Over 50 years ago, researchers from Stanford University set out to conduct what became later known as one of the most popular psychological studies of all time. Starting in 1960, they used a series of tests on hundreds of 4- and 5-year-olds and discovered a trait that is now believed to be one of the main characteristics of success in health, relationships, and your work. What they did?
Walter Mischel and his colleagues presented a preschooler with a plate of treats such as marshmallows. They then told the child that they had to leave the room, but not before giving them a simple choice: They could either have the one marshmallow on the plate right now or, if they waited for 15 minutes, the researcher would come back to give them a second marshmallow.
So the choice was simple: Eat one marshmallow now or get two later.
Some children gobbled down the marshmallow within seconds of being left alone, while others simply stared at it or tried to distract themselves by singing or kicking. One especially resourceful kid even managed to take a nap. Needless to say, the footage of the inner battle going on it the children is quite funny to watch.
At the time, no one could have known how wide-ranging the implications of one such small choice would be. But when the researchers decided to track down the participants years later during adolescence, they were surprised:
The children that were able to delay gratification and resist eating the marshmallow ended up receiving better SAT scores, had better stress responses, better social skills, lower likelihood of obesity or obesity and substance abuse, and generally scored higher on a variety of life skills.
Over the next 40 years, the researchers would follow the participants to give them a series of follow-up experiments, all with the same outcome: The children that were able to resist the marshmallow as preschoolers had more success in nearly every area of life.
Now, wait a second: Does this mean that we can forget about hard work because all our success is determined by a small choice we make as 4-year-olds? That those that win the cosmic marshmallow-resistance-lottery will succeed at anything while the rest of us is doomed for mediocrity?
Most definitely not! But the experiment revealed one thing without a doubt: The ability to resist temptations, fight your urges, and delay gratification is a key characteristic of all successful people.
The Power of Delayed Gratification
The temptations are all around us: Fast food, social media, shopping ads, and TVs all serve one single purpose: Immediate gratification. After all, why would you eat boring lettuce when you can have this delicious cake? Why would you sit in silence at the bus stop when you can pretend to be busy on your phone? Why would you put in the effort of working out 5 times a week if you can just swallow some fat-loss pills? As a culture, we are conditioned for the quick fix: We want pleasure right now, and lots of it please!
But immediate gratification comes at a cost: It is usually the exact opposite of what we should be doing to reach our goals. If all we do is give in to our temptations, there is no way of ever reaching your full potential. Here are some examples:
You have to delay the gratification of eating sweets in order to lose weight.
You have to delay the gratification of watching TV in order to get up and run a few miles.
You have to resist the temptation to constantly buy new things you don´t need in order to have a comfortable retirement.
You have to delay the gratification of checking social media at work if you want to get things done.
As you can see, the ability to delay gratification and resist temptation is absolutely necessary for success in any area of your life.
Why were some children able to resist the marshmallow while others were not? And was it possible to teach them how to delay gratification? Plagued by these questions, Mischel devised more experiments that led him to develop his “hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower succeeds or fails.
The “hot” system is responsible for quick and automatic responses - such as popping the marshmallow in your mouth before thinking about the long-term consequences of that action. It is very impulsive and emotional, reacting to certain triggers.
On the other hand, there is the “cool” system. This is the rational system where thinking and cognition takes place, incorporating sensations, feelings, goals, and actions. It is the system that tells you not to eat the marshmallow because you will get two later.
You can imagine these two systems like the angel and the devil on your shoulders. One always pushing, always wanting gratification, and the other one thinking, slowing down.
When willpower fails, Mischel found out, the “hot” system overrides the “cool” system, which leads to impulsive decisions based on temptations and immediate gratification.
Now, how can we resist our own marshmallows and make better decisions?
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Throughout his studies, Mischel noticed that the children that were better at distracting themselves were also the ones who succeeded most often. Singing, dancing, and especially sleeping were all very useful tools that the children used to forget about the marshmallow. As you can imagine, that is far more effective than staring at the marshmallow for 15 long minutes while your mouth starts to water.
Oftentimes, simply removing the stimulus from your environment can be enough to decrease its temptation. In one of Mischel´s studies, he simply covered the marshmallow with aluminum foil. The result? Children were less likely to eat the marshmallow if they just didn´t see it.
To use that in your own life, simply hide all negative stimuli in your house. For example, if you are struggling with keeping your diet, simply hide the sweets in your house. That way, when you open the fridge, healthy foods become the default choice.
Design for Laziness
To go a step further, you can use your own laziness from eating junk food. BJ Fogg, a Stanford researcher on behavior design, is known for eating too much popcorn. In order to change that behavior, he did one simple thing: He went in his garage, climbed up the ladder, and placed the popcorn on the highest shelf. If he really still wanted popcorn, all he had to do is walk into the garage, climb up the ladder, and get it. But Fogg knew something: We, as human beings, are lazy. Oftentimes, we will do things simply because they are convenient. By making it harder to get his popcorn, he knew that he would not eat it anymore. Here you can learn more about designing your environment for laziness.
Willpower is a Resource
Just like any other resource, willpower can run out. When you wake up in the morning, you have your maximum of willpower and self-control available. But as you go through your day and have to make hundreds of small decisions such as what to eat, what to do, and whether or not you should work out, your willpower runs out. This is called ego depletion, which refers to the idea that your willpower and self-control naturally decline as you make more decisions every day.
That is why it is harder to work out or eat right in the evening that in the morning. You have depleted your willpower all day by making hundreds of decisions, which often leads us to make bad choices in the evening.
In order to reach your full potential every day, you need to use willpower wisely. Do your most important and most challenging tasks first thing in the morning when your willpower and energy are at their peak. That way, you can win your day and get your most important things done before a lack of willpower can make you procrastinate.
Have you ever noticed that when you get stressed out, frustrated, sad, or overwhelmed, you tend to make worse choices? No matter how committed you were to your new diet, when you feel sad or frustrated, your willpower suddenly fades away and all you care about are those delicious looking muffins.
It is in moments of stress and frustration that your willpower is tested the most. When you are tired, stressed out, and ready to give up, your true character will show in the way you respond. Anyone can put in the work when it’s easy and everything is going smoothly, it is during the hard times where you can separate yourself from the masses.
You will get stressed out in life, that’s a given. But you can plan in advance how to respond to that. Commit to self-discipline in advance, make a plan for achievement, and then be ready to get to work instead of feeling sorry for yourself.