Self discipline, delayed gratification and marshmallows

Some decades ago a group of psychologists from Stanford University conducted an intriguing experiment regarding self discipline. They gathered a random group of children and assigned them a simple task. They presented them a marshmallow and they had a simple choice. Either they could eat it right away OR they could wait for fifteen minutes and they would get two of them! Most of the children could not wait 15 minutes. Even though they would get two marshmallows instead of just one. Some tried to resist in agony before giving in. But a few of them waited the whole fifteen minutes. The interesting part is, those that waited turned out the be the most successful in life. Can we get some self discipline how to out of marshmallows?

Marshmallow kitty
Kitty drowning in marshmallows.

They practiced something called delayed gratification as opposed to instant gratification that most children chose. The ones who could not delay the gratification had problems later in life too. They earned less money, had problems with weight (that one is kinda no brainer and probably a direct result of too many marshmallows :)) and also problems with drugs and alcohol.
The moral of the story is: Delayed gratification leads to better quality of life. And delayed gratification is directly linked to will power.

As it turns out its not easy for anyone to delay gratification, its hard for everyone. But those that did wait managed to distract themselves in various ways, either by looking away, singing a song, crawling around or just covering the sweets with something so they could not see it. That’s called strategic allocation of attention. Children (or adults) can distract themselves and in that way their desire is pushed aside by something else. You can only really focus on one thing at the time and if your focus is on the marshmallows it’s going to get harder and harder to resist it. You will think about how good they taste and will be almost able to taste them in your mind. Your chances of waiting the whole 15 minutes will get slimmer every passing second. Especially if you are a 5 year old child. But its not like adults are much better. Maybe they can wait to eat a marshmallow but there are so many other forms of instant gratification that sabotage our self discipline. Average American household watches over 8 hours of TV per day. Something to think about. And lets not forget how much time we all spend browsing the web randomly. Sometimes its really hard to delay the gratification of reading a wikipedia article on that new tech gadget that just came out.

Ability to delay gratification is a crucial skill to develop self discipline. The marshmallow example might seem innocent but it can show in much more important things in life too. Would you rather spend your money now on a new fancy car that all your friends will envy or will you delay that gratification and invest in a business that will possibly bring you a fortune in the future. Would you rather watch a TV show now or delay that gratification and study for a college exam that is coming up so fast?  Would you rather eat that box of chocolate now or delay until weekend and stick to your diet that will help you lose weight and achieve optimal health.

The good news is, that even if you are mostly all about instant gratification right now, you can change! It takes practice but it can be done and it will directly improve your self discipline. The key is to start small and not overwhelm yourself. Don’t try to do it all at once but start with a simple step like¬† not watching that TV show first time you come home, but do 30 minutes of exercise instead. Create a routine, one at the time and before you know it, you will have a handful of routines that will positively reinforce you for the better and help you develop solid self control.

Here is some self discipline how to on practicing delayed gratification:

  • When you want to instantly buy something wait and consider alternatives. Stop and breathe before you make impulse buys. Write a note what you want to buy, it will wait. Then a week later ask yourself: “Do I still need this?”
  • Have the big picture in your mind. You may get a fancy car now but how will that help with your other expenses? You can watch TV now but what will happen when you only have one day left to write that report?
  • Start small. Develop a small habit first. For example, try 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week instead of watching TV. Once you master that, go bigger!
  • Eat the dinner before desert – no brainer but is it REALLY always like that?
  • Work first then take time for fun. Don’t skip and work and don’t skip the fun after either!
  • Think before you act. Before you do something ask yourself: “Is this just instant gratification that doesn’t really improve my life in any way?”

In the end, let me say that sometimes instant gratification is OK! Don’t beat yourself up everytime you screw up. We only live once and its OK to just take a day off sometimes but don’t make a habit of it!
Alright, I have delayed that gratification of going out for a beer too for long now by writing this article:) Gotta go, see you soon and good luck with your self discipline!


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