Ability to delay gratification can help with routine maintenance

In the 1960s, 653 children were given a marshmallow by psychology researchers at Stanford University. The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow right away, or they could wait 15 minutes to eat it and receive a second marshmallow as a reward.

Based on how they performed in the experiment, they were rated on a scale from low delayers (kids who ate the marshmallow instantly) to high delayers (kids who waited the 15 minutes and received a second marshmallow). Over the next 40 years, these children have been tracked by Stanford researchers. And, to many people’s surprise, there has been significant correlation between rates of drug abuse, S.A.T. scores, body-mass index, stress management, career success, and ability to maintain friendships to how the children performed on this simple marshmallow experiment.

Children who were high delayers were the ones to achieve more success in life than their low delayer classmates. In fact, a child “who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.” According to the article “Don’t! The secret of self-control” in the May 18 issue of The New Yorker:

For decades, psychologists have focussed on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. [Walter] Mischel [the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment] argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The article and research does point out that there were some students in the study who transformed from low delayers into high delayers over the course of 40 years. The scientists have since concluded that delaying gratification is a skill that can be learned, simply by practicing specific techniques (some are described in the article).

So what does this have to do with uncluttering? Good question. An essential component to maintaining an uncluttered life is having routines in place that keep the clutter out of your home and office and the self control and diligence to systematically complete the routines. These are routines to process mail, do daily chores, create meal plans, and process paperwork and actions as they come across your desk. Doing these not-so-fun tasks everyday ultimately pay off because you have more time and less stress in your life overall. Thirty minutes of chores and routines each week night gives you two free days on the weekend. You delay gratification for an even larger reward.

If you have difficulty maintaining routines to keep clutter out of your life, I recommend that you check out this article. You can learn and practice these skills so that you, too, can live a remarkable, uncluttered life. If you’re already a master at self control, the article still makes for a very fascinating read.

18 Comments for “Ability to delay gratification can help with routine maintenance”

  1. posted by Chris Gee on

    Very interesting, thanks! (Is there a flaw in the experiment: maybe some kids knew they only wanted one marshmallow, so they had no incentive to wait 15 minutes for something they did not want and which would have cluttered their lives. Of course, I have no easy explanation for the 40 years of empirical evidence that followed that fateful marshmallow…)

  2. posted by Leonie on

    I’m an experimental economist and we design experiments like this for savings etc. Chris has a very good point – yes if you knew you only wanted one marshmellow, then you would have no incentive to wait…UNLESS you happen to be alturistic and decided to get a second to share ;-).

    There’s probably a lot more to the study than just one simple test. In my own work, we have more than just one measure.

    Delayed gratification, however, does have its rewards. I’ve noticed it with my own children. One delays gratification and the other doesn’t when it comes to spending. But both regretfully, still have very messy rooms…

    I better read that article and work on that!

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Chris — If you read the article, you’ll see that the children had a choice of treats. It’s called a “marshmallow test” because the marshmallow was the most requested treat.

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Leonie — Yes, if you read the article, you’d see that they also performed the test with toys and other non-food products.

  5. posted by J on

    Great post! And thanks for providing a link to the longer article about the “delayed gratification” research.

    How we think about difficult or unpleasant tasks can make a huge difference.

    The article ends: “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ”

    I might add something like, “It’s okay if you still choose to eat it.”

    Thanks again!

  6. posted by Another Deb on

    As a teacher, I agree that delay of gratification is a skill that needs to be taught. Students (and adults) are now becoming less and less able to exert themselves with patience since our culture provides instant everything, high speed unlimited choices and auto-functions galore. My favorite quote during a recent research project came about five minutes in to the computer time: “There’s nothing about DNA on the Internet!”

    After years of online participation in a weight loss blog, I have read numerous shared strategies for delaying gratification. The visualization techniques mentioned in the article give me hope that we can apply the research to many things we need to work on as adults.

    The application to uncluttering is very significant. As my summer vacation begins, I have a long list of home projects waiting for me. Although I was exhausted, I forced myself to tackle a project that was physically tiring yet organizationally fulfilling. Now my wasted storage area by the laundry room has a pretty new coat of paint, cleaned and sealed tile floor, upgraded sink and the beginnings of an efficient craft-sewing space after only a weekend’s efforts.

    Sure, I could have just kept slogging away at craft projects from the crowded desk, but that distracts me from my job-type work (meaning: I can procrastinate even more than I already do!) Now I can delegate the task to the space and truly feel rewarded for the delay of my gratifiation. Time spent at the hobby can be separated from time spent on deskwork.

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating article!

  7. posted by Bryan on

    @Leonie: Perhaps instead of being alturistic they were being entrepreneurial: “If I wait 15 minutes, I can eat mine and then sell my 2nd one to one of these impatient kids for quite a profit!”

  8. posted by Sheena on

    This was an excellent article Erin. Thanks for that!

  9. posted by Leonie on

    I liked the anecdote about the girl’s brother who broke into the stash of toys and was “encouraged” by the teachers not to go into the room anymore.

    Having read the article, I am impressed by the care that the researcher took to design it. But as he points out with regards to his next study, there are 99 uninteresting reasons why the experiment could fail…such as teachers not following a plan or a field trip that day…

    sigh…I hear you.

    Thanks Erin for this great link.

  10. posted by Leonie on

    @ Bryan

    good point… 🙂

    It would be fun to watch the videos mentioned. Kids can be hilarious and the mention of the kids who turn their back on the treat is quite funny.

  11. posted by Maren on

    This is something I have really been working on changing for myself. I have found that if I wait, I usually don’t want the same thing hours or a few months down the line. If I had purchased it, I would probably not be using it.

  12. posted by Dia on

    Thanks for sharing this! & interesting correlation with SAT scores, etc – makes sense! As Maren says, ‘sit with it’ is such a good philosophy – if I’m not sure & wait on something, whether it’s something physical or a class, like Maren, I often realize I’m not as interested as I first thought, & prioritize doing/buying something else.

  13. posted by Lily on

    That’s very interesting! It tells a lot about spoiled vs non-spoiled children… and we all are a little “spoiled children” even in adulthood.

  14. posted by Irulan24 on

    @ Chris: You are right that the desirability of the treat is extremely important. It’s also relatively easy to control for – the original researchers could have just given the children a simple survey about how much they like the marshmallow (or all of the available treats), and then excluded the children who didn’t like/want the treats from their statistical tests, or tested them to see if their delay was different from kids who liked the treats.

  15. posted by Donna on

    In the origional study, the kids were offered a selection of treats (pretzels, cookies, marshmallows, etc) and were able to pick their favorite. I did a test like this today (with my two four year old daughters who were adopted from China several years ago). I video taped some of it and posted the results on my blog. It was really interesting and now I’m searching for more about this study online. That’s how I found this blog.


  16. posted by Soochi on

    Interesting post. My father’s take on buying anything that was not a necessity was to wait for three days. If one still had a burning desire to have it, buy it then. Most of the time, one doesn’t. Course, I don’t always do this but it sure works.

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