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The Marshmallow Experiment
Inside each of us, a tumultuous war rages. One side offers immediate gratification, the exhilaration of living life in the present, and the excitement of spontaneous enjoyment. On the opposing side of the battlefield: patience to endure the uncertainty of the future, the cognitive ability to remain focused on a singular task or goal, and the capacity to choose anticipation over impulsiveness.
Countless articles have been written about how to combat procrastination, the relentless pursuit of effective time management, and techniques to stay focused throughout the day. The “Most Creative Award” would likely be awarded to internet entrepreneur and author Maneesh Sethi works in the digital world, who spent most of his days alone in front of a computer. In an ingenious move, Sethi hired someone to slap him in the face each time he checked social media or deviated from actually working. In lieu of self-inflicted physical pain, there are numerous alternatives to stay engaged.
Instead of contemplating how to solve the short-term objective of staying focused, what if instead we focus on the long-term objective of becoming a proficient delayer?
Stanford University’s Marshmallow Experiment from the 1960’s highlights why we should care about developing this skill in ourselves and in those we work with and lead. In Stanford’s study, children were given the choice between a marshmallow they could eat immediately, and a larger reward (such as several marshmallows) for which they would have to wait alone, for up to 20 minutes, before consuming. Decades later, follow-up research found that children who had waited for the latter generally fared better in life, including higher SAT scores and healthier lifestyles.
Assuming we agree as to why delayed gratification is important, the question is how?
Timing is Everything
Create a definitive timeline to measure success, failure, or the need for an extension. Every goal becomes alive when you hit the deadline switch. Always wanted to learn how to play the piano? Taking lessons and practicing can certainly take steps to achievement, but schedule a private concert for family and friends six months from now and watch how motivation changes. This is how to bring focus to development and growth; without deadlines, the goals float out somewhere on the horizon. As soon as a goal has a deadline, the possibility of failure looms and the long-term objective suddenly moves front and center in your sight.
Additionally, a definitive timeline to measure success can help avoid decisions made out of desperation. Ever hire someone who was not a bullseye fit, just because you thought you couldn’t afford to keep looking? Decisions can be made in a more objective manner when you have the reinforcement of a deadline; knowing whether you have two days, two weeks, or two months to make a decision helps your mind remain less subjective when sorting through the options.
Peer groups with similar objectives do more than offer a sense of community and belonging – they can be one of the keys to personal achievement and professional success. If you are responsible for cultivating talent in others, identify opportunities for like-minded and similarly-goaled individuals to collaborate on a regularly scheduled basis. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with; research has shown that we are more affected by our environment than we think. Having the ability to remain committed to a specific goal is much more feasible when surrounding yourself with others who have achieved or are pursuing the same. Putting pride aside and consciously seeking out mentorship and support from others is critical.
“There is no such thing as self-help. If you did it yourself then you didn’t need help.”
– George Carlin, Comedian
It may sound counterproductive; if we are to focus on the future, why would we look back? Think of it this way – in commerce, people perceive that products and events are more valuable when others are waiting behind us to purchase as well. If you are running a race, it can be incentivizing not to permanently focus on how far is left to run but instead how far you have already come. Therefore, when rolling out new initiatives, emphasize the presence of individuals or competitors who are behind (but not ahead of) those on your team. Spotlight those instances when the team is on the forefront and accentuate the growing number of supports in order to instill a higher level of patience.
Have versus Have Not
Turns out, obsessing over the marshmallow made children want to eat it even more. This is true for adults as well; ever filled up on chips and salsa even though the more satisfying meal was coming your way, lamenting with each chip as to how little self-control you have? Instead of focusing on what you can’t have, focus instead on what is to come. “I am looking forward to my delicious meal” is more psychologically effective than “I should not eat the chips” just as “I am going to leave the office today having accomplished A, B and C” is more effective than “I should not be on social media right now.” The old adage “you want what you can’t have” is ominously true when it comes to choosing anticipation over impulsiveness. Reframe thinking to emphasize what you will be rewarded with in the long-term, not what you are robbing yourself of in the present.
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