Becoming a Renaissance Man, Part 6

For an archive of previous installments in the series click here.

Procrastinate on Things You Enjoy

Pick something you are really looking forward to and get much joy from.  Now delay experiencing it.  Or miss it altogether.  Miss your favorite show.  Don’t even tape it.  That new blockbuster movie you were planning to spend the night outside waiting for to open?  See it three weeks after it comes out.  Procrastinate on the things you eagerly look forward to and do some chores you’ve been avoiding instead.  Leave that dessert you’ve been craving on your desk  and don’t eat it until the end of the day.  American Idol results tonight?  Live?  Go home and go to sleep instead.  Feel like taking a break to check email or Facebook or Twitter for the umpteenth time?  Finish your work project first and take the break in about five hours.

The point here is training yourself to forego immediate gratification when you have to.  The reason many of us don’t do the things we need to do to get long-term benefits for our lives is that our lives our filled with too many instances of succumbing to short-term gratification.  These short-term gratifications are distractions from more important lasting goals.

Here’s a great article by David Brooks on Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment:

AROUND 1970, psychologist Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes — desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

Brooks then goes on to discuss how these findings on the correlation between self-control and future success could positively influence policymaking. He also notes the following:

Differences in the ability to focus attention and exercise control emerge very early, perhaps as soon as nine months. But there is no consensus on how much of the ability to exercise self-control is hereditary and how much is environmental.

The ability to delay gratification, like most skills, correlates with socioeconomic status and parenting styles. Children from poorer homes do much worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes. That’s probably because children from poorer homes are more likely to have their lives disrupted by marital breakdown, violence, moving, etc. They think in the short term because there is no predictable long term.

The good news is that while differences in the ability to delay gratification emerge early and persist, that ability can be improved with conscious effort. Moral lectures don’t work. Sheer willpower doesn’t seem to work either. The children who resisted eating the marshmallow didn’t stare directly at it and exercise iron discipline. On the contrary, they were able to resist their appetites because they were able to think about other things.

What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis,” is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it.

This pattern would be too obvious to mention if it weren’t so largely ignored by educators and policymakers.

The New Yorker goes more in-depth into Mischel’s research.

The scientists are hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper. They’re also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they search for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.

If Mischel and his team succeed, they will have outlined the neural circuitry of self-control. For decades, psychologists have focussed on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

This will be a fascinating investigation to track. If Mischel is right, raw intelligence isn’t so much the primary cause of future success but rather one of a series of causes of future success, a series that begins with capacity for self-control and capacity for delay of gratification. Rather than focusing on intelligence and whether it is mostly hereditary or can be changed, it may be more beneficial to study self-control and whether that is mostly hereditary or can be changed. It sounds like a subtle distinction, but it’s actually quite the paradigm shift.

I think learning to delay gratification is an important trait that it is never too late to develop.

At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”…

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

I would suggest examining your own capacity for delay of gratification and creating challenges for yourself. Can you have a bowl of your favorite candy in front of you and only eat a couple and leave the rest of the bowl sitting there? Or do you have to pick at them until they’re finished? If the season finale or most important episode of your favorite show is on your DVR, do you have to watch it the same night it aired or can you leave it sitting there all week long until you’ve accomplished the more pressing matters in your life and are ready to finally get around to watching it? If challenged, could you force yourself to not DVR-record it at all, knowing it won’t be repeated and you’ll likely have to wait around for the box set to view said episode? It’s good to practice gratification delaying exercises and seeing how they make you feel. 

Read Iceberg Slim’s Pimp book to read how he mastered women by excruciating bouts of practicing delay of sexual gratification.

An encouraging finding:

The early appearance of the ability to delay suggests that it has a genetic origin, an example of personality at its most predetermined. Mischel resists such an easy conclusion. “In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,” he says. “The two influences are completely interrelated.” For instance, when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. 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,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”


Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is leading the program. She first grew interested in the subject after working as a high-school math teacher. “For the most part, it was an incredibly frustrating experience,” she says. “I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.” And so, at the age of thirty-two, Duckworth decided to become a psychologist. One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

Start with small things you look forward to and practice putting those off or missing them altogether. Then challenge yourself to practice with bigger and bigger things.

But like the article quotes above say, the best way to achieve the gratification delay and build patience is by not thinking of the gratification and distracting yourself from dwelling on what you’re missing by focusing on something else. Here’s what you should focus on: Periodically make an ongoing list of long-term goals and short-term tasks you need to accomplish. Order them from 1 to 4, with 1 being “important and immediate,” 2 being “important but not immediate,” 3 being “unimportant and immediate” and 4 being “unimportant and not immediate.” The things in 3 and 4 more often than not are usually the things you need to procrastinate on but tend not to. Tasks and goals in 1 and 2 are usually things you should be doing immediately but tend to procrastinate. So as you learn to delay gratification and practice patience, usually with items falling in the 3 and 4 categories, use the new free time to distract yourself from what you’re missing by focusing on category 1 and 2 tasks instead. Eventually eliminate all the 1s from your list and strive to keep the list of 2s as small as possible and keep them from becoming 1s. And even then keep practicing patience and delaying gratification, because new temptation is always around the corner.

10 Responses to “Becoming a Renaissance Man, Part 6”

  1. Good idea bringing up Iceberg Slim. Restraint and delayed gratification aren’t just for ascetics with boring lives.

  2. Watch out for this though:

    Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be used up. When that energy is low (rather than high), mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one’s self-control impairs the ability to control one’s self later on.

    It could be like lifting weights. It won’t help you if you are moving furniture latter that day but it will help you if you are moving furniture 6 months from now.

  3. Sfer, interesting take. So training willpower can be like exercising. Train rigorously and consistently but within reason and you build up power over time. But overtrain, especially too close to a time when you need to use your strength like lifting furniture or fighting or playing a sport, and you actually can have a detrimental effect on your functional real-world strength in the short term. Similarly, overdoing such mental training can actually deplete your willpower in the short term instead of strengthen it and leave you unprepared for events where you need to use it. Makes sense.

  4. Ohh, T, this was really interesting. I’ve not come across this concept (or the studies) before and being unable to delay gratification is definitely a problem for me. I can tell you now that being a gifted child did NOT help with my adolescent overeating and underachievement, even though I come from a happy, middle-class family. I’ll be practising these techniques for sure. Thanks for this.

    Now I have a craving for marshmallows to go and deal with :mrgreen:

    China Blues last blog post..Lies, Damned Lies

  5. Excellent topic. I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” presently and it too addresses these topics. Success is far more than mere intelligence, in fact, intelligence is only really important in terms of a minimum threshold, aka, college grads tend to have IQ’s around 110 to 115. An IQ of 150 has little bearing on the ability to successfully negotiate college. It’s the concept of necessary but not sufficient with regard to achievement.

    Most important to success in life is one’s ability to negotiate desirable outcomes in one’s life. A smart guy can languish in a back office and never be promoted, but his intellectual inferior who is still reasonably smart may become the CEO. “Social intelligence” trumps IQ in many aspects of success in life.

    Gladwell addresses this fact by presenting the work of Lewis Terman who studied gifted children and found that factors other than IQ were far more relevant to their achievement in life. I’ve often thought that excessive intelligence can be a handicap in navigating the waters of career and social life in that it is often inversely proportional to one’s ability to relate to others. This is born out in the studies that children of average IQ have sex earlier and more frequently than the outliers on either end of the spectrum.

    Sfer’s comment is very true, exhaustion, hunger etc. reduces willpower. Maintaining a structured life in terms of mealtimes, sleep schedule and exercise do wonders for discipline.

    Willpower, like most other mental attributes is a function of discipline and mental rigor. If you have difficulty approaching women, or speaking publicly due to fear, you must face that fear repeatedly until you gain a level of comfort doing whatever the activity. If your memory or willpower are poor, you must challenge them and train them like a muscle to improve their performance. My model of the mind and brain is analogous to a computer. The brain is the hardware and ones thoughts, habits and attitudes are the software. The software can be retooled through disciplined action. It doesn’t come easy, but it is well worth the effort. One’s self-talk is hugely important in motivation. Change the chatter going on in your head and you change the outcomes to your endeavors. This is of paramount importance to the renaissance man.

  6. T,

    The benefits of this can be seen in the early business adventures of Mark Cuban. Check it out and let me know what you think.



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