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Don't eat the marshmallow! 5 secrets to mastering willpower

Whether it's learning to say "no" to dessert or saving more for retirement, most of us could use a little more willpower.
/ Source: TODAY

Whether it’s learning to say “no” to dessert or saving more for retirement, most of us could use a little more willpower.

Mastering self-control can be as simple as training our brains to think “hot” or “cool,” says one of the most influential modern psychologists, Walter Mischel, famously known for the “Marshmallow test."

You may be familiar with the image: A little kid sits at a table, faced with a single marshmallow. “You can eat this now,” the researcher tells her, or “you can wait and have two marshmallows later.” It’s the choice of immediate pleasure or delayed gratification— and a larger reward later.

Marshmallows in bowl
Eat one marshmallow now or wait for two? Lessons from the "Marshmallow test" can apply to many of life's challenges.Shutterstock

The “Marshmallow test” — devised by Mischel at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School in the 1960’s — has come to symbolize the art of willpower and self-control. Mischel conducted the research over decades, with students of various socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, recording how long a child could wait before eating the sweet he or she had picked out (such as a marshmallow), or receiving a second one. Most important, Mischel explains, he studied how kids distracted themselves from eating the first treat in front of them.

The "Marshmallow test," it turned out, also predicted future success. Tracking participants, Mischel found that the preschoolers who were “high delayers” generally fared better in life than those who couldn’t wait for a bigger treat.

As teens, “high delayers” had better SAT scores and their parents reported greater academic achievement. By age 27-32, those who waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index, a higher sense of self-worth, and pursued their long-term goals more effectively. By midlife, “high delayers” had distinctly different brain scans in areas linked to addiction and obesity.

Mischel spoke with TODAY about his recent book, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control,” explaining how to apply the same principles to many of life’s challenges, from sticking to a diet or an exercise plan to quitting smoking or saving for a home.

Woman with a sweet tooth resisting a cupcake
I really want that cupcake NOW.Shutterstock

1. Stick to your diet and say 'no' to dessert

People with strong willpower know how to think “hot” and “cool.” A hot focus automatically triggers an impulse reaction inside us. Kids who couldn’t wait pictured the sweet, chewy taste of the first marshmallow.

“High delayers” could distract themselves or “cool” the treat. It’s a mental power that resides in the prefrontal cortex — and a trick for any dieter to exert self-control.

“The hotness of temptation exists as soon as a waiter describes the dessert tray or we open the fridge,” says Mischel. “But if you imagine that a cockroach just snacked on the chocolate mousse or ice cream, the food loses its allure.”

And if “thinking cool” doesn’t work, try an “if-then” plan, so there’s no split-second decision-making while the stimulus is right there, “hot” in front of you:

“If the waiter comes by with chocolate mousse, then I will order the fruit plate. Or, if my alarm goes off at 7am, then I will go to the gym.”

2. Save more for retirement

Many of us have an incredibly hard time saving for the future because we can’t imagine our future selves concretely.

Just as preschoolers had to “cool down” to resist their one marshmallow, adults, making 401(k) choices or forgoing a vacation to save money, must imagine themselves in old age to “heat the scene emotionally,” as if they are already there.

Try a computer program or free app that allows you to “age your face” and see a picture of yourself— wrinkled, with grey hair — in retirement.

3. If you spend too much time on social media

“If-then” plans make self-control automatic and have helped adults and children control their own behavior more than they had imagined possible.

If I am at my desk working or if it’s before lunch, then I will turn off my Facebook push notifications. Or, if I am playing with my child, then I will turn off my text messages.

“High delayers” also cooled the stimulus by physically distancing themselves from it — turning their chairs to face the other direction or pushing the marshmallow to the outer edge of the table.

Adults can use the same strategies, placing their phone in another room during dinner or locking it in a desk drawer at work.

4. Break a bad habit

In his book, Mischel shares his struggle to quit smoking. He describes cigarettes as his “continuous hot temptation,” that he had to mentally change into “something disgusting” to cure his addiction.

So, whenever he felt a craving, he would inhale deeply from a large can filled with old, stale cigarette butts and pipe debris. Then, he would visualize himself as a cancer patient, being prepared for the next radiation treatment — to make the future consequences of smoking as “hot, salient and vivid” as possible.

5. Stop procrastinating

Executive function (or EF) is a set of cognitive skills, responsible for self-regulating and reaching a long-term goal.

And each child who waited successfully for the second marshmallow, Mischel explains, shard three EF features. First, “they had to actively remember their goal and the contingency.” For example, an adult might say: “If I finish updating my resume, I will be able to email it to the headhunter.”

Second, “high delayers” could monitor their progress and shift their attention between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation-reducing techniques. “I am halfway through updating my resume, and I will not get up until I reach the bottom of the page or I will shift my chair away from the window and the beautiful sunlight outside.”

Lastly, the “high delayers” were able to stop their impulse responses — like reaching out to touch the marshmallow — or in a job seeker’s case, clicking over to Facebook.

Jacoba Urist is a health, education and culture journalist in New York City, who also writes for The Atlantic. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist.