If someone offered you $20 today or $40 in a month, what would you choose?
The question may seem trivial but, Stanford researchers discovered one’s response to a similar question highly correlates to their success in health, work, and life.
In the Stanford experiment, children were given the choice of receiving one reward immediately or two if they waited for 15 min. The reward – marshmallows. The difficulty came when they had to wait alone in a room with a single marshmallow sitting on the table right in front of them.
One can imagine the overwhelming temptation as a 5-year-old with no one to stop them from popping the ball of fluffy, sugary, goodness right into in your mouth. I probably would have convinced myself the scientists wouldn’t even notice it was gone and give me another one.
The Impact of Delayed Gratification
Fast forward 50 years and follow-up studies found that in adolescence, the children who were willing to delay gratification in preschool were “more likely to show self-control in frustrating situations, less likely to yield to temptation, more intelligent and socially competent, and less distractible when trying to concentrate.”
Did you catch that last one? “less distractible when trying to concentrate.” To me, all the other benefits are byproducts of the increased focus:
- Focus on the outcome of our actions, and you will have more self-control
- Focus on your goals, and you won’t yield to the temptation to give up
- Focus on what you are learning, and you will be more intelligent
- Focus on others with your full attention, and you will be more socially competent
In a world of distractions, this one characteristic – choosing better over immediate – is almost a superpower. The ability to look past the short-term distractions and focus on the long-term gain is the key to success. Bestselling author, Cal Newport explains how the level we perform at is directly correlated to the intensity of our focus.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
How to get two marshmallows
In his book, Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor who conducted the marshmallow experiment, writes “The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.” In other words, with practice, we can become better at delayed gratification! In fact, Dr. Mischel and other researchers have discovered multiple simple methods to grow our self-control:
- Out of sight, out of mind. In the marshmallow test, children who delayed gratification commonly closed their eyes, turned away or otherwise distracted themselves. The simplest way to combat instant gratification is to avoid situations where one needs self-control altogether. Skip the junk food aisle and don’t go shopping on payday.
- Plan ahead. If I am trying to eat better, I may say to myself, “If my friends want to go out to eat, then I’ll suggest a place with healthy options.” Having a plan in place can help make decisions more manageable in the moment without having to draw on your willpower.
- Practice makes perfect. In a recent study, smokers who practiced self-control by avoiding sweets for a couple of weeks were more successful at quitting smoking than those who performed tasks that required no restraint. Every bit of self-control one exerts today will make future decisions even easier.
- Focus on one goal at a time. Don’t try to cut out sweets, start training for a 5k, and learn the guitar at the same time. Concentrate on successfully creating one new habit before moving on to the next one. Once a habit is in place, it will require less willpower to maintain than it did to create. Trying to do everything at once is a recipe for failure.
- What would someone else do? One way to momentarily escape temptation is to imagine how someone else would behave. It’s easier to pass on immediate gratification for someone else rather than for oneself.
- Emotional awareness. We are less likely to delay gratification when we feel sad. Take note of how you feel before entering situations where you will need self-control.
- Let go of control. We hate to wait because it means we are not in control. If we could control all things, there would be no delay. When I think about it, I am actually glad I don’t have to stress about every little thing. I know the timing of God is always right and I can trust in it.
- Enjoy the journey. Sometimes the payoff is too far down the road to keep us content. Find ways to enjoy the work of delaying gratification. Make a game out of how long a streak you can keep up.
Self-control is essential to pursue our goals successfully, but the goals themselves give us our direction and motivation. What are your goals? How will delayed gratification help you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.