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Don't Eat the Marshmallow

In honor of National Toasted Marshmallow Day, we wanted to dive into the infamous Marshmallow Test. Over 40 years of Stanford Research concluded that a single, squishy, texturally questionable treat could be one of the most accurate predictors of long-term success.

The Rules of the Game

In the 1960s, Stanford Professor Walter Mischel concocted a series of psychological studies. Walt and his team tested hundreds of children around the ages of 4 and 5 years old. The experiment started by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

The researcher told the kid that he was going to leave the room, and if the kid did not eat the marshmallow while he was gone, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. But, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they wouldn't get the second.

The choice was simple: one treat now, or two treats later.

The researcher left for 15 minutes. And the footage of the kids waiting alone in the room with a squishy mount of of temptation is priceless. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced in the chairs, licked the table, sniffed the marshmallow, and eventually cracked under the pressure. Finally, a few of the kids did manage to wait (or creatively distract themselves) themselves the entire time.

But the hilarious footage isn't what made The Marshmallow Experiment famous. That came 40 years later.

The Research Findings

The researchers followed each child for more than 40 years, conducting followup studies that tracked each child's progress in a number of areas of life. Over and over again, and the group of kids who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeeded in every capacity they measured. The researchers concluded that people with the ability to delay gratification were more likely to succeed in virtually every area of their life.

The children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow ended up with higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills, and generally better scores in a range of other measures.

According to Psychology Today, studies show that delayed gratification is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people. Over time, delaying gratification will improve your self-control and ultimately help you achieve long-term goals faster.

Our Culture of Consumption

In this culture of consumption, Insta-gratification, our over-reliance - even addiction - to instant gratification can create problems by changing our brains, distracting us from more meaningful pursuits, and leading to destructive financial, social, and health outcomes.

Self-focused attention becomes a prison that keeps us addicted to pleasure, and distracted from purpose. And research indicates that nearly every psychological problem, including depression, anxiety, paranoia, eating disorders, are characterized by a heightened degree of self-focused attention.

Delayed gratification leads to self-control, and self-control allows us to pull our heads out of our own bellybuttons long enough to see the world around us, and to notice the needs of others. And that, as it turns out, not only makes for good leaders, but great changemakers. Success -- and significance -- comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction.

So the moral of the story? Don't eat the marshmallow. Because then you'll end up with two, which makes you the most successful kid on the block, and puts you in an even better position to share an extra squishy morsel with others.

But what if you just can't seem to say no to a tempting corns starch coated treats?

How to Beat Instant Gratification

If you want to succeed at anything, you'll need to find the ability to ignore doing what's easy in order to tackle what's harder. And even if you feel like you're not great at delay, you can train yourself to be better by making tiny improvements.

More studies found that the children's ability to delay gratification and display self-control wasn't a pre-determined trait. It was something that was shaped by the experiences and environment of each individual.

So you can train your ability to delay gratification, and exercise self-control, just like a muscle. Start by promising yourself something small, and then delivering. Over time, your brain will start to say, 1.) yes, it's worth it to wait, and 2.) yes, I have the ability to do this.

Here's four simple habits to help you build your marshmallow muscles:

  1. Start Small. Like, really small. Make your new habit "so easy you can't say no." (Thanks, Leo!) This is the first habit to forming new habits. So rather than say, 'I'll go to the gym every morning,' just say, 'I'll put on my gym shoes every morning.' That's easy enough. And then you'll feel silly not taking the next step.

  2. Improve 1%. Improve one thing, by one percent. Then do it again tomorrow. This is the Japanese concept of Kaizen, which means a continuous "change for better." Tiny improvements over time add up to giant gains.

  3. Use Seinfeld's Strategy. What made Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most successful comedians, writers, and actors of his generation is the stunning consistency of his work. He said the way to be a better comic is to create better jokes, and the way to create better jokes is to write every day.

  4. Start Fast. Stop procrastinating by finding a way to get started in less than 2 minutes. Turn any habit into a miniature 2-minute version: instead of "fold the laundry," you'll "fold one pair of socks." A new habit shouldn't fee like a challenge. This is your "gateway" habit that leads you down a more productive path.


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