Would You Pass the Marshmallow Test?

Three simple tips can help you boost self-control and increase willpower.

Posted Nov 16, 2018

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Do you have the willpower to resist temptation?
Source: studioessen/pixabay

I have a confession to make: I love exotic (read: expensive) teas. A boring cup of English breakfast simply doesn’t do it for me. I like the tongue-tickling spice kick of herbal Ayurveda blends, the crisp and invigorating flavor of a green leaf tea and the sweet, full-bodied aroma of fruity infusions. Indeed, I am the proud owner of several cupboards full of tea, which I have acquired from selected supermarkets, specialized tea shops, and online retailers both in the UK and abroad. And while I drink a lot of tea, I certainly have many boxes that have been collecting dust ever since I bought them (like that Slovakian carrot tea!). An office manager at work went as far as calling my stacks of tea a fire hazard, consequently banning them to lockable sideboards.

The point is that I probably don’t really need hundreds of different types of tea. In fact, I had better demonstrate some self-control and stop wasting money.

The Problem with Self-Control

Well, conjuring self-control is easier said than done. I’m hardly the only one with a little obsession. What’s tea to me, might be online games, red wine, luxury shoes, or doughnuts to you. I’m sure you’ll know just how hard it can be to resist temptation. In fact, ever since the famous “marshmallow experiment,” we even have hard evidence for this. The psychology experiment tested willpower of children. The kids were given a marshmallow which they could eat straight away. However, if they managed to hold out for 10 minutes, they received a second marshmallow as reward for waiting. The results are easily summed up: Kids were pretty terrible at delaying gratification, and most chomped down the marshmallow at first sight.

I’m sure most of us will agree that waiting for the bigger reward or “delaying gratification” is the smarter move in the marshmallow experiment and—indeed—in most real-life situations of temptation. So how come we are so bad at choosing what is best?

Hot and Cold Decisions

Underlying the problem of self-control are two competing decision-making systems: a “hot system” responsible for fast, emotional, and impulsive decisions and a “cold system” responsible for slow, reflective, and controlled decision making. While the hot system typically jumps at every chance of receiving quick rewards, the cold system takes a more measured approach by weighing up the pros and cons.

Hence, if we wish to increase self-control, we need to inhibit our hot system and support the cold decision system instead. These simple strategies may help:

1.     Obscure

The first tip for boosting self-control consists of identifying and disabling triggers of the hot decision system. Following the common saying “Out of sight is out of mind,” this simply involves obscuring, hiding or avoiding tempting objects. If you’re an obsessive tea nerd like myself, you might consider staying clear of tea shops. Competitive online gamers could disable game notifications on their phones. Wine lovers might keep bottles in closed cupboards. Shoe fans should give a wide berth to any shoe shop, and doughnut addicts could store their treats in opaque tins.

2.     Distract

Another strategy to curb cravings is distraction. This means to keep your mind busy and consciously engage in different activities. If you can’t stop obsessing over the latest online game and find yourself wasting hours and hours trying to beat some anonymous competitor known as “ZombieMage999,” you could schedule a fun activity with friends to get you off the sofa. When trying to keep yourself from finishing two leftover doughnuts, there are lots of distracting hobbies to try. Typically, active hobbies (e.g., crafting, exercising, gardening or cooking) work best, because they keep your hands occupied as well as your mind. Ever tried to snatch a doughnut while your fingers are covered in glitter and glue?

3.     Rationalize

A third way to boost self-control is to remove the emotional components (or the “hot” attributes) of the tempting object. This sounds way more complicated than it is! As a passionate tea collector, finding new flavors gives me thrills, and every addition to my tea cupboard is exciting. In order to strip tea (or any collector’s item) of its emotional component, try to think of it in an abstract way. At the end of the day, every tea is just a mix of dried leaves used to flavor water. What is so exciting about that? And you can apply the same analytic approach to other tempting items: What is wine but fermented grape juice? What are doughnut but pieces of deep-fried dough?

All future-oriented goals—be it saving money, losing weight or mastering a new skill—crucially depend on self-control and willpower. And while the tips above will help along the way, it is only through regular practice of self-control that we’ll be able to succeed. Willpower has previously been described as a mental muscle. If you want willpower to grow stronger, you need to exercise it regularly and create a habit of self-control.

Physical exercise is a great way to supplement the mental workout of your “willpower muscle,” and yoga might be a particularly powerful tool. Yoga teacher Angela Wilson states: “When we practice asana, we learn to hold difficult poses and to ride the waves of emotion and resistance that arise from them. This practice helps us build inner resolve and mental strength—the muscle of self-discipline, if you will.”

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