In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel set out to do an experiment. He tested hundreds of 4 to 5-year-olds on what turned out to be a key component to future success in work, health and life. Researchers brought each subject (a 4 or 5-year-old kid) into a private room and set a single marshmallow down on the table directly in front of them. The researcher then let the child know that they were going leave the room and if they didn’t eat the marshmallow sitting in front of them, they would get another marshmallow when the researcher came back into the room. The researcher then left the room for 15 minutes to let them decide: one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later?
In the past couple years you’ve probably noticed an inordinate amount of articles, podcasts, and TED Talks on the topic of happiness and life satisfaction. When people talk about being “happy,” there two different aspects to this concept.
There is happiness that we find on a daily basis through joyful activities, and then there is the happiness we find in having a greater meaning in our life that contributes to overall life satisfaction. There is feeling happiness in your life and then there’s feeling happiness about your life.
Happiness about your life sometimes includes going after bigger goals. Pushing yourself to see what you’re truly capable of. Working toward something that brings you both joy (because you enjoyed the pursuit) and satisfaction (because you had to work hard to get it). At some point when you go after a big goal you will be required to trade the immediate perceived reward right now for the bigger reward down the road. Big goals can mean big sacrifices; like not eating the marshmallow sitting in front of you.
If you’ve ever had an unfinished goal, you know how frustrating and heartbreaking it can be. You were on the path to your goal, took an unexpected side trip, and never found the road leading back to it.
What athletes don’t always know is that when they don’t accomplish a goal, they didn’t necessarily fail at the goal—they more likely failed at their goal-setting strategy. Here are three essential and research-proven goal-setting techniques for delaying gratification and holding out for the bigger reward:
HAVE A PLAN
You need to know exactly what you want and exactly how you’re going to get it. It’s worth putting in the time to formalize your goal and get specific with your strategy. The more specific you are with your vision and your plan, the more likely you are to take action on it.
WRITE IT DOWN AND SHARE IT WITH FRIENDS
Athletes who do these two things increase the probability of actually accomplishing their goals. Telling people about your goal and writing it down are added accountability factors that can increase the likelihood that you will follow through with your goals.
KNOW YOUR WHY
- Why this goal and why now?
- Why is this important to you?
- How does this goal connect to your values and the person you want to be?
When you think to yourself “I don’t know if I can do it today” and you’re trying to find your motivation, connecting to your why can be a powerful reminder of what’s really important to you and helps you make a decision from that place. It helps you hold out for two marshmallows.
And speaking of marshmallows—you might be wondering what the kids did when the researcher left the room:
Some kids had no problem at all waiting patiently for their second marshmallow. Others immediately grabbed the marshmallow and shoved it in their mouths. And then some of the kids came up with strategies like covering their eyes and sitting on their hands to try and hold out for the bigger reward.
What’s really fascinating are the follow-up studies. Over the course of 40 years after the initial experiment, some interesting differences emerged between the children who were able to delay gratification and choose two marshmallows later versus the children who chose one marshmallow immediately.
The research from this study and subsequent studies on delayed gratification are pretty clear; the ability to delay immediate gratification is essential for success. You set goals to fulfill dreams, to move from wishing something would happen to making it happen. And when you are truly committed to your goal, there is no amount of marshmallows that will derail you. You know that the bigger reward is waiting for you down the road.
This article by Carrie Jackson Cheadle, a professor of sport psychology and expert in Mental Skills Training, was originally published on trainingpeaks.com.
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