Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Marshmallow Time

A big part of being a decider when it comes to important things in life is sticking to what you have decided. That’s part of what commitment is all about. Unless you’ve only been alive for, say, 15 minutes or so, you know it’s not always easy to stick to what you decided you wanted to do.

I recently came across a report that summarizes some amazing research on willpower and the ability to resist temptation. The link to the article is at the bottom of this post.

The author, Eric Wargo, first mentions pretty cool studies that were done long ago where they tested children to see how many would choose to wait a little while to get two marshmallows instead of getting one marshmallow RIGHT NOW! Kind of like a lot of life, right? You could ask yourself, “am I a one or two marshmallow kind of person?” Quite an existential question, isn’t it? For some reason, I’m hearing a variation of this question with Clint Eastwood’s voice from the movie “Dirty Harry.” Sort of goes like this: “You must be asking yourself if you really have a shot at two marshmallows or just one. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” Perhaps I have some marshmallow trauma to work through.

Back to the point. Wargo goes on to describe some pretty amazing research on self-control. Studies show that a person’s ability to resist temptation gets worn down. When you have to keep it together for awhile, doing whatever you wanted or thought you should do can get harder for a bit. Your willpower gets tired and it’s easier to just let go after a period of being more disciplined. As Wargo puts it, self-control is a limited resource. Partly what this means is that even if you do a great job on waiting for two marshmallows, you might then have trouble with the M & Ms. (Excuse me. I’ll be back in a few minutes.)

Think about that a moment. How many times have you found it harder to stick with what you thought you should do after you had to do things that required either self-control or some difficult decisions? Here’s what I think this means. When your decider has been working pretty hard, your slider is going to really want you to cut it some slack. If nothing much is at stake, that’s just fine. Slide away. In fact, when you’ve been working hard on something or really pushing your self-control, letting go in some creative or healthy ways is a good thing. But the warning in these findings is more about how it can be hard to stick to something we’ve decided is important when we’re worn down by something else.

As Wargo points out, if we want to stick to things we planned to do (or stick to being who we want to be), we have to watch out for the times when our decider is tired out. Imagine all the ways this plays out in life! Diets, exercise, work, or your commitment to your partner . . .

If you want to go deeper, here’s the link.