In the 1960s, Stanford’s Professor Walter Mischel initiated a series of studies where he evaluated several young kids on their capacity to postpone immediate satisfaction.
The experiment involved each child being brought into a room and offered a marshmallow. The investigator would then inform the child that he would leave and return after some time. If the child refrained from eating the marshmallow until the investigator returned, they would receive an additional marshmallow as a reward.
After leaving for a span of 15 minutes, the investigator would observe how these children acted. Some could not resist but eat the marshmallow immediately, while others struggled with the waiting period before eventually giving in. But a number of them managed to wait out the entire duration and were rewarded with a second marshmallow.
As the children grew older, the researchers kept track of their progress and identified that those who had the discipline to wait were perceived as “more academically and socially proficient, verbally eloquent, rational, attentive, structured, and adept at managing frustration and stress” (source).
In essence, individuals who can postpone gratification generally achieve superior results. They make small sacrifices in the present to benefit their future selves.
1. Techniques to Delay Gratification
The Marshmallow test is usually associated with the finding that delaying gratification leads to improved outcomes later in life. However, other significant findings from this study are often overlooked.
If we concur that the ability to delay gratification is beneficial, how can we enhance this skill?
Postponing gratification is not an enigmatic superpower; instead, it’s a learnable skill.
And if it’s a teachable skill, we can invariably improve at it.
Interestingly, the study delves into this exact aspect!
It explored ways in which one can improve their ability to delay gratification.
So, what did it discover? (from the abstract)
The first experiment compared how external and cognitive distractions from reward objects impacted the waiting time for a preferred delayed reward before giving it up for an immediate but less preferred one. As anticipated, participants waited considerably longer for a preferred reward when they were distracted from it.
In simpler terms – distract yourself from the rewards. If you aren’t contemplating the temptation, you’re less likely to succumb to it.
In the second experiment, it was demonstrated that only certain cognitive events (like thinking “fun things”) served as effective ideational distractors. On the other hand, thinking “sad thoughts” or about the rewards themselves resulted in shorter delay times.
So, if you’re searching for distractions, evidently opt for enjoyable ones rather than sorrowful ones!
In the third experiment, the delayed rewards were not physically accessible for direct attention during the waiting period. When participants waited, thoughts about the rewards significantly reduced the length of their delay of gratification.
Again, it’s easier to delay gratification if the rewards aren’t present and you’re not persistently reminded about them.
These findings echo our intuitive expectations.
However, they emphasize an important lesson – don’t attempt to “force” yourself to delay gratification; eliminate those temptations entirely.
It’s not about “mental strength” or some vague concept of willpower. We often berate ourselves when we fail to resist something. Depending on willpower is a blunder.
2. Striking the “Perfect Balance”
The Marshmallow test’s key takeaway appears to be that delaying is always the best decision. Future gains come at the expense of present pains.
But favoring your future self over your present self in every situation would be absurd.
So, how do you choose between spending today or saving for tomorrow?
If you ask a business major, they’ll tell you that you can calculate the present value of something in the future as long as you know the interest rate. You can also calculate the future value of something in the present (again, with interest rates). If interest rates are at 5%, a hundred dollars today is worth $105 in a year.
They can help you with these calculations; what they cannot do is make the decision for you.
Choosing to take $100 today or $105 in a year will depend on your financial circumstances. Moreover, life constantly presents us with this dilemma. Do you buy item X or do you save that money?
The key is finding a balance between your present and future self in each decision.
The concept of an “ideal balance” is a myth. There’s just the choice you have at the moment – don’t overcomplicate it!
With hindsight, when we revisit the findings of the Marshmallow test several years later (Mischel was a co-author on the study), we learn that the waiting times did not exhibit any “statistically meaningful relationships with any of the outcomes that we studied.”
This means that when other factors about the child were included, adding the individual waiting times for each child did not alter the results.
Your future self shouldn’t always prevail; your present self needs resources too.
How do you resolve this conflict?
3. Seek Advice from Your Future Self
If you’re wrestling with prioritizing one over the other, consider seeking advice from your future self.
You likely have certain aspirations for your life, like getting married, starting a family, purchasing a car or a house, traveling the world, etc.
All these objectives require funds.
When consulting your future self, question whether today’s purchase is worth impeding the timeline of your future self’s goals.
Spending $500 on a new TV today means those funds will not contribute towards buying a house. If you have a financial plan where you’re already saving enough to meet your goals, then spending $500 will not impact your plan. This underlines the importance of having a financial plan (even without a financial advisor). It provides you the liberty to make these trade-offs without guilt or worry.
What if you’re unsure about what you want to do?
Seek out a mentor.
Why are mentors so important? They can represent an iteration of your future self.
When seeking advice, we often turn to individuals whose situations closely emulate what we aspire to achieve. Mentors can be found anywhere. They don’t necessarily have to be older or more successful. Neither do they need to possess all the conventional hallmarks of success.
They don’t even need to align with you in every aspect of your life.
They simply need to be further along on a path that you wish to embark on.
For instance, let’s consider fitness as this journey. When you hit the gym, aim to learn from those around you. You’re not required to engage them or request them to mentor you – merely observe their routines and learn. What exercises are they performing and in what sequence? Reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Observation won’t teach you everything, but it’ll certainly teach you something. Additionally, books, videos, podcasts, etc. are great resources too – it doesn’t always have to be face-to-face interaction. With the abundance of content available online, there are plenty of people to learn from, and it’s all readily accessible.
However, don’t blindly follow someone else’s advice, especially when it comes to financial counsel.
Always filter it through your personal circumstances and how it applies to your life.
Lastly, if you’re still uncertain, opt for minimizing regret. It works for Jeff Bezos, and it will work for you. 😂
The battle between your future self and present self is one we all face; hopefully, this article makes it a little more manageable moving forward.