Over 50 years ago, Dr Walter Mischel was researching how the ability to delay gratification impacts overall success in life, learning and business. Here’s what he did.
He started by doing simple tests with small children. They were placed in a room with a table and chair, and a big fluffy marshmallow was put on the table. He then left the room, promising them that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow by the time he got back, they’d get two.
Most gobbled up the marshmallow within seconds. Others made heroic attempts to distract themselves from the temptation.
What he learnt
Dr Mischel found that the kids with the most willpower were also the most successful at school, and later in life. The ability to ‘defer gratification’ has a direct link to greater success in everything we do.
So, how do you learn to increase your willpower? According to Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, the trick is to change your environment, rather than your behaviour. Want to stop eating chocolate? Don’t keep a box of your favourite Lindt chocolates in the pantry and rely on willpower.
Because willpower fails, you invariably view the inevitable failure as a character flaw. It’s not. It’s physiology. Using your willpower to expend a little energy giving the box of chocolates away will mean you won’t have to expend huge amounts of energy trying to stop yourself from eating them later.
Willpower takes energy, and the less energy you have, the worse your willpower will be. You also want to reserve that willpower and energy for when it really matters. If you’re using it all ignoring the chocolate in the next room, you’re not expending your finite energy on a more worthwhile target.
If you spend too much time on the Internet or answering emails when you should be working, spend a bit of energy disconnecting yourself, and reserve the bulk of your energy for your actual work. As Kaufman says, save your willpower, focus on changing your environment, and you’ll have more energy available when you need it most.