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The Double Edge Sword: Rethinking the Benefits of Delayed Gratification & Its Potential Contribution to Work-Life Conflict and Career Burnout

By Brittany Shields


In the past delayed gratification, identified as the ability to postpone immediate gratification for long term rewards, was viewed as an ability with only positive correlates such as academic achievement, high SAT scores, few behaviour problems and higher rates of college completion and income (Mischel, Ebbesen, Zeiss, 1972; Mischel, Shoda & Peake, 1988). However, other researchers criticized this positive view of delay gratification and argued that individuals with a disposition toward overcontrol, who consistently delay gratification and tend to inhibit impulses, feeling and desires have both positive and negative correlates. Positively, those described as overcontrolled are generally smart, in some respects well-adjusted and tend to have positive outcomes in structured situation such as work and school where self-disciplined behaviour is beneficial (Block, Gjerde & Block, 1991). However, researchers also found negative outcomes associated with overcontrol, which are less well known. Specifically, they found that in unstructured situation such as social situations or leisure settings, overcontrol may be maladaptive and has been associated with negative outcomes such as a lack of spontaneity, a flatter emotional life, being viewed as unnecessarily inhibited, excessively constrained, and puts young women at risk for depression (Founder & Block 1989; Block, Gjerde & Block, 1991; Kohn 2008; Zabelina, Robinson, & Anicha, 2007). Additionally, Shapiro (1967) indicates that highly self-disciplined individuals “do not feel comfortable with any activity that lacks an aim or a purpose beyond its own pleasure, and usually they do not recognize the possibility of finding life satisfying without a continuous sense of purpose and effort”.

I argue that delayed gratification and the disposition to be overcontrolled contributes to work-life conflict and career burnout. Work-life conflict is defined as “a form of inter-role conflict in which the role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect” (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Based on the literature, I hypothesize that delay gratification, work-life conflict and career burnout interconnect as individuals may choose to sacrifice personal time in order to dedicate more of their time to work. In other words, individuals may display overcontrolled characteristics and delay personal gratification, concentrating mostly on work with little focus on personal life. For instance, an individual may sacrifice or delay, spending time with their family, learning a new hobby, or planning to have a child in order to focus on their career, a daunting work project, or a promotion. I hypothesize that this dispositional style to delay personal gratification, would lead to a loss of balance between work and personal life and when maintained for long periods of time could contribute to burnout.

Why is understanding the relationship between delay gratification, work-life conflict and career burnout important? According to past research, work-family conflict is experienced by many and is related to several negative outcomes such as lower job and life satisfaction (Kossek & Ozeki, 1998) as well as poorer physical and mental health (Frone, Russell, & Barnes, 1996). It was also related to negative work outcomes such as unproductivity, absenteeism, and employee turnover (Higgins, Duxbury, & Irving, 1992). Workaholism has been frequently referred to as “the best dressed mental health and family problem of the 21st century” (Robinson, 2000). Perhaps the drawbacks of delay gratification need to be reconsidered, and its potential for negative impact on work-life conflict and career burnout highlighted. Future research involving these variables will be helpful to answering why individuals continue to have work-life conflict even though they would like balance.



Brittany Shields is a second-year student in the Master of Arts Clinical and Counselling Psychology Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. She is currently completing her practicum at Canada Career Counselling and the OISE Psychology Clinic and is working toward completing her honours thesis on The Relationship Between Delayed Gratification, Work-life Balance, and Career Burnout.



Block, J. H., Gjerde, P. F., & Block, J. H. (1991). Personality antecedents of depressive tendencies in 18-year-olds: A prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology60(5), 726.

Kossek, E., & Ozeki, C. (1998). Work–family conflict, policies, and the job–life satisfaction relationship: A review and directions for organizational behavior–human resources research. Journal of applied psychology83(2), 139.

Frone, M. R., Russell, M., & Barnes, G. M. (1996). Work–family conflict, gender, and health-related outcomes: A study of employed parents in two community samples. Journal of occupational health psychology, 1(1), 57.

Funder, D. C., & Block, J. (1989). The role of ego-control, ego-resiliency, and IQ in delay of gratification in adolescence. Journal of personality and social psychology57(6), 1041.

Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of management review10(1), 76-88.

Higgins, C. A., Duxbury, L. E., & Irving, R. H. (1992). Work-family conflict in the dual-career family. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,51(1), 51-75.

Kohn, A. (2008). Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from within. Phi Delta Kappan90(3), 168-176.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology21(2), 204.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 687-696.

Robinson, B.E. (2000). Workaholism: Bridging the gap between workplace, sociocultural, and family research. Journal of Employment Counselling. 37, 31-47.

Shanafelt, T. D. (2005). Finding meaning, balance, and personal satisfaction in the practice of oncology. J Support Oncol, 3(2), 157-62.

Shanafelt, T. (2008). A career in surgical oncology: finding meaning, balance, and personal satisfaction. Annals of Surgical Oncology, 15(2), 400-406.

Shapiro, D. (1967). Neurotic styles. The British Journal of Psychiatry113(501), 925-925.

Zabelina, D. L., Robinson, M. D., & Anicha, C. L. (2007). The psychological tradeoffs of self-control: A multi-method investigation. Personality and Individual Differences43(3), 463-473.

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Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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