In the late 1960s, a group of psychologists at Stanford University conducted a psychological study on on a bunch of 4 year olds. In the study, each child was offered the choice between one small reward, like a cookie or marshmallow, which they could eat right away, OR if they could wait 15 minutes, they could have two treats. The tester would then leave the child alone in a room with the first treat, and if it was still there when they came back 15 minutes later, they would give the child the additional treat. To me, the most interesting thing about this study – besides all the creative ways the kids no doubt came up with for trying not eat that first treat – was what their follow up studies showed: that the kids who had been able to delay eating the treat (i.e. exhibited self administered delay of gratification) had much more successful lives overall (as measured by things like higher SAT scores, higher educational attainment and earning potential, better health and wellness, etc.).
The experiment results highlight the fact that some people seem to have been born with a stronger resolve than others and the wisdom for using it to their advantage. For the rest of us, however, it takes a little more concentration and hard work.
Like the saying goes, “Knowing is half the battle. Doing is the other half.” Here are some practical ways we can all work on strength training of our marshmallow resisting muscles.
1 – Make it a mantra, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
It’s a cliche, of course, to say that if you keep doing the same things you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting the same results, but it is true. It’s simply not enough to want your life to change for the better. You have to do some things to make it happen. Accept that reality, and you’ve begun the process to reach your goals and to make a better life for yourself in the days ahead.
2 – Get the Big Rocks in first.
There’s a story told about a teacher who one day attempted to teach a group of students about time management by showing up to class with an empty jar and then filling it full of big rocks and asking the student whether he’d been successful in getting it filled. The jar was full of rocks so they all said ‘Yes’ it was full – at which point the teacher pulled out a bucket of gravel and poured a bunch of it in the jar, filling up the empty spaces between rocks. Then he asked the class for the second time if the jar was full. The students answered once again, ‘Yes’, it was full – at which point the teacher pulled out a bucket of sand and began to pour it over the jar as well. Some of the sand sifted down in between the big rocks and the gravel, so it was obvious once again the jar had not been full before, so the students were uneasy to answer when asked for the third time if the jar was finally full. The teacher could tell the students were catching on but he also pulled out a bucket of water and began pouring it in the jar until it was running over the sides, and then the teacher asked the class to explain the point of the illustration. One student replied, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it” The teacher corrected the student, however, by saying, “No, that’s not the point. The point is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”
We all have Big Rocks in our lives, things that are vitally important to us: whether it’s time with our family and friends, our faith, finances, or even fitness goals,etc. Whatever those Big Rocks are for us, we all just need to remember to put them in first, or we’ll never get them in.
3 – Work on the hard stuff first.
Years ago I did a research paper on entrepreneurship – I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship because 90 percent of all jobs in America are created by small businesses and it’s entrepreneurs who create those businesses – and what I noticed about the entrepreneurs that I interviewed for that paper, was that they made it a practice of their lives to always tackle their most difficult tasks first. Both in a general sense, but also practically, in their day to day lives, they always worked on the things they enjoyed least and/or found most difficult first. It struck me as odd, but they explained that they’d found that by handling the hard stuff in their lives and businesses first, their lives and/or whatever endeavor they attempted to pursue, would progressively get easier and easier.
4 – Be your own boss – and cheerleader.
If you haven’t already noticed this in life, there are only two kinds of people: those who are the boss, and those who have a boss. As an adult, you get to decide whether you’ll be the boss of your own life or not though – that’s one of the great benefits of being an adult. Even as an adult, however, you can still relate to the world in much the same way as a child does…i.e. you can let other people tell you what you should do, and how to do this or that, and when to do things, etc., OR you can begin to take responsibility over your own life and everything you do. Just because you have a job and work for someone else doesn’t mean you must give up control over your life and/or how to relate to it. For example, if every day when you arrive at work, there is always some major crisis that hits you in the face as soon as you walk in the door, you can either respond as a child would – having little or no say so in the matter and just accepting that terribly draining reality and trying to face it (or pretending to be sick to attempt to avoid it…) day after day, OR you could respond more as an adult who is the boss of your own life now, by saying something like this: “Even though that is the reality of that situation right now, as the boss of my own life, I have decided to look for employment elsewhere, and until I find that new position, I’m going to start my day 10 minutes earlier, and take that extra 10 minutes to do something (i.e. have a cup of coffee, check social media, listen to music, etc.) before I even walk in the door to my job, because it will help fortify my strength for dealing with the job I have right now, and build more of a cushion between that hostile environment and my mind, heart, and soul.
Similarly, we have to take responsibility for becoming our own cheerleaders as well. Everyone needs encouragement, but if we sit around and wait for someone else to pat us on the back for the things we do, we’ll be just sitting around waiting a lot of the time. A much more productive use of our time is to look for and work on ways to motive and encourage ourselves. It doesn’t even have to be a big thing – we can seek out motivational sayings to help brighten and encourage our day, reward ourselves with a small bouquet of flowers for completing a big or difficult project, or buy ourselves a gift for making that promotion or when we get a raise – whatever it is that would motivate and encourage us – just do those things regularly to celebrate. Small celebrations along the path help make the journey of life so much more pleasant every step of the way.
5. Re-calibrate regularly – but don’t over do it.
Growing up in Arkansas, I often had the pleasure of canoeing on the beautiful, Buffalo river, and if you have ever tried your hand at such a sport, you will understand better than most how this last point works. Just as water is a fluid thing and in a canoe you’re not able to ‘turn on a dime’ or make sudden stops, changes to your life are best made using a similar sense of finesse.
We all need to look ahead and plan early for any corrections that need to be made, and there will be corrections that are needed all along the way, but while those changes may seem small and insignificant at first, they can often end up having a dramatic impact on our situation. None of us get it all right the first time around, and it’s better to try and fail than to never try, so go ahead and get started, knowing you’ll need to make adjustments. Then occasionally, thoughtfully, consider how it’s all going. Ask yourself questions like, “Is what I’m doing meeting with success? Am I seeing improvement in my situation? Am I making progress? It’s also helpful to look at what others are doing and to ask similar questions to see if you can learn from what others are doing. In asking these questions, if you find that some of what you’re doing isn’t meeting with success, you can then consider trying something new that might work better – not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ – but just making small adjustments that you feel, based on your experience at that point, might work better than what you originally started with. The main thing, is to allow enough time to pass to give what you’re doing a real chance to work, and then if it truly is not working that well, to make small adjustments to ‘fine tune’ things.
Whether you’re 4 years old and just want that extra cookie, or 50 years old and trying to learn something brand new – or anywhere else in between – remember that growing in our ability to delay our immediate gratification, for the improved outcome that lies ahead, is a really really smart thing to do. At the end of the game, the kids with the most marshmallows win.