The Key to Success: Don't Eat the Marshmallow - Common Sense Living Newsletter
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The Key to Success: Don't Eat the Marshmallow

Aug 19, 2015

The Key to Success: Don't Eat the Marshmallow 

Walter Mischel, a Stanford University psychology professor, put a four year old child alone in a room with a single marshmallow, and said...

'I'm leaving you here in this room with a marshmallow. If I come back in fifteen minutes and you haven't eaten it yet, I will give you two marshmallows to eat.'

Now, asking a child to wait fifteen minutes for a fluffy white delectable sweet sitting right in front of him is like asking you to wait two hours for your morning chai.

It wasn't happening.

The kid gobbled up the marshmallow within seconds of the professor leaving the test room.

But here's the interesting thing: One out of every three children managed to 'delay gratification'.

And years later, when Professor Mischel followed up with these 653 test subjects, he found that the kids who were able to wait for the second marshmallow were more successful later in life. They got better marks in school, had better jobs, more money, healthier bodies, and even better relationships.

So what does this mean for us? What if we're one of the kids who would've eaten the marshmallow? After all, if we have that trait so early in life, we're probably born with it, right? Are we then doomed to live unsuccessful lives?

But the lesson I learned from this experiment is quite the opposite. I see it as good news that, even at four years old, children know the value of delayed gratification, of exercising self-control, of saying no to themselves. Even at that age, we intuitively understand the advantage of not giving in to 'instant gratification', choosing instead to work towards a larger purpose.

Our gut - our inner child - already knows the 'right' thing to do. We may not, however, at four years old, understand how to control ourselves. But it is possible to learn.

So how do we bypass our urge for 'instant gratification' and choose instead the 'delayed gratification' that will lead us to success in our goals?

Turn your focus elsewhere

It turns out that the children who managed to stay away from the marshmallow almost made themselves 'forget' that it existed by distracting themselves. They fidgeted, looked away, walked around - anything to avoid the temptation sitting on the tray right in front of them.

Building on this idea, when Professor Mischel re-ran the test years later he taught the children an easy trick to change their focus. He taught them to pretend that the marshmallow wasn't real - that they should imagine it as a picture and draw an imaginary frame around it.

This simple trick greatly increased the percentage of children who could wait. Which just goes to show that you can control your mind if you can learn to change focus.

Look at things in a different light

Even after studying self-control and its importance for many decades, Walter Mischel, the creator of the marshmallow test, was himself unable to master it for many years.

He was a smoker, and even though he knew that smoking would likely kill him, he rationalized his habit by telling himself that smoking kept him calm and balanced, that it was a part of his personality, that all the negative repercussions of smoking had nothing to do with him.

One day he saw a man with a metastised lung cancer - head shaved, chest exposed, little green 'X's all over his body where radiation would go. It finally hit home. Since then, every time he felt the urge to smoke, every few minutes apparently, he pictured the man with lung cancer. 'I changed the objective value of the cigarette. It went from something I craved to something disgusting,' he said in this interview.

Looking at things in a different light is an extension of the trick he taught the children. Make something real, unreal. Make something you like, hateful. And in fact, you can make something you dislike, desirable, and use that to build good habits.

Wait for the moment to pass

'Let the first impulse pass. Wait for the second.'

When I was younger I was often quite happy to announce, 'I'm not a planner... I like to live in the moment.' It seemed more fun to have that impulsive, laissez-faire, devil-may-care attitude to life, but over time I have come to appreciate the above-stated philosophy of Jesuit priest and philosopher Baltazar Gracian.

Recognising the impulse and waiting for it to pass is one good way not to give in to your cravings and do the right thing instead. When I come home every evening after work, instead of acting on my earlier ironclad decision to go for a walk or swim, I get an overwhelming urge to grab a snack and flop down in front of the TV.

Now, I grab some water and walk around till time passes, good sense prevails, and I can make the right choice. Over time, my habit will change and so will my impulses. Until then, I just have to wait it out.

Visualise your future with your reward in it

The children who were able to control themselves pictured themselves in the future eating the two marshmallows. This, in fact, is not easy for a child to do... or an adult.

A study found that when asked to picture our future selves we often visualise strangers. That is why we are unable to plan for our future selves. It's hard to save money for some 'stranger' nearing retirement when our present selves seem to be in greater need.

This makes aging, and retiring seem unreal. Close your eyes for a minute and try to picture yourself ten years from now - what do you look like?

It's tough, right?

Now start defining the picture. Are you still employed, dressed in work clothes, going somewhere? Are you retired, surrounded by grandchildren, laughing, telling stories from your life?

Now, picture yourself older, weaker, unable to walk properly, maybe breathing through a tube. Living in small house, alone, unhappy.

Not the future you want for yourself. Does this image make you want to exercise, eat healthier, save money?

"Retirement is a very abstract idea that doesn't resonate with the emotional parts of the brain that actually motivate us to action," according to Brad Klontz, a financial planner and psychologist.

So bring your future into closer view, and use that image to motivate yourself into planning for yourself.

We will tell you exactly how to plan for a future life in our soon-to-be-released retirement guide. But we can't make you actually do it. That's up to you. Can you forego the marshmallow today for a better life tomorrow?

Image Source: ami mataraj / Shutterstock


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15 Responses to "The Key to Success: Don't Eat the Marshmallow"


29 May, 2016

I have often wondered that an action which I have intended to take just after happening of an event if delayed by an hour or a day is much better, and brings out the best in me. I fully agree that living for the moment is having little value and as you grow older, giving things a 'second look' is often the best course. still, knowing all this, how many of us follow ?

Shruti Kakkar

10 Sep, 2015

I absolutely agree here. Sometimes even maturity is defined that way : the time elapsed between stimuli and response. More the time, more maturity. and history shows us how many times we should have held our tongue, not written those mails, not spoken those words in the heat of the moment and waited. May be it all comes down to perspective. How I see these things is that if its not a life and death situation, most things can wait. May be Anisa is mostly referring to "instant gratification", I am clubbing the same with patience. Sometimes it has to do with abstract ideas like future rewards, but mostly with concrete, those immediate impulses of buying in the "online sale" which we can forego.

Like (1)

Mandadi Pardha Saradhi

20 Aug, 2015

Very touching and strait forward in reaching the targeted audience. Awaiting to get Retirement Guide.

Like (2)


19 Aug, 2015

Very educative value of this article is to relinquish a bad habit. -Inderjit


19 Aug, 2015

Very educative value of this article is to relinquish a bad habit. -Inderjit

Like (1)

vikas chopra

19 Aug, 2015

what an amazing insight with a simple story, I am 43, and yet so many times fall to the pleasure of eating my marshmallow quickly, with time i have realized that everything can be controlled with practice like the one you suggested, visualizing your rewards as how u want it to be.

Like (2)

j n agrawal

19 Aug, 2015

Dear Anisa, U r doing great work in writing on personal development and financial freedom. Experienced person like us or successful and wealthy people can throw more light on key to success and wealth building. For me success is attaining your wish or dream professionally. The key to success is more than sacrifice like patience, hard work, concentration, day by day improvement and other factors. For wealth building above are required in addition to saving and investment. Small things lead to big things. This is the history of success and financial freedom.

Surjeet Paul

19 Aug, 2015

Wonderful article on self control Dear Anisa Its a pleasure & much worthier to read & learn so much from your articles Keep up the good work Best Regards


19 Aug, 2015

Nice article usual.


19 Aug, 2015

Good one. First I thought this article is connected with the upcoming GOOGLE ANDROID OS Marshmellow.


19 Aug, 2015

We Indians, especially those who are 40 plus today have been brought up in a spirit of thrift and simple living . We have been taught to save for the education of the children, their weddings ,which were more to do with giving them jewellery and other useful things and not too much about the pomp & party. Also , living in joint families was the norm and the earning members had to care for everyone in the family, hence indulgence was very rare. I know of families who have not visited any other place except their native place for 25-30 yrs . or an occasional pilgrimage. Leisure travel was not affordable to persons in private employment. The article is however an eye opener for children to be more responsible about their future in this age of instant gratification and getting bombarded with new gadgets every week.


19 Aug, 2015

nice article


19 Aug, 2015

All successful people in life have been those who created assets first by controlling their impulses to consume the marshmallows in hand. In fact this is applicable to all walks of life including studies, sports , academics ,business and what not. Good article , thanks for sharing .


19 Aug, 2015

Yes all your explanations and fore views are correct , every one need to draw thier future , it is excellent suggestion by you people, by seeing this , the person who are still not in plan also will draw thier future picture, thank you for your ideas.

Bhavin Patel

19 Aug, 2015

Very Good Article...Thanks to team "Common Sense Living" for such a nice work on regular basis..


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