From marshmallows to mindfulness: How to achieve success through self-control

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time,” according to Tolstoy. Delaying gratification to maximize one’s ROI testifies to the importance of patience. Yet so much works against our ability to cultivate patience, from urgent work requests to marketing appeals that emphasize we can have everything we want NOW.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment shows how delaying gratification leads to success. Researchers presented preschoolers with a choice: have one marshmallow now, or wait a few minutes and receive two marshmallows. The researchers followed up years later to see how the participants were doing. The ones who were able to wait for two marshmallows had outperformed their peers on a number of measures: they had higher SAT scores, they were less likely to use drugs, they enjoyed better social and emotional skills, and so on.

Being able to delay gratification requires much self-control. We may think we can’t grow our self-control because many of us believe in the old, inaccurate assumption that we are stuck with the brains we’re born with. In the last 15 years, scientists have demonstrated our brains can and do change significantly over time, a concept known as neuroplasticity.

While we cannot change everything about our brains — genetics and our environment still play a large role — we can consciously shape many of these changes by what we do and don’t do, by what we think about, and how we think about these things.

Neuroplasticity is incredibly liberating, but it also places responsibility on us to make our brains the best they can be. Fortunately, scientists have discovered ways to strengthen our brains. One such way is practicing mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness is to your brain what lifting weights is to your muscles. It offers an array of benefits, including greater focus and more happiness, but the bottom line is that it makes your brain better, especially with regard to self-control.

Even small doses can make a big impact. A group of undergrads practiced for 20 minutes a day for just five days, and they showed improvements in a number of facets of self-regulation, including decreases in hormones associated with stress like cortisol.

Cultivating mindfulness produces greater self-control because it helps one to observe thoughts, emotions, urges, and cravings inside oneself without needing to act on them. Indeed, mindfulness is so effective at this that practicing mindfulness helps addicts break their entrenched habits.



Having more mindfulness strengthens our self-control when we need it the most. Exhaustion and just garden-variety fatigue diminish our ability to exert self-control. Participants in one study who practiced mindfulness maintained their self-control despite their weariness, while those who didn’t practice experienced a decline in self-control.

If a few minutes of mindfulness can give us more patience and self-control, it’s a few minutes well spent.

The most familiar version of mindfulness, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), was developed in response to one of the most challenging things to control: chronic pain. MBSR strengthened self-regulation in the face of unrelenting agony in numerous studies.

While many of us may not have to deal with chronic pain, all of us confront situations that tax us and test our self-control every day. Let’s practice mindfulness to keep our patience and achieve our goals. We may even end up with more than two marshmallows.

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