In the late ’60s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed a now-iconic experiment called the Marshmallow Test, which analyzed the ability of four year olds to exhibit “delayed gratification.” Here’s what happened: Each child was brought into the room and sat down at a table with a delicious treat on it (maybe a marshmallow, maybe a donut). The scientists told the children that they could have a treat now, or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two treats.
All of the children wanted to wait. (Who doesn’t want more treats?) But many couldn’t. After just a few minutes or less, their resolve would break down and they would eat the marshmallow. But some kids were better at delaying gratification: They were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes.
When the researchers subsequently checked in on these same children in high school, it turned out that those with more self-control – that is, those who held out for 15 minutes – were better behaved, less prone to addiction, and scored higher on the SAT.
Recounting Mischel’s research in an excellent New Yorker article (that this piece could not exist without), Jonah Lehrer writes that, after observing hundreds of hours of videotape of the children, Mischel concluded that the kids who resisted temptation used “strategic allocation of attention”:
Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow – the “hot stimulus” – the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated – it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
It’s not difficult to see how self-control
would be predictive of success in certain spheres. It means trading short-term gratification for long-term goals, skipping the temptation to go to the movies and working on your novel instead. But that’s a relatively simple example – one that makes the decision to exercise, or not exercise, self-control easy to see.
In reality, we are faced with hundreds of these “tradeoff decisions” within the span of a single day. As the thoughtful blogger James Shelley has written, very often when we talk about the skill of “productivity” what we are really talking about is “self-control” – the disciplined ability to choose to do one thing at the cost of not doing another (perhaps more tempting thing).
Very often when we talk about the skill of ‘productivity’ what we are really talking about is ‘self-control.’
As the hierarchy of the traditional workplace breaks down, we are all gaining more freedom and flexibility. More and more, we can set our own long-term goals, we can determine our own work schedules, we can work at an office or at a coffee shop, we can make our own decisions about what we focus on today, and what we focus on tomorrow. But this “freedom” also brings responsibility – a responsibility that, I would argue, demands a vastly increased capacity for self-control.
In essence, Twitter is the new marshmallow. (Or Facebook, or Foursquare. Pick your poison.) At any given moment, a host of such “treats” await us. Emails, social media messages, text messages – discrete little bits of unexpected and novel information that activate our brain’s seeking circuitry, titillating it and inciting the desire to search for more.