Now that I’m back in production on a new TV show, I’m working up the financials for people who seem to have no ability to control their impulses. They want to order in? Ring, ring. They want new clothes? Ca-ching, ca-ching. It’s a though the idea that there might be long-term implication to their rabid consumption has never entered their minds.
Hosting TV shows, answering the hundreds of email questions I get every week (no, I don’t answer them all!) and meeting people, I often wonder about the differences between the people who show even a modicum of self-control and those who consume life with such impatience that it takes them all the way to the edge. Judith Viorst probably said it best:
“Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands—and then eat just one of the pieces.”
In the 1960’s a psychologist named Walter Mischel at Stanford University launched a classic experiment that later came to be called the Marshmallow Test. He left 4-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow. Each was told they could eat the marshmallow but if they waited for the adult to return, he’d give them two marshmallows for the one they didn’t eat.
Some kids waited 20 minutes for Mischel’s return. Others gobbled their marshmallow within a minute.
The good doctor went on to track the success of the kids he worked with in this experiment. Those who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores, got into better colleges and had higher levels of success as adults.
It seems that our ability to wait emerges early and persists. But just because you’re predisposed to knee-jerk consumption doesn’t mean all is lost. Turns out our ability to wait can improve with conscious effort. No, not through sheer willpower. The people who are most successful at deferring immediate gratification do so by thinking about other things. Even more recent experiments with children show huge success at deferring gratification simply by having the kids pretend the marshmallow is actually just a picture of a marshmallow.
If you’ve been a grab-the-marshmallow-and-eat-it-now kind of person, it’s time to put procrastination to work for you. First, take a breath and really think about what’s important to you. Focus on what you actually want. Next, find something to take your mind off the marshmallow by productively procrastinating: cook, clean, knit, fix the car, read a book. If you still feel the urge to splurge, think of the object of your affection in terms other than the real thing. It’s not really a new phone, it’s just a picture of a new phone. You wouldn’t drop all that money on a picture!
The combination of asking yourself, “Is this what I really want?” and productive procrastination should fend off the gimmies long enough for you to put your money to work in ways that will help you instead of harming you.