It’s debatable whether everything you needed to know you learned in kindergarten. But you could have learned what you needed to succeed in life even before kindergarten – and all from a marshmallow. The famous “marshmallow test” showed that self-control predicts success. The untold story behind the marshmallow test is that you can learn self-control pretty easily with some simple focusing techniques.
In 1972 in a lab in California, a team of four-year-olds was hard at work contemplating a marshmallow. Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel arranged for each of the four-year-olds to be alone in a room where they were presented with a choice:
They could eat the marshmallow in front of them at any time during the next fifteen minutes. But if they could restrain themselves for the full fifteen minutes, then they would be awarded the grand prize of two marshmallows. End early and get half, but go the distance and be in marshmallow heaven.
The study was designed to measure each child’s self-discipline. Could they delay gratification long enough to claim the bigger reward? Or were they unable to do so, even if that meant they would get less?
About a third of the children grabbed the one marshmallow right away. Another third waited for several minutes, but ultimately succumbed. And the last third held out for the full fifteen minutes to claim their two-marshmallow reward.
Mischel then evaluated the children over a decade later when they were in their teens. Those who had waited for the two marshmallows were overwhelmingly more disciplined and motivated as teenagers, dealt well with challenges, had greater persistence and self-confidence, worked harder and handled stress better.
The one-marshmallow kids, in contrast, were less motivated, and more easily distracted and disorganized. The difference was literally measurable – the two-marshmallow students scored on average over 200 points higher on their SATs than did the one-marshmallow group. And the difference between the two groups continued even 40 years later.
Although some have tried to call Mischel’s findings into question (the group was ethnically pretty homogeneous), other research has yielded similar results. In a comprehensive study in New Zealand, over 1,000 children were assessed for various indicators of self-control, impulsivity, ability to focus and persistence, and then assessed again when they were in their 30s.
That study found that the better their self-control as children, the better they fared as adults when measured by their physical health, financial success and criminal record. As with the marshmallow test, the New Zealand study determined that self-control in childhood could predict future success as reliably as could social class or IQ.
Self-Control Requires Mental Focus, Not Willpower
The web is filled with countless articles about the marshmallow test, but in most of them, the story ends here. We learn that children who exhibited poor self-control in childhood were less successful as adults. Those who had what it took to wait it out for two marshmallows fared much better in life.
If that’s the point of the story, then the marshmallow test is kind of depressing. Either you have self-control from a young age or you don’t – and if you don’t, you’re in for a rough ride.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there - and the part that’s rarely mentioned is precisely what can help you rise to much higher levels of accomplishment regardless of what level of self-control you were born with or developed early on.
The real lesson of the marshmallow is not about impulse control, but about how we focus our attention. Contrary to what is often presumed, the four-year-olds who waited out the full fifteen minutes did not possess some incredible reserve of willpower that we can’t seem to muster as adults when staring at a slice of chocolate cake.
The untold part of the story is that the two-marshmallow kids succeeded by using strategies to focus on anything but the marshmallow. Had they stared at the marshmallow the entire time, they would surely have succumbed to temptation just as their seemingly more impulsive peers did. So what did they do differently?
Quite simply, they distracted themselves.
According to the study, “They made up quiet songs…hid their head in their arms, pounded the floor with their feet, fiddled playfully and teasingly with the signal bell, verbalized the contingency…prayed to the ceiling, and so on. In one dramatically effective self-distraction technique, after obviously experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.”
All of the kids wanted to bask in the glory of the two-marshmallow prize. But while the one-marshmallow group tried and failed to use willpower, the two-marshmallow kids bypassed willpower by reallocating their attention. Try not to eat a marshmallow by focusing on the marshmallow, and you’re almost guaranteed to fail. Focus on other things and you’ve got a shot.
The two-marshmallow kids understood intuitively that self-control is not really about willpower - at least not the grit-your-teeth kind. Real self-control instead becomes an exercise in strategically deploying our mental focus to help us accomplish our goals.
And by using our focus strategically, we can succeed in life. According to Mischel, “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television. And you can save money for retirement. It’s not just about the marshmallow.”
Can Self-Control Be Learned?
The real question then becomes whether these mental focusing techniques to achieve self-control can be learned. Could the one-marshmallow kids have succeeded like their two-marshmallow peers if they had been taught what their peers already knew? Can you learn to focus strategically to accomplish the goals that have eluded you?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Another part of the marshmallow story that’s rarely mentioned is that Walter Mischel shared focusing hacks with some of the one-marshmallow kids. Armed with the right tools, they succeeded just as well.
Mischel taught one boy who couldn’t wait to instead simply imagine that the marshmallow was a picture with a frame around it. The child then successfully held out for the full 15 minutes. When Mischel asked him how he was able to wait when he couldn’t control himself before, the boy retorted, “You can’t eat a picture.”
In Mischel’s subsequent research over the ensuing decades, he found that the most effective way to delay gratification is to change how you perceive or think about an object or action you are trying to resist.
Mischel even used his own research to kick his previously intractable heavy smoking habit. For years, he had tried to quit unsuccessfully. At one point though, whenever he craved a cigarette, he immediately imagined a man he had seen in a hospital with lung cancer. By focusing on the terminal patient rather than the cigarette, he never smoked again for the rest of his life.
As he relayed to Maria Konnikova, a former student, “I changed the objective value of the cigarette. It went from something I craved to something disgusting.”
If redeploying your focus can kick a smoking habit, then it can surely help you beat procrastination and get the important things done that are still waiting on your to-do list. And Mischel’s research shows that the techniques are pretty simple. Here are a few steps you can take to develop the kind of self-control you need to accomplish what you want:
1. Just commit to five minutes of what you want to do but aren’t doing. Let’s say you need to write a report, but as soon as you sit down to write it, you have an overwhelming compulsion to check your Facebook feed. Rather than listen to that voice in your head telling you why it’s so incredibly important to drop everything and check Facebook right now, tell yourself instead that you will check Facebook – but in five minutes. You will work on the report for just five minutes. You can even set a timer.
The chances are very high that once you start working on the report and five minutes go by, you won’t even be thinking about Facebook anymore. And if you are, you likely won’t feel emotionally driven to log in. Your “hot emotions,” as Mischel calls them, will have had five minutes to cool down. And this works with a lot more than Facebook. It will work with any excuse you are using to put off what you really need to be doing.
2. Find a substitute image. This works especially well for changing habits. It is the technique Mischel used to quit smoking. Find an image that is powerful and that you can call up whenever you are faced with the thing you want to avoid. For Mischel, linking the image of a man with lung cancer fighting for his life with his desire for a cigarette was sufficiently compelling to divert him from the cigarette.
If you are trying to avoid binging on sweets, you could imagine the stick of butter or lard that’s in the chocolate cake you really shouldn’t eat. See the picture vividly – eating a stick of butter isn’t nearly as attractive as eating a piece of chocolate cake.
3. Distract yourself. We often get swept away by our own thoughts. It doesn’t take much before we’ve convinced ourselves that a less-than-ideal choice really is ok. When you find your thoughts going in the wrong direction, deliberately switch to thinking about something else for a few minutes.
You might be in a store and faced with a shiny new item you really don’t need and really can’t afford. If you keep staring at it, you will be doing exactly what the one-marshmallow kids did, and your fate will be the same.
Instead, move to a different aisle (preferably the one containing the items that actually are on your shopping list) and deliberately think about something completely unrelated. Preferably something pleasant – your child’s ball game, a nice meal you had recently, your favorite TV show, a kind act a friend did for you. If you actually do think of the shiny object again, you’ll likely be long out of the store by that time.
Mischel’s method takes a bit of deliberate intent up front. You have to actively put off Facebook for five minutes, or conjure up a substitute image or divert your thoughts. It can be helpful to write down your diversionary tactic ahead of time and keep it where you can see it when you need to remember to use it. But once you make that initial effort, you’ll find your self-control soaring without feeling like you're doing much heavy lifting.
You can use the examples I’ve outlined, or come up with your own. Be creative. The more emotionally compelling your diversions, the more easily they will override the actions you don’t want to take and allow you instead to be as productive as you want to be. Try it. It works with marshmallows. It works with life.