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Don't Eat That Marshmallow: The Single Best Way to Increase Accountability

Updated on November 17, 2009

For coaching to work, you need to put a system or process in place to make sure you and your coach (or client) actually get together for sessions. Unfortunately, a common concern of coaches is that their clients often blow off their sessions or do not follow through on commitments.

My question is:

“What does science have to say about this problem?”

As it turns out, science has quite a lot to add! The good news is that almost all of these “difficult” behaviors – missing sessions, failing to fulfill commitments, showing up late, can be solved by improving just ONE singular character trait: self-regulation.

This one trait is so important that it was referred to as the “master virtue” by Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister. Turns out that self-regulation is the one virtue that controls your actions in almost all other areas of your life. Cue the marshmallow!?!

The Marshmallow Test

We need to go back about 40 years. To a very simple and notorious experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel seated several young children in front of a plate on which a marshmallow was placed. He then left the room, instructing them not to eat the marshmallow until he returned. He then measured how long each child held off eating the marshmallow. Some children made it only seconds, others minutes, about a third of the children made it the entire time. These results sound sound simple enough, right? Most kids do not have the attention span and self discipline needed to keep their hands free of Marshmellow goo!

However, the most surprising insight from the study didn’t materialize until over a decade later. Mischel found that the amount of time the person waited as a young child correlated spectacularly high with their adolescent personality traits. The longer a child held out the better they scored in objective measures of reliability, perseverance, and school achievement. In fact, the children who held out the longest had SAT scores that averaged 210 points higher than the others.

The end result? The “marshmallow test” is better at predicting success later in life than just about any other quantifiable measurement, including IQ and socio-economic status.

Self-Control in Action

The TED talk below has a hilarious collection of children using every tactic imaginable to prolong the gratification. Although some children have the marshmallow in their mouth before the researcher has even left the room!

Check it out:

The Super Duper Master Virtue

What does the "test of the marshmallows" actually measure, and why is it so powerful at predicting future personal successes?

You may have guessed by now that the test is really measuring a personality trait called self control or delayed gratification. The reason self control is so important in our lives is that it acts as a regulator, holding back our desire to do what we want to do but shouldn’t.

People with high degrees of self control succeed because they are able to have fruits and veggies even though they really want junk food. They study when they would rather be playing video games. And they get out of the bed when they would rather hit the snooze button (at least) one more time.

Since Mischel’s ground-breaking experiment, researchers have made extensive efforts investigating self control, trying to figure out what makes self control tick, and how to bring more self control into our lives.

Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister has found that not only is self-regulation vital to success, but that it can be improved by consistently “working out” your self control system, much like a muscle can be strengthened by spending an hour three times a week using those scary machines in the gym.

Moreover, increasing one’s self-control in one area of life (for example, by committing to floss daily for a month) will dramatically increase your self control in other aspects of your life.

This is why Baumeister calls self control the “master virtue”.

Bolstering Your Self-Control

So given its immense importance in life, how do you actually increase your self-control? Here’s a simple yet effective strategy that you can start doing right this second!

  1. Take the self-control test. Like anything else, an essential component to increasing any behavior is to measure it. Roy Baumeister has been kind enough to let me post his brief Self Control Scale (SCS) questionnaire. I recommend taking the test (which only takes a minute to do) before any self control improvement program, so you can measure your progress over time. The first form (Self-Control Test.pdf) contains the questionnaire, while the second form (Self-Control Test Scoring.pdf) describes how to score it. Be honest when filling this questionnaire out, it is only effective if you are willing to be truthful to yourself!
  2. Choose one behavior that requires self control that you would like to improve. Commit to performing the behavior regularly for a period of six weeks. Some good suggestions include flossing every night, going to the gym every second day or committing to show up for all appointments on time. The critical factor is that the target behavior MUST require some degree of willpower, self-control, etc. Something like “spend an hour a day watching TV” won’t have the same effect.
  3. Take the self-control test again. At the end of the six week period, most behaviors will have become automatic if you have been performing them as you committed to doing. Have another go at the SCS questionnaire to see if there has been an improvement in your overall self-control, and then pick a different behavior to tackle for the next 6-week period. Keep repeating this process every six weeks until you go to Wikipedia, search for self-control and see a picture of yourself on the page.

Not only will this simple exercise help improve specific behaviors each six-week period, but by focusing on behaviors that require self control you will increase your overall self-control in other areas of your life as well. It is a good idea to work with someone on these goals. A friend or partner works great! If you are looking to supercharge your goals, working with a professional coach can be the boost you need. See the resource box for further reading on that subject! The most important takeaway here is that even though self-control is apparent at an early age, it is a behavior you can improve on. Its up to you whether or not you eat that marshmallow!


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