traditions and savvy advertisers have conspired to forge a strong link between food and affection.  Perhaps you remember those charming commercials where Bill Cosby and adorable children have so much fun with (spell it) J-E-L-L-O! And “Nobody doesn’t love Sara Lee.”  When you are faced with difficult times, it’s natural for your inner child to want your mommy in the form of comfort food.

When you were a kid, your parents controlled whether and when you got your treat. Now that you are a “grown up” it’s tempting to rebel and eat your treat whenever you feel like it. This is especially easy to justify if you’ve had a hard day. “I’m an adult and I can do what I want!” Translation? “You’re not the boss of me!

“I’m an adult and I can do what I want!” Translation? “You’re not the boss of me!”

The problem with instant gratification is that it’s only temporary but the adverse effects are long-lasting. Once you start using food to soothe yourself during times of frustration, it’s a habit that can be difficult to break. Stuffing yourself with food is a way of stuffing your uncomfortable feelings. Food is a poor substitute for love. To make matters worse, overeating leads to guilt, shame, and self-loathing – which triggers the whole cycle to repeat.

How can you gain true control? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Become aware of what you are eating

Awareness is the first step.  Many of us become so habituated to reaching for the candy or chips that we don’t even realize we are doing it.

2. Identify the emotion behind the desire to treat yourself

Before you take that bite, close your eyes, take a few breaths and tune into what you are truly feeling.


Don’t be surprised if it takes a while to figure out the emotion. You may be feeling more than one. If you are able to do so privately, give yourself a few minutes to experience your feelings.  Some people find it helpful to write their feelings out on paper. Others find it helpful to talk with a friend. (If the feelings are intense, consider contacting a qualified therapist.) Many times simply feeling your feelings will dramatically diminish your craving for a treat.

3. Shift your focus to long-term gratification

Ask yourself, “What is this instant gratification going to cost me?” In the long run, is eating this food going to cause you more pleasure or more pain?  Focus on how being healthy and fit is what you really want. When you shift your perspective to long-term gratification, it’s easier to make more powerful short-term choices and you’re more likely to find the inner motivation to skip the so-called “treat.”

4. Reframe your idea of control

When you use instant gratification to satisfy your urge for control, it’s an illusion.  You are really out of control in that moment.  Recognize that what you really want is to change your state of mind.  What other ways besides food can you do that? Learning to make healthier choices is true control. Celebrate your ability to take good care of yourself as a moment of self-empowerment.

5. Find non-food ways to treat yourself

What other healthier ways can you find to give yourself a treat? Call a friend. Watch a movie. Take a walk in nature. Plan a day trip with friends. Go to the driving range. Get cozy with your sweetheart. Buy yourself some flowers. Put on some music and boogie! Make a list of simple pleasures that you can substitute for food whenever you feel the need to soothe yourself.

6. Choose quality instead of quantity

Finally, if you’re going to treat yourself, really treat yourself! Don’t stand in front of the fridge mindlessly spooning ice cream out of the box. Choose powerfully and with awareness. Savor your treat mindfully. Choose quality instead of quantity and do it with flair.  Pick one day of the week. Choose a luxury brand of your favorite treat and serve it on a beautiful plate, perhaps garnished with a sprig of mint. Set the table, put on some jazz or Mozart, light a candle and for heaven’s sake, sit down and relish the moment!

Photo Credit

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Excellent post.

    All we really need is to be aware. This can help us let go of patterns and fears and beliefs. We can decide to live consciously, rather than by mechanical memorized patterns. One of the surprising effects of being aware is the realization that even the seemingly purposeful choices we thought we were making, were really suffused by patterns and ego and fears and the past.

    Thanks for a very clear article.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Do you have a love-hate relationship with life =-.

  • Tammy

    You totally hit the nail on the head for me!
    Thank you for the question in #3 and #5. I am going to write this down on a note card and keep it with me to start retraining myself.

  • Anthony

    The issue with #5 is that there isn’t really anything I like to do. I’m a gamer, I need to have a life but I don’t enjoy going outside and doing stuff. buying myself a game as a treat just leads to further self loathing as well.

    I’m glad #5 is there, I needed to see that food is my only happiness in life. I need to find a way to change it. Now I know where to start.

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