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ADHD and Delayed Gratification

A new meta-analysis of 21 studies has provided some evidence for the theory that ADHD is associated with a reduced ability to delay gratification.

Delayed Gratification and ADHDThe research looked at delay discounting, the extent to which people undervalue rewards that are farther in the future, and found that people with ADHD tend to show steeper delay discounting – in other words, that they tend to be more focused on shorter-term rewards than people without the disorder. In previous work, the study’s authors have found similar patterns in people with addictions and obesity.

One of the interesting things about this line of research is that problems with delayed gratification aren’t just a symptom of ADHD – they relate to many different ADHD symptoms. For example, acting impulsively, failing to plan ahead, getting distracted from the work you should be doing by something bright and shiny, being impatient, rushing through details, and procrastinating are all behaviors that can be caused or made worse by trouble delaying gratification.

For those of us with ADHD, although we can’t just decide we’re going to make our brains stop discounting future rewards so heavily, we can use the knowledge that we’re bad at delayed gratification to hone our ADHD coping skills. Some ways of making the most of not being able to delay rewards well are:

  • Using “background” rewards like music, snacks, etc. to stay focused on boring tasks
  • Breaking boring tasks into smaller pieces by adding breaks where you do something enjoyable
  • Filling your life as much as possible with things that are intrinsically rewarding
  • Finding environments and work situations that are fast-moving and don’t require a lot of waiting around
  • Accepting that your brain is how it is and learning to work with it instead of against it

Not being good at delaying gratification shows up in a variety of ways through a variety of ADHD symptoms. But the flip side is that strategies like the above that are about adapting to your ADHD brain’s orientation toward short-term rewards can also improve multiple symptoms at once since they’re addressing a core problem.

Like a lot of coping with ADHD, it mostly comes down to accepting how your brain works instead of wishing your brain would just start working more “normally.” Once you acknowledge that you’re bad with delayed gratification, you can start looking for ways to align your life with the way your brain works.

What are your tips for coping with delayed gratification difficulties? Please share in the comments!

Image: Alberto Magallanes Trejo

ADHD and Delayed Gratification

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). ADHD and Delayed Gratification. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jun 2016
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