Delayed Gratification and Diabetes

Delayed gratification is the name of the game if you live with diabetes. Whether we’re Type 1 or Type 2, a great deal of our management regimen involves delaying gratification — whether it’s something relatively small like waiting on a meal until our blood sugar is in the right range, or long-term goals like lowering our weight (something I’m currently trying to do, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me, too!). Day in and day out we monitor our blood sugars, with the goal of lowering that golden number, our HbA1c! That, too, is an example of delayed gratification.

But even for us, for the people who stand to gain EVERYTHING by delaying gratification and to lose so much by failing to do so, it can be hard to pull off. I’ve known for years that I should lose weight; I know lowering weight lowers the chances for heart issues, for developing insulin resistance, and more. But I haven’t done it. I’ve chosen immediate comforts like cheesesteaks instead. I’ve never been one to ignore my blood sugar readings, but I’ve certainly been one to ignore everything ELSE about my physical health — and I write a blog dedicated to helping people with diabetes make smart choices!

Advertisement

So today, I’m going to talk about how we can work on developing our skill for delaying gratification. And believe me, I’m talking as much to myself as I am to anyone reading this entry, too!

1. Understand that it is a skill that needs to be practiced
I teach jazz piano, and one of the first things I tell my students when they begin is this: You very likely WON’T sound how you WANT to sound for at least the first year of serious study, maybe two. In other words, “welcome to delayed gratification central.” Students need to understand this, and understand that the key to actually getting where they want to go is to consistently, and diligently, practice the fundamental skills required to play this music. Without that, nothing can be accomplished.

We need to understand that our capacity for delaying gratification is ALSO a skill, and if we hope to truly develop it and use it in our daily lives, we need to attend to it everyday. We need to practice it. What does practicing it look like? It might look like taking 15 minutes every morning to meditate on our day, reaffirming our intention to live mindfully. It might mean putting half of our food at the restaurant into a to-go container BEFORE we start eating because we know it’s very easy for us to justify “just a few more bites” (and then a few more, and a few more, and now there isn’t REALLY enough to take home and it’s a shame to just waste the food, so really I should just finish it…). I’ve been using that trick lately, and it works pretty well.

Above all, making something a practice simply means devoting our intention to it everyday. Start by reminding yourself each morning. If you need to put a note on your bathroom mirror so it’s the first thing you see, do it. It’s worth it.

2. Delayed gratification doesn’t mean waiting two weeks instead of two days…
This one might seem obvious, but it’s worth remembering. Delayed gratification means you really will have to WAIT for the payoff. Again, think of music practice. To get good enough to play the way you really want to play takes many years. The years of practice it takes to get there? They’re not all fun. In fact, sometimes practice is truly miserable. We musicians spend a LOT of our time sounding horrible, playing new pieces and working with new approaches painfully slowly with no immediate musical payout. That practice can be utterly laborious, but we do it because we know the payoff will be worth it when it finally comes. We choose to give up whatever immediate gratification we might feel like on a given day (napping, watching TV, reading, shopping, whatever else you might think of…), and instead go into the practice room and slog through our musical etudes for the day.

Diabetes is no different. We need to make our daily choices based not on what we want RIGHT NOW, but on what will lead to health and happiness in the long term. And for us, long term really means LOOONG term! Making good choices means ADDING YEARS ONTO OUR LIVES, it means living with fewer complications and less pain! Our payoff is HUGE, but it’s an even longer-term proposition than that faced by musicians. Musicians, we only have to wait two to three years for a payoff, maybe only six months if we’re just adding a new wrinkle to an already established skill-base. But for those of us with diabetes, the payoff might be decades down the road!

It’s important to remember this to avoid the kind of unrealistic expectations that can derail your whole plan. It’s the “New Year’s Resolution Syndrome.” Everybody resolves to “get healthy and lose weight” on New Year’s Eve. But then after three months, they’ve only lost X number of pounds, and they give up. They give up because their expectations were based on some kind of immediate gratification that simply doesn’t happen when you’re working with a goal as inherently long-term as “getting healthy” or losing weight.

3. Know your goals (and have some)!
The other problem with the “New Year’s Resolution Syndrome” is failing to actually create a reasonable, achievable goal. Often there is no goal at all, just a vague declaration of “getting healthy.” This never works.

Delaying gratification will demand that you set real, measurable, and achievable goals. This doesn’t mean you have to define everything, though. For instance, I don’t have a particular “weight target,” but rather a weekly set of goals I’m working to meet. I’m biking at least four times each week, with at least three being 15 or more miles. The fourth I’m allowing to be flexible, but a 10-minute bike trip to the store won’t cut it. I’m avoiding eating out more than once every three to four days, and when I do eat out, I’m making it a point to leave the restaurant WITH LEFTOVERS (with a few exceptions — I’ll eat the whole salad…). In some ways, this kind of arrangement is far better than having some set target that’s far off in the future. Breaking things down into these smaller goals gives you something to feel good about in the short term — it gives you just a little bit of immediate gratification as you work toward your larger long-term goal!

Conclusion
None of this is easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have weight to lose. But it can be done. I know, because I’ve done it with music. Heck, I’ve done it with my blood sugar. And that’s the last lesson to take away — if you look through your own biography, you WILL find examples of delayed gratification. So you already know you CAN do it. It’s just a matter of practicing it, understanding what delayed gratification really entails, and knowing your goals. And maybe taping a note on the bathroom mirror.

A new metformin combination medicine has been approved to treat Type 2 diabetes. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.