A renowned piece of behavioral science research took place at Stanford University in 1972. The Washington Post describes it:
Stanford University’s Walter Mischel sat 600 children down at a table with a marshmallow and gave them a choice: They could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.
The kids struggled with temptation. About a third of them stuck it out and earned the second treat, says this New Yorker article that described the research in detail.
Better at life
Mischel followed the children’s progress through their lives, says Bloomberg Businessweek:
Tracking the kids over time, Mischel found that the ability to hold out in this seemingly trivial exercise had real and profound consequences. As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships — even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.
Delaying gratification means enduring discomfort now for bigger payoffs later on. Mastering it helps you study, train long hours, and commit to arduous projects. Impulse control also helps you pass up quick thrills, like impulse shopping, to save for things that matter more — a home, training, education or financial security, for example.
In 2012, the Post says, researchers at the University of Rochester tinkered with the Stanford experiment. They found children’s willingness to wait for a treat also depended on whether the kids trusted the adults promising it. In other words, self-restraint can be withheld or deployed when it serves a rational purpose.
Scientists are still studying the original “marshmallow” children. If there is a genetic component to impulse control, they haven’t found it yet. But a good number of those who flunked the marshmallow test as kids show strong impulse control as adults, demonstrating that self-restraint can be learned.
Control your attention and thoughts
As Mischel told The New Yorker: “Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
The New Yorker continues:
“This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood — such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning — are really sly exercises in cognitive training: We’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.
9 ways to build self-restraint
Not all of us learned self-restraint as kids but it’s not too late. Here are nine proven ways to build it:
1. Picture your goals
USA Today talked with Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, about self-control. Vohs says that “in lab studies, self-control is boosted when people conjure up powerful memories of the things they value in life.” If you haven’t thought specifically about your deepest values and made detailed plans for where you want to go, don’t waste another moment. Do it. Revisit your plans repeatedly, especially when there’s danger you’ll get sidetracked.
Another researcher told The New Yorker that we have “an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.” We can decide where to aim our minds and point them there, helping to shut out competing desires.
2. Lighten up
It’s easier to move toward goals when life feels worth living. Stress can undermine self-control, opening the door to slips. In an article about boosting will power, Vohs told The New York Times, “Laughter and positive thoughts also help people perform better on self-control tasks.”
3. Remove temptations
Make it easier to meet your goals by planning how to reduce difficult decisions you must face. Some examples: Automate transfers from your paycheck to savings. Hang out with friends whose lives align with your goals. Avoid the drinkers, smokers or big spenders if you’re quitting those habits. If you are destroying debt, carry only cash — no credit cards. Stash your plastic where it’s hard to get or cut it up. Avoid malls and window shopping.
4. Spend your reserves strategically
We have a limited amount of self-control at any one time. Use it strategically. When it’s consumed, there’s less for other goals. USA Today writes:
Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, says it’s interesting that “being taxed in terms of doing one task can have these spillover effects on another.” People may think they can compartmentalize the different tasks they do during the day, but it turns out they are all connected, she says.
5. Have a snack
Studies show that raising glucose levels may rebuild self-control. If you don’t want sugary treats – a glass of lemonade worked for subjects in one study – eat small healthy meals or snacks throughout the day to keep your glucose levels steady.
6. Procrastinate – on purpose
When you’re just about to give in to temptation, talk yourself into waiting just a few minutes more. Distracting yourself even briefly helps you forget your struggles.
I do a version of this when I feel like a shopping spree. I visit online stores I love, carefully selecting “purchases” and putting them in my online cart. I imagine how they’ll look, how they’ll work with my other clothes and where I’ll wear them. I compare the things I want, eliminating most and selecting those I really want. And then, instead of buying, I wait.
I distract myself by leaving the computer and getting involved in other things. I come back when any urge to buy has passed, empty the cart and leave the store, having satisfied the hunter-gatherer impulse.
7. Chunk it up
Manage temptations and tough jobs by cutting them into small chunks. Successful dieters, for example, often buy treats like potato chips, cookies or ice cream in single-serving packages, even when it’s more expensive. Defined boundaries give you a chance to stop and pull back before you overindulge.
You can also break up a hated job – preparing your taxes, maybe – into bite-sized pieces. Knock off one bit and take a reward or a break. Or spread pieces over several days.
8. Enlist the power of habits
Mother Nature News, in a book review of “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, says habits begin with conscious choices:
Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.
Train yourself by exercising self-restraint repeatedly until it’s not a choice but a habit.
9. Get free help
Expose yourself to others’ advice, input and support. You don’t have to buy into everything you hear. “Take the best and leave the rest,” users of Alcoholics Anonymous and other free, effective self-help groups say. It helps to be around people wrestling with the same difficulties and working toward similar goals. Their support helps you focus not on current temptations but on building your future self.
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