How not eating marshmallows can make you more dramatically more successful

In 1970, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, set up an experiment in which he would put a marshmallow in front of a four-year old and tell them they could eat it if they wanted, but that if they could wait for him to go away and come back again, they could have two marshmallows.

Most could only hold out for a few minutes.

15 years later he sent the parents a survey to ask about how their children had developed since he last saw them.

When he analysed the data, he found that the number of seconds a child could wait for a marshmallow when they were four, predicted not only how competent they were described as being by their parents as a 19 year-old, but also the likelihood they were admitted to a top university.

The kids who were able to wait longest showed more self-control, which meant they could focus on their studies and resist temptation to skive off later in life.

Caveat: I’m not saying that success means getting into a top university, but if you want to do well at anything, you need to be able to stick at it and overcome temptation to give up or get distracted, i.e. delay gratification.

Each time you succumb to distraction away from what’s really important to you: the big project at work, exercise, meditation, an early night, a conversation with a colleague… you’re eating the single marshmallow instead of waiting for the bigger reward of feeling happier, healthier and more satisfied by the end of the day.

Strategies for Success

Neurology has shown that our brains are not fixed — they get stronger or weaker at what they do, depending on how you use them, just like a muscle. This is called neuroplasticity.

It’s therefore possible for you to get better or worse at delaying marshmallows over time, and I believe that smartphones, social media and email are degrading our ability to stave off reward by constantly wafting marshmallows under our noses. The less often you delay gratification, the harder it becomes to do so in the future, and vice versa.

Therefore, if you want to be more successful at what you do, to have a more satisfying day at work in which instead of leaving with a vague feeling of not having achieved much, you got the most important things done, you need to set up your environment to make it easier for you to say NO to marshmallows. Willpower alone will not save you!

The most successful children used strategies like looking away from the marshmallow or thinking of a happy time in their life.

Here are some suggestions for avoiding your own marshmallows:

  • Turn off all notifications on your phone and computer
  • Only check emails at designated times during the day
  • Use the pomodoro technique to reduce distraction at work
  • Reward yourself for delaying gratification — my Pomodoro timer ends the session with applause!
  • Ask someone else to hold you to account
  • Automatically set up your WiFi and phone to turn off at 10pm
  • Meditate! It’s is a training in not responding to your impulses
  • Play music, sport or create art regularly. They all have some pay off in the short term, but a greater reward when you stick at them

Right now, I feel slightly uncomfortable from eating chocolate when I wasn’t really hungry. Oh, if only I could have waited…

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For a free, gratification delaying meditation, click here.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.