Skills to master change backed by science: Delayed gratification 

Olof Ekman
Oct 2, 2020

It has been said before but here it goes again: There are many ways to change. 

You can use powerful techniques and tools such as “don’t worry, be crappy”, change five degrees at the time or explore your values to get clarity about why you don’t do the things you say you really want to do

And, you can equip yourself with essential skills that will help you be more successful when trying to change something in your life. 

In the last month, I’ve come across a couple of scientific studies that showcased concretely what some of those skills can be. These studies had such an impact on me and the courses I do that I just have to share them with you guys. So in the upcoming month, I will share 3 blog posts highlighting the 3 main skills to get really good at changing yourself. Here we go!

Skills to master change backed by science: Delayed gratification 

The first study that I stumbled upon was posted in the WhatsApp group by one of the participants in The 1-Month Habit Experiment. It’s based on an old study called “ The Marshmallow Experiment”. You might have heard about it. Since the first study back in the ’60s, there have been several similar studies and here’s a rather hilarious video showing what the experiment was all about: 

Basically, they took a bunch of kids and put them in a room and put a marshmallow in front of them instructing them that they can either eat the marshmallow straight away or they can wait until the instructor returns and get two marshmallows.

Most of the kids ate the marshmallow straight away. Some of them managed to wait and were rewarded with a second marshmallow. But the interesting thing about this study is that several years later, when the kids were in high school, the scientists checked in with the 650 participants to see how they were doing in life. They asked them questions around their capacity to plan and think ahead, their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their peers. They also requested their S.A.T. scores and tested their IQ and measured their BMI (Body mass index). 

Here’s what crazy thing they noticed: 

“the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.”

Learn to wait...

So does this mean that if you were born with the ability to easily delay gratification, meaning being good at doing something now (or avoiding doing something now) for the sake of reaping the benefits later, you are more likely to be successful in life and at managing change? Yes, it seems that way. 

Does it mean that the rest of us are screwed? No.

This is what happened when the scientists gave the kids simple techniques to help them direct their attention away from the marshmallow:

“The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual”

So what does this mean for you? 

It means that to get great at change (or anything else in life it seems like), you should train your ability to delay gratification. 

If that does not come naturally for you, don’t worry, you can train to get better at it. Many of the changes we want to implement don’t come with strong immediate rewards. Such as starting to meditate or deciding to eat healthier. But by doing it anyway, over and over again, and enjoying the reward later, your brain will learn that it’s worth putting in the work now, even if it does not pay off straight away. 

The reward will come eventually!

Here’s are 3 simple experiments you can do to start training delayed gratification:

  1. Start saving 2€/day by creating an automatic daily transfer from your bank account to a savings account. 
  2. Start meditating for 5min each morning.
  3. Plant something and look after it each day.

None of these will come with immediate rewards but if you stick with them, they will eventually turn into a bucket of money, peace of mind, or a beautiful looking plant. In my own experience, getting good at delaying gratification and long-term thinking has to do with believing in it. Knowing about it is usually not enough. You need to do it, see its value and as with everything else, start believing in it. 

The next skill to master change backed by science: Awareness. Stay tuned! 

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