One of the most iconic psychological studies, is the Marshmallow Experiment (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1972): A researcher would put a kid in front of a marshmallow, go “I have to go for a minute, if you wait with eating the marshmallow, you’ll get ANOTHER ONE. How AWESOME is that?! Okay gotta go bye.” and leave the room.
Sorry to sound like the posts your distant relatives always share on Facebook, but what happened next is a hilarious display of children trying their hardest to delay gratification (click here to see a clip of an experiment).
For a kid, a marshmallow is basically one of the BEST things ever. Not eating it? Hard. Waiting? SO HARD. But the grownup promised ANOTHER marshmallow! And TWO marshmallows? Better than one.
Kids who were able to wait? In follow up studies, the ability to wait was associated with higher SAT-scores, lower BMI’s, all of this well into adulthood, upto 40 years later.
I’m not saying it’s perfect evidence (see disclaimer), I am saying it is super interesting.
The ability to delay gratification, is good. Great, in fact. Useful. Helping you in life. This has been attested for not just with marshmallows. Countless examples, books and studies can tell you this: Being able to delay gratification, to look at the long term, the bigger picture: The more you can do this, the more likely it is you can achieve your career, fitness and life goals.
Because life is basically one GIANT marshmallow experiment.
Studying instead of going out with friends, acing your test? Marshmallow.
Working late and not sleeping in to finish a project now so you can get a raise next performance review? Marshmallow.
Not buying cheap crappy clothing now so you can buy a beautiful designer item in four months? Marshmallow (by Chanel).
Going for a run now while you’re tired because you want to be able to run a marathon without shame and death? Sweaty, endorphined marshmallow.
All these later-on achievements, are the Later-in-Life marshmallows. The reward is way bigger. And because of the wait, what you had to sacrifice and how you worked for them, they are often way more delicious.
This is how to adopt a long term approach to acquire the better marshmallows in life.
Disclaimer: Interesting perspective and some criticism on the experiment can be found here, and here you can read about a recent replication where it was found children could wait up to four times as long when they had the idea they could trust the Lab Coat to deliver on their promise of a bigger reward for waiting.
Yes, some aspects of how good you are at delaying gratification are inherited, neurological, biological, not easy to change. A good enough chunk of it is still completely in your own hands. You can still do something and work with that. If you don’t, that’s fine too – whatever you decide, just don’t fucking whine about it.
THINK LONG TERM CONSCIOUSLY Before you can do it automatically, you might have to do it consciously. You might have to consciously focus your thoughts and energy on the future, the long term, the goals, the plan.
There are tons of ways to practice long term thinking. The self evaluation exercise I put up last week, for example. You can write out your goals (increases the chances of you achieving them). You can make a plan: On paper, in a Word document, on a white board, on the napkin you got with your gin&tonic in the bar.
You look at it. You rewrite it — I do this a lot, I’m a big believer in rewrites. You talk about it with your partner, your parents, or your friends.
You think about it in the shower. You think about it in public transit, in meditation, whenever. If you dedicate a part of your thinking to it, it will seep into your normal thinking, helping you make decisions that benefit the long term.
MAKE NOW ENJOYABLE TOO The delay of gratification is a lot easier to do if your current conditions aren’t Spartan and horrible. You are way more likely to be able to do so by enjoying your life right now as well.
If you do things for the long term while comfortable, you’ll be able to keep that up way longer.
For example, in my office? I work with good music on, a good lunch and the best tea all day long. When I have to work late, I go home and have a delicious meal and work from there, comfortably, OR, I grab a burger and rosemary fries from the best food place on campus.
Cute tights and comfortable tops and sweaters make me more likely to go for a run or do yoga.
I write in total silence, with a warm scarf wrapped around me, cinnamon-apple tea and candles on (oh God, basic bitch stereotype if there ever was one).
Just because you’re working on future things, doesn’t mean your NOW has to be shit. You can have a nice Now, and an even better Later, if you give yourself simple things to enjoy while working.
LOVE THE GRIND And in those pleasant circumstances you created for yourself now: Do the work. Focus on doing the work. The studying, the writing, the whatever. Go at it.
I don’t care if you need to turn your brain off for it, if you need to go at it for days or weeks or months, but connect with doing the work.
Fall in love with working. For your degree, your financial independence, your goals, your career, your company, your health, your clients, for yourself.
Fall in love with the grind, and stay on the grind.
PRIORITISE The reason it’s hard to delay gratification and adopt a long term approach, is because it’s not here yet. And the cupcake, the nap, the afternoon drink, they are RIGHT THERE.
What helps me to prioritise is the mantra “It’s intangible, but more important” I repeat that to myself from time to time.
Because I think my long term plans are more important than acquaintances, than favours, than the third round of drinks, the random party or the shopping spree. Some days it’s even more important than sleep (granted, VERY rarely).
FORGET ABOUT DISCIPLINE IF IT IMPAIRS YOU A lot of us think of ourselves as undisciplined, and in a beautiful example of the self fulfilling prophecy, we behave undisciplined. Because we believe (and enforce) that we do not have will power. This is debilitating.
For me, discipline is not a thing. It’s not a thing.
It’s not a thing, because it’s not something I think about. I don’t think about whether or not I have it, or how I should have it, or how I have exhibited too little of it lately. I don’t associate myself with it. I actually don’t think about discipline at all.
Instead, I just do things. Sometimes I do them early, sometimes I do them late, but I do the things. That’s what matters.
The more you practice what I’ve preached above, the easier it becomes. Take it from someone who LOVES her instant gratification (YAY Oreos) and her procrastination (YAY YouTube), this works. I very much enjoy focusing on the future and long term; it motivates me and makes me work harder.
Of course, you’ll have off days, and lazy days still, just like everyone else, but it does get easier.
Alright, enough talk – have a productive Monday. Later dudes.