Improve Your Willpower

Imagine a 4-year-old child sitting quietly in a small room with nothing other than a chair and a small table. A researcher walks in and places a small plate with a single marshmallow in front of the child (whose eyes light up.) “This marshmallow is for you,” the researcher tells the child. “I’m going to step out of the room for a few minutes. If you don’t eat the marshmallow until I come back, I will give you a second marshmallow and you can eat them both. But if you can’t wait for me to return, you can eat the first marshmallow any time you want. But then you won’t get the second marshmallow. It’s up to you.”

And so begins a series of experiments on willpower and self-control that were led by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University in the early 70s. The researchers would then observe the children’s reaction to the weighty decision before them. Some children would immediately gobble down the marshmallow, hardly waiting for the door to close behind the scientist. Others would struggle with trying to avoid the temptation of the treat, but would eventually be drawn towards it. First touching it and sniffing it, eventually licking or nibbling it, and finally pushing the whole thing into their mouths in a moment of defiance and instant gratification.

There were, on the other hand, some kids who actually seemed to develop effective strategies to maintain their self-control. They distracted themselves by looking away, singing songs, and reminding themselves of the reward that awaited them if they could maintain their composure. Mischel’s research taught us a lot of what we know today about the natural strategies that humans develop to maintain their self-control, beginning at a very young age.

But the most amazing thing about this research is that years later, the amount of time that these 4-year-old children were able to control their urges and resist temptation directly predicted their success in other areas. The kids with the highest willpower grew up to do better in school, to have better cognitive and social skills, and to be better able to handle stress than their more indulgent counterparts. To eat a marshmallow or not, seems like a small and inconsequential decision. But if you multiply this small act of willpower by every decision that gets made over the course of a person’s life, you can imagine that the ability to delay gratification in favor of preferable distant goals is probably the biggest secret to success ever discovered.

So while the ink is still wet on your New Year’s resolutions, now is a good time to think about your own ability to resist temptation, control urges, and stop eating the marshmallows in your own life that keep you from doing what you know you really should. Here are some of the lessons from research on self-control that can help you on your path:

1. Self-control is like a muscle.

Roy Baumeister’s research from Florida State University shows that by exercising self-control, it can be developed. In fact exercising it in one area, like quitting smoking will strengthen your willpower in other areas, such as dieting or exercise.

2. Willpower gets fatigued.

Self-control is like a muscle in another way: When you use it, it gets tired. If you deplete your willpower energy by choosing a healthy salad instead of the cheeseburger you really wanted, you will be more likely to cave in when the dessert cart rolls by. When confronting temptation, it is wise to have your willpower muscles well rested.

3. Keep your eye on the prize.

Even at 4 years old, the kids who were able to resist the call of the marshmallow used simple strategies to keep themselves distracted from succumbing to temptation: They intentionally shifted their attention away from the object of desire, and spent more time talking and thinking about their future goal.

We all have moments of temptation that can take us away from our long-term goals and objectives. But we also have the ability to stretch and strengthen our willpower muscles to develop the discipline to see our resolutions through to fruition. It’s only a matter of time before another marshmallow appears in front of you, tempting you with all its delicious gooey goodness. Will you be able to pass the test?

Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy

Group Director of Spa at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
Jeremy McCarthy is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. He has over 20 years of experience operating luxury spas in resort and hotel properties worldwide and is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. You can find more of his writing on his blog at
Jeremy McCarthy

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