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Just Say, "Wait!"

Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group repre...Image via Wikipedia

It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday in early April. Your taxes are due in one week. You haven't begun to figure them. They're going to be pretty complicated this year because of a career relocation, a new baby and a portfolio that tanked. How do you spend your Saturday?

  • On your Harley, exploring the back roads surrounding your new rural home.
  • In your spare bedroom, at your desk, sorting through bills, checking pay stubs and doing calculations on Tax Pro.

Your simple answer to this simple question might be a simple predictor of your overall performance in life, much more so than your I.Q. It's about self-control. The ability to delay gratification.

Not convinced? Check out The New Yorker article entitled, "Don't! The Secret of Self-Control," by Jonah Lehrer. It tells the story of Walter Mischel's famous marshmallow studies at Stanford University in the sixties. Four-year-olds were invited into a small room with a table and a chair and a marshmallow and given an option by a researcher:

 "Either eat one marshmallow right away or, if you can wait while I step out for a few minutes, you can  have two marshmallows when I return."

Then the researcher left the room.

Seventy percent of the kids ate the marshmallow -- some right away, some resisted the treat for a minute or two. About 30 percent, however, delayed gratification until the researcher returned some 15 minutes later. These kids wrestled with the same temptation but found a way to resist.

That's not the end of the story. The 70 percent -- the "low delayers" -- when followed later in life, were more likely to have behavioral problems, lower S.A.T. scores, fewer friendships, trouble paying attention, et cetera.

What determined the "high delayers'" self-control? Mischels' conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the "strategic allocation of attention." Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow -- the "hot stimulus" -- the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek, or singing songs from "Sesame Street." Their desire wasn't defeated -- it was set aside and momentarily forgotten. The key for them was to avoid thinking about the marshmallow in the first place.

Ever heard of "metacognition?" It's the skill of thinking about thinking. It's what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings, like over-eating or procrastinating. It's like when Odysseus had himself tied to the ship's mast because he knew that he wouldn't be able to resist the Sirens' song, so he made it impossible to give in.

See, will power isn't about will at all...it's about learning how to control our attention and thoughts rather than letting a hot stimulus take over. Learn that and you can tackle an addiction, save more money for retirement, perform at a higher level at work, and -- even-- get your taxes done before midnight on April 15.

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