Why Is It So Difficult and What Does It Have To Do With Resilience?

Let’s start with a self-assessment.  This week did you…

*procrastinate more than you wish you did?

*exercise less than you wish you did?

*eat more than you wish you did?

*think more negatively than you wish you did?

*react more unkindly than you wish you did?

*reflect less than you wish you did?

Self-control isn’t all that easy.  In the long term we have great wishes and desires.  The problem seems to be in the short term, i.e. the moment.

Several years ago I was scheduled to go in for a routine colonoscopy as a preventative procedure.  Among other things, I wasn’t supposed to eat anything the day before.  I went to a professional baseball game the night prior to the test and only drank clear liquids—that is until the 6th inning.  They had the best chocolate chip cookies, and I assumed one couldn’t hurt.  The next morning when they did the procedure they informed me I would have to reschedule a new test because the results were clouded. My short-term perspective had compromised the outcome.

Even though we know something good is out there in the long-term, it is easy to over focus in the present and sacrifice the future.

Now we know this is a common story of mankind.  Take the story of Adam and Eve as an example.  Who in their right mind would sacrifice a blissful existence in the Garden of Eden for a piece of fruit?  Good question.  Who in their right mind would check email or text message while driving—knowing there is a 2500% greater chance of a mishap?  I mean, how important is living?  How important is it to not create a needless tragedy in other people’s lives?  Yet in the moment that message takes on a much greater proportion of importance than it deserves.

In multiple areas of life the momentary impulse overtakes us and we do counter-productive things.

In the late 1960’s psychologist Walter Mischel and his team at Stanford did a study on self-control.1 Young children around the age of 4 were brought in one by one.  They were told by the researcher that he had to leave the room for a few minutes.  He offered them a marshmallow they could eat right now, or wait until the researcher returned and have two marshmallows.  Of the 653 “subjects” that participated, 70% ate the marshmallow now, and only 30% wrestled with the temptation but found a way to resist.

Okay, those are children.  Let’s look at two scenarios.²

SCENARIO # 1: Would you, given a choice, want a chocolate chip cookie now or two cookies in a week?

Most would say, “I’ll take less now in order to get the cookie.”

SCENARIO # 2: Now stretch that out in time.  Would you rather have one chocolate chip cookie in a year, or two cookies in one year and one week?

It’s really the same choice.  You are waiting one more week to get twice the amount of cookies.  The difference is that both of these choices in scenario #2 are in the future.  The vast majority of people would be willing to wait the extra week when the decision is pushed into the future.

In the long-term view our decisions tend to be more altruistic.  Our decisions rise to a higher level—both practically and morally.  Looking to the future we will eat better, exercise more, and act in a kindlier manner.

But we don’t live in the future.  As a result our stellar future becomes our straying present.

As we practice focusing on what’s important in the long run, we tend to lessen what we are giving up in the present—those choices that jeopardize the future.  As we associate the future good with the present decision, we lessen its negative pull on our lives.  This is an important habit to develop since we are not very good at delayed gratification.

Take the present discussions about our national debt.  It is so easy to kick the can down the road and satisfy our current impulses.  Our financial future is a great example of human apathy.  Why?  Because it’s in the future.  It happens to others and not me.  And besides, anything I do is a drop in the bucket.

So what does self-control have to do with resilience?  Remember those 4 year olds in the marshmallow test?  In 1981 those researchers tracked down the participants who were now high school seniors.  They discovered that those who were able to control their impulses by focusing on the future and not the moment were doing significantly better personally, socially, and academically.

Knowing you will be tempted in certain situations to sacrifice long-term results for present rewards is a tremendous help.  Being aware of both our tendency and future outcomes is a key in delaying gratification and holding out for the best.

With instant access to everything, the temptation to want it now surrounds us. There are more ways to fail today than ever before.  Failure is not new, but the number of options has increased exponentially.

The need for impulse control has also increased.  And it is a key component of resilience.

1Mischel, Shoda, Peake. Prediciting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification. Developmental Psychology (1990).

²Dan Ariely; “How Self-Control Works”, Scientific American, April 2011.

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2 Responses
  1. a. byers

    For random feedback: I answered “Yes” to the top 4 and “No” to the last two. I love the marshmallow test but I’m disappointed, that as a young child, my parents didn’t run any cool experiments like that on me.

    What if goals outside of losing weight and eating healthy are not as clear? How do you focus on the future when you’re not sure what you want out of the future? What if you’re really good at enjoying the present –even the little things, like riding your motorcycle and everyone seems to notice you and move over to let you split that day? Or really great discussions with classmates/professors/siblings? Or experimenting with kale & rice and finding that hummus makes things really good and creamy?
    I find it hard to focus on the future when it’s no guarantee. I’m not guaranteed two cookies, let alone one! I want to be successful, but every time I strive and sacrifice for the future I become upset; a correlation seems to exist that my “future success” relies less on my hands and more on others –that is, in comparison to how I go about enjoying my present state-of-mind.

  2. Kendall Koenigs

    Marshmallow probably came first into being as a medicinal substance, since the mucilaginous extracts comes from the root of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, which were used as a remedy for sore throats. Concoctions of other parts of the marshmallow plant had medical purposes as well…'”‘

    Best regards

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