Monday Mornings with Madison

The Down Side of an Instant Gratification Culture

We live in an increasingly Faster-is-Better world.  We want what we want… and we want it now.  Waiting has become a cardinal sin.  Waiting more than two seconds for a web page to load increases bounce rates.  Waiting for pedestrians to get out of a crosswalk makes drivers dangerously antsy.   Waiting on hold more than a minute for a company to provide service causes customers to hang up and go elsewhere.   Speed has become so important that businesses have sprung up focused on providing faster service.   Walmart, eBay and Amazon are all offering same-day delivery in many locations.   Uber’s business model is built on ensuring that a person who needs a ride can get one at a moment’s notice anywhere.  Drive-through windows have sprung up for everything from groceries to medicines.  Some furniture stores now also offer same-day delivery.  Even the world of entertainment has begun catering to the increasing demand for instant results.  Companies like Netflix are now offering an entire season’s worth of programs all at once to feed the desire to “binge-watch” without having to wait for the next installment.  This demand for “immediate” has seeped into every corner of life – both real and virtual.

Some see this growing trend toward haste as progress and impatience as a quality shared by highly successful people.  If – as the saying goes – ‘time is money’ and wasted time equals lost revenue, then the desire for instant results makes sense.   What’s more, the value placed on immediacy is creating businesses and jobs.  Client demand for “now” is driving innovation.  It could be said that the insatiable thirst for instant gratification is pushing – or should we say shoving — companies to be more customer-service oriented.  And most would agree that that is a good thing.  But there is also a saying that ‘haste makes waste.’  So is there a problem with this increasing need for speed?

The Drawbacks to our “Instant Gratification” Mindset

The need for instant gratification has been growing for decades.  The Polaroid instant camera was invented in 1948.  So was the invention of ‘fast food” with the creation of McDonald’s fast food restaurant.  FedEx made a name for itself by capitalizing on the concept of speed with their slogan, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”  Microwave oven made it faster to heat up food.  Plastic squeeze bottle took the anticipation out of pouring ketchup.

While most may not realize it, there are drawbacks to expecting – and increasingly demanding – everything now.

1. Increased Impatience

As the world moves ever faster, it seems that people are becoming less and less patient. Patience is defined as “waiting without complaint in the face of discomfort or inconvenience.”  But today, people increasingly refuse to wait….  And those who do wait typically complain even when the inconvenience or discomfort is minimal.  There is low to no tolerance for delays of any kind, even minor ones.

Once upon a time not so long ago, people waited minutes just to get a dial-up connection to the Internet.  Today, that seems absurdly quaint.  Today, waiting even a fraction of a minute is too much.  That’s what the results of a study conducted in 2012 by Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst found.  Today, people cannot wait more than a few seconds for a video to load.  He looked at the viewing habits of 6.7 million Internet users and found that people were only willing to wait two seconds for a video to load.  After two seconds, they started abandoning the site.  After five seconds, the bounce rate increased to 25%.   By 10 seconds, 50% had left the site.  One out of every two people will abandon a website if a video takes ten seconds to load. This growing impatience is pervasive in every aspect of life.

And yet it’s been said countless times that patience is a virtue.   It is also a muscle that requires exercise in order to strengthen.  To become more patient, a person must be put into situations that require patience and do tasks that require an investment of time.  And there are many things in life that take a large investment of time to do.  In fact, many of the most worthwhile things take time to accomplish.   Read a book (digital or print) beginning to end.  Save money.  Lose weight.  Create a work of art.  Earn a college degree.   Work one’s way up the corporate ladder.  There is mounting evidence that, as the expectation of speed increases – and impatience increases – society will be less willing or able to put the time in that it takes to do the tasks that require time and patience.  How will that impact society?  And how will this haste impact individual health?

2.  Superficiality

This desire for instant gratification also leads a more vacuous, shallow culture.  To have an in-depth understanding of issues requires deep exploration and a commitment to review information from many reliable sources and viewpoints.  But that cannot happen if information has to be broken down into bite-sized morsels for instant consumption.   This leads to a society that is all style and no substance.  Already we can see growing evidence of this.  Students are increasingly plagiarizing reports, reading Cliff Notes of classics, and watching the movie-versions of Shakespearean plays to get the gist.  When they must ‘read’ the whole book, they opt to listen to books on tape.   The days of reading epic novels such as War and Peace given way to book series and novelettes.  News programs spend only minutes on real news.   Journalists write stories in small snippets instead of writing articles that delve deeply into any subject.   In business, white papers on management and technological developments are being replaced by podcasts, TED Talks, and YouTube videos.

How will all this impact businesses?  How will companies deal with employees who lack the ability to delve into a subject to understand it to a level that allows for sage decisions, creative solutions or major innovations?  Only time will tell, but it does not bode well.

3. More mistakes and less quality

It’s been said that anything that is worth doing is worth doing right.  But in an instant gratification society, the need for speed clashes with the need to slow down to ensure things are being done right.

Case in point.  When the Washington State Ferries had to suddenly retire its “steel electric” fleet, officials had no back-ups and were forced to scramble to get new ferries built quickly that could handle certain routes.  As a result, they rushed designs and were unable to bid the job widely.  In their haste, they ended up paying nearly $50 million more for the Chetzemoka than a vessel of similar design.  The end result was a ferry that leans to one side, vibrates and uses more fuel than the ferries it replaced. Shipyard officials said almost all of the issues stemmed in some way from efforts to get the boat built as quickly as possible.  Skeptics doubt the boat will reach its supposed 60-year life-span.  In this case, haste made waste.

In business, many projects are also driven by a sense of urgency today.  This desire for “now” is supported by arguments such as the need to boost the economy, jobs or sales, to tap funds that might disappear, to avoid costly delays, to capitalize on a favorable market, etc.  Because of that urgency, projects or tasks are started or rushed to the finish line before they are fully ready, which adds additional pressures on everyone involved.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Case in point.  Construction of the Space Needle project, which was a private sector project, was a rush-job. The chief structural engineer, John Minasian of Pasadena, was called in at the last minute to make sure the tower would stand up. Despite severe time constraints, he insisted on higher standards for wind and earthquake stability and beefed up the foundation design.  His changes added $1 million to the costs.  Minasian was, among other things, an expert in tower failures.  Why did he take his time with this project?  He wanted to make sure the Space Needle wouldn’t fail. Structural engineers at that time had an extra incentive to make sure things worked: most of them, like Minasian, didn’t carry liability insurance.  Today, one wonders if this instant gratification mentality would cause an engineer to cut corners and take unnecessary risks under the pressure to finish.

4. Unrealistic Expectations

This desire for instant gratification and results also feeds a mindset of unrealistic expectations.  Everything cannot and does not happen in an instant.  As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day.  Nor are businesses and careers.  Young entrepreneurs expect fledgling businesses to thrive and be acquired within a few years.  Young employees not only expect daily praise and feedback from bosses, they want rapid promotions and steady pay increases.  These expectations are unrealistic.  This reward-now mentality is a major challenge for employers who are faced with these excessive expectations.

5. Lack of Self Control

Instant gratification also negatively affects the ability to have self-control and be successful long-term.  Experts found a strong correlation between a willingness to delay gratification and success.   Roy Baumeister, a social psychology professor at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, indicates that “The two traits that most predict success in life are self-control and intelligence.”  According to the research, individuals may have a predisposition to either impulsivity or self-control. Some 40 years ago in a famous study of instant gratification, children at Stanford University were told they could eat one marshmallow right away or wait 15 or 20 minutes to get two. Some couldn’t resist the temptation; other held out longer in anticipation of a bigger treat.

Follow-up studies with some of the children as adults revealed that the tendency to seek instant or delayed gratification didn’t change over time. What’s more, the children who waited longer at age four later scored significantly higher on the SAT, were better educated, felt a stronger sense of self-worth, coped more effectively with stress and were less likely to use cocaine/crack than those who couldn’t delay gratification.  As a group, those who could not stop themselves at 4 also could not at 40.  This need for instant gratification persisted and hindered success.

Here is a final thought.  Scientists believe that excessive use of the Internet, cellphones and other technologies is causing people to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic.  As humans, there has always been a predisposition for instant gratification, but technology has kicked up that biological need.   One way to combat the problems associated with a ‘now’ mentality may be to take a step back from technology and exercise the virtues of patience, self-control and deliberateness.  Delaying gratification takes practice. For most, the willpower to wait patiently and accept that some things take time does not come naturally.  But it is vital to combat the urgency addiction and focus on what really matters on the job and in life.  It is up to each person to stop the NOW insanity and be intentional in choices.

Quote of the Week

“Sometimes what we lack is the thrill of anticipation or the delay of gratification. We enjoy things far more when we’ve really desired them but had to wait for them. The real value is found in our self-control and patience, which allows us to delay gratification and build anticipation. Letting desire build is an abstract way to achieve balance and moderation in life.” Cristin Frank


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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