What Hershey’s Kisses Can Teach You About Self-Discipline

Hershey’s Kisses may hold the secret to self-control and greater productivity. Surprising findings from a Cornell University study using Hershey’s Kisses reveal the key to working with better focus and fewer distractions (as well as losing weight).

Last week, I discussed the not-often-discussed findings from the famous marshmallow study that show how self-discipline can easily be learned to improve the quality of your life. Another study – this one using Hershey’s Kisses – unearths a powerful method to remove distractions and temptations when you want to get work done and achieve your goals.

In the Cornell University study, 40 women were each given a jar containing 30 Hershey’s Kisses. Some participants were instructed to keep their jars on their desks where they worked. A portion of this group received see-through jars while other jars were opaque. For the second group, the jars were placed six feet away from their desks. Each night, researchers counted the number of Kisses each participant had consumed during the day and then refilled their jars.

Not surprisingly, participants consumed fewer Kisses when the candy was less visible or farther away. Those with transparent jars on their desks ate an average of 7.7 Kisses a day, while those with opaque jars on their desks consumed just 4.6. The participants whose jars were six feet away, and so out of easy reach, consumed an average of 5.6 kisses a day if they had clear jars, but only 3.1 if their jars were opaque.

It seems obvious that if a temptation is less visible or out of easy reach, we’re less likely to be tempted. What the researchers unexpectedly found next however, says a lot about how we perceive temptations and distractions and how we can better avoid them.

When asked to estimate how many Kisses they had consumed during the day, those whose jars were farther away consistently estimated that they ate more than they actually did. In other words, those who had to make an effort and get up to retrieve the candy not only did so less frequently. They also were much more aware of what they were doing, and so their perception of their candy consumption loomed larger than their actual consumption.

How to Use the Hershey Kisses Principle to Shield You From Distraction

There’s a simple reason why the participants did not accurately estimate their candy consumption. If you are required to make an effort to do something, you notice it much more. If you have to get up from your desk and walk over to the candy jar, you’ll be aware of every step you take. And if the jar is opaque so you can’t easily see the candy, you’ll be even less tempted and need to make an even greater effort. But if the jar is sitting on your desk, visible and within easy reach, you may grab another Kiss without even noticing.

The implications for anyone on a diet are clear. Keep the tempting, high-calorie, high-sugar foods out of reach, and better yet, out of view. If they’re not in the house at all, you'll have to jump through a lot more hoops to eat them than if they’re sitting in plain view on your kitchen counter.

Although a proper diet is important for optimal focus, the applications of the Hershey’s Kisses study go far beyond how much candy you consume. They apply to how you approach any task that requires strong focus and minimal distraction.

The three critical lessons from the Hershey’s Kisses study are:

1. Temptations or potential distractions deliberately placed out of easy reach are less likely to derail you.

2. Temptations or potential distractions placed out of view are less likely to derail you.

3. If you create an environment where you have to work to succumb to a temptation or distraction, you will notice it much more if you do succumb. And that in turn will cause you to succumb far less.

How would this apply to something other than avoiding dessert? You may need to finish an important work project, or write a sensitive email to a friend. Or you may want to have an in-depth conversation with your family at dinner. But then there’s your phone.

Your phone is even more addictive than the Hershey’s Kisses. If you’re like virtually everyone else on the planet, you pick it up all the time. You do it so often you don’t even notice. That’s why families can eat dinner together and never talk as everyone stays glued to their phones. It’s why you can’t understand how you accomplished so little on that work project even as you spent half the time buried in your social media of choice.

Here’s what I do to avoid this scenario, based entirely on the Hershey’s Kisses study. I’m doing this right now as I write this article. Before writing, I turned off my phone's ringer and notifications, I turned my phone screen facing downward, and then I placed it a few feet away from me. If in the middle of writing, I should suddenly get the idea that I should check my phone, I would need to stop writing, get up from my desk, walk over to the phone, turn it over and then proceed to WhatsApp or Facebook or whatever.

This is not foolproof. I could still go out of my way to check my phone, just as the study participants with the opaque jars placed six feet away did occasionally walk over and get a Hershey’s Kiss. But the likelihood that I will do that is minimal.

Speaking from experience, if the phone is instead sitting on my desk within easy reach, I will check it many times, often without even realizing it. This will spell the difference between having a finished article within a reasonable amount of time, or having just a few paragraphs and needing to schedule another writing session.

If you want to get anything done, decide ahead of time what your distractions will likely be. Probably your phone, but you likely have many other potential distractors in your life. Before you begin your task, arrange for the distractions to be as out of view and out of reach as possible.

If the distraction is a thing, then your ability to remove it ahead of time is almost always within your control. If the distraction is caused by a person, that’s more challenging. But you can still try to arrange to do your work in a place where the person is not present. Alternatively, you can ask the person not to interrupt you for a set amount of time. And if the distractions are your own thoughts, then you can use the techniques learned from the marshmallow test that I wrote about last week.

Like so many focusing techniques, the formula for minimizing temptations and just doing your work is simple. As simple as putting a Hershey’s Kiss out of view and out of reach.