Ever wonder what you have in common with a four-year-old left alone with a marshmallow?
Turns out… a lot.
Whether we are four or 44, the age-old temptation to choose immediate gratification in favor of the patient path to eventual success surfaces multiple times a day.
To save our birthday money or let it burn a hole in our pockets? To increase to 6% matching on our 401k or splurge on the trip we have been seeing on Groupon?
It can feel like the devil is on our shoulder and yet we know the path of most resistance will likely lead toward success.
But how? How do we quiet the gluttony, greed, and impatience that will us in the direction of the here and now so convincingly?
Turns out, what we are really in search of is GRIT.
According to Angela Duckworth, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Grit is the:
“passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”
She coined the term in her quest to understand what distinguishes the success of some from the failure of others regardless of IQ. But, where do kids and marshmallows come into play?
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Enter: The Marshmallow Experiment
The earliest study of the conditions that promote delayed gratification is attributed to the American psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford in 1972. They designed an experimental situation (“the marshmallow test”) in which a child was asked to choose between a larger treat, such as two cookies or marshmallows, and a smaller treat, such as one cookie or one marshmallow.
After stating a preference for the larger treat, the child was told that to obtain that treat, it would be necessary to wait for the experimenter to return.
The child was also told that if he or chose to signal the experimenter, the experimenter would return and the child would receive the smaller treat.
Thus, the smaller treat would be available now, but the larger treat required waiting. To get a larger treat, the child had to resist the temptation to get an immediate treat.
The researchers studied the choices that the children made in real-time and correlated them with performance when they reached High School.
Children who were best able to wait for the larger treat in the experimental context at four years old also turned out to be more socially and academically successful as high-school students earning higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores.
How Is Developing Grit Related to This Experiment?
What we know is that each child who held out for the larger treat was practicing grit. We know that this is the intangible that prepares us to resist temptation and muscle through the tough stuff in life….and the good news is ….we can get better at it.
What can we do to enhance our own grit and achieve success in life?
Visualize And Verbalize the Goal
Practicing grit is only worth it when it is in service of a worthwhile outcome. You will want to be clear with yourself about what you are aiming for and explicit about why it is so important to you.
- Does achieving this goal bring you closer to who you want to be?
- Does it help you access new opportunities or skills?
- Will it change your legacy?
- If you were trapped in a time loop would you be willing to do this way forever? You have to want this for YOU and only YOU. Attempting to practice grit in service of someone else’s dreams will get you nowhere.
Decide If the Juice is Worth the Squeeze
You know this process is going to involve giving something up, feeling FOMO, and settling for alternatives — it was going to be easy everyone would do it…
So, the question is, are you willing to sacrifice now in service of the goal you have committed to?
If you say, yes…you are ready to tackle the task at hand.
Examine Your Circumstances and Surroundings… Don’t Set Yourself Up to Fail
Comb unnecessary visual reminders from your environment
– out of sight, out of mind!
Successful four-year-olds who resisted the marshmallow went so far as to cover their eyes so they didn’t give in to temptation— we can do the same! Scour your immediate surroundings for visual reminders of the thing you are trying to resist.
ie) put the donuts inside the cabinet, your cell phone in another room, or your favorite shopping alerts on silent. What isn’t staring us in the face, won’t tempt us quite so hard!
Make space for creative and fun alternatives
Bring alternatives closer. Plan for the moments of weakness and meet the moment with something else you enjoy instead. Try an adult coloring book, a notebook for journaling, or your favorite record for an impromptu dance-a-thon. Focusing your energy elsewhere may be just what you need to let the tempting moment pass.
During the most difficult moments, learn what you need to get through. Is it yoga? meditation? time alone to reset? Just like the gritty kids in the experiment who sang to pass the time or imagined the marshmallow as a cloud, your ability to distract yourself from the hardship in front of you dictates your ability to surmount it.
Whether this means taking a conscious breath or practicing positive self-talk, our ability to recognize our own discomfort, confront it head-on, and redirect ourselves is a muscle that will grow stronger the more we lean into grit.
Work to Build New Habits
Resisting immediate gratification often requires us to replace quick fixes with long-lasting and consistent behaviors that stretch our physical and mental abilities.
Staying home from that high school rager to study for exams, taking a pass on happy hour to stick to the Whole-30, or signing up for the latest Salesforce certification instead of the boozy volleyball league takes grit.
In place of what we would otherwise have been doing, we will need to establish rituals, practices and follow through tactics we may not have needed before.
We might need to learn proactive study habits like flashcard making, begin tracking meals in our fit-bit, or schedule time to take weekly quizzes online.
Whatever the habit is– we should build it slowly.
According to Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, when we effectively build strong habits, it gives us the ability to practice will power long term.
It is less about resisting temptation one marshmallow at a time, and more about proactively creating a series of habits that help us achieve the goals we prioritize.
“People use their self-control to break bad habits and establish good ones, and then life can run smoothly and successfully, with low levels of stress, regret, and guilt.” As he writes, “willpower fluctuates,” but habits don’t — that’s their defining trait.
So how might we do this?
They’re small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives.
We know that success fuels success and that when we are able to delay gratification in small ways and feel successful at it, we will be willing to work toward it in bigger and bigger ways– it is when we attempt to make a drastic change all at once that we fail.
Pick out a single step related to the habit you wish to build and do it regularly for a pre-scheduled amount of time.
For example, if you are working toward the goal of earning a promotion and you know that you will need to be consistent studying for your latest certification, you can start to carve out a half-hour after dinner every night to sit down at your desk and spend two weeks carving out that time, going to your desk and showing up for that moment.
Once you are successfully able to do that for a week you can add in downloading the course and reading 3 pages per evening. This approach will help you to develop the habits that underpin your capacity to be gritty in very real and ongoing ways.
Learn to Impress Yourself
Pursuing your goals may be a lonely road. There may not be glory in the trenches–validate yourself, remind yourself why you are doing it, and know that the payoff will be there on the other side.
Don’t Be All or Nothing About it
You will slip up…. unlike the marshmallow experiment real life does not have a final reveal or last data set. When you are practicing grit in real life you will have to be forgiving. There may be times you forget to show up for yourself, your goals, and your newly built habits. Life is messy.
That is OK.
Grit is all about getting back up when you have been knocked down and trying again. In search of perfection, we will become our own worst enemy. Stay focused on your vision, be forgiving, give grace, and keep moving.
Be Your Own Cheerleader
It is up to you to maintain your momentum so you will have to be the one to celebrate yourself. Notice when you are trying your hardest and validate that effort.
Know who you are. Know what you stand for. Know that no obstacle in your way will be too great to prevent you from getting to where you said you were going.
Trust your gut. Follow your heart. Don’t look back.
Next time you see a marshmallow– remember there is always S’more to the story.
More About Developing Grit
Featured photo credit: Joyful via unsplash.com