How Marshmallows can Change Your Life

The Power of Self-Discipline 

Part 1


Great leaders are great problem solvers. 


It its purest form, every leadership role requires solving an age old dilemma: 


how can I get my team to put aside personal agendas for the greater good? 


Teams start as groups of individuals. Individuals with various backgrounds, agendas, experiences, and personalities. The critical challenge of leadership is to guide the transformation from separate to cohesive, from me to we; a group whose identity becomes centered around a unifying mission. 


But this process of “buy-in” never comes easy. Each team will have its own unique set of challenges and barriers as they strive to perform at a high level.




As leaders try various combinations to unlock the cryptex of high functioning, productive teams, they will discover there is one element of this elusive combination that is essential.


If leaders across industries and contexts could get individuals on their team to embrace this specific characteristic, they would take a giant step towards success.


Put simply:


When a team members display a high level of self-discipline the team is transformed. 


In fact, the ability to delay personal gratification – or when put in positive terms, “exercise self-discipline” – is a huge predictor of future success. 


Today we’ll take a deep dive into the underlying factors that affect our personal self-discipline:


1. The Marshmallow Paradigm – understanding this concept unlocks one of the biggest predictors of future success 


2. Our Changing Conception of Willpower – we take a closer look at how the Chocolate and Radish experiment fundamentally changed our understanding of willpower


3. The Willpower Muscle – how willpower acts as a muscle and what we can do to remain disciplined


4. Growth Exercise: Finding Your Marshmallows


Then in Part 2 (coming this Thursday), we’ll see how our understanding of willpower and discipline can influence how we lead our teams.


The Marshmallow Paradigm

In the 1960’s researchers at Stanford University conducted a series of psychological experiments that famously became know as, The Marshmallow Experiment.


From these series of tests, a powerful principle of behavioral psychology was created: 


Delayed Gratification is a Huge Predictor of Future Success.


Here’s what the researcher’s found.


Experimenters put groups of young children (4-5 years old) in a room and gave them a single marshmallow. 


They gave the kids a choice: ‘you can either eat your marshmallow right away, OR you can earn a second marshmallow if you can wait until we come back into the room’.

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As you would expect the majority of the kids had a tough time resisting the temptation to eat the marshmallow right away. However, there was a small group of kids that were able to delay the instant gratification of the sweet treat in order to receive a bigger payday when the researchers returned.


The experiments continued to track the development of the kids as they grew older and matured. What they found was that the kids who had the self-discipline to wait for the second marshmallow did remarkably better in nearly every area of life as they got older. They had higher SAT scores, positive social relationships, less problems with drugs, a lower chance of obesity, etc.


The bottom line is this:

Our ability to delay instant gratification leads to greater success because what we do today is an investment in our future selves.


From a personal perspective, this idea makes sense.


  • The more reps I do today, the stronger I will be tomorrow.


  • The less junk food I eat today, the healthier I will be tomorrow.


  • The more I read today, the smarter I will be tomorrow.


ok, so we know that our ability to delay the gratification of instant payoff is a key predictor in future success. But the elephant in the room remains: why is it so difficult to practice delayed gratification in our own lives?


If delayed gratification is the engine that drives us towards future success, then willpower is the fuel. Willpower fuels our ability to make difficult decisions in a binary world.


In the last 20 years our understanding of self-discipline (and the willpower that helps us to make disciplined choices) has changed dramatically. 


It wasn’t until Roy Baumeister’s landmark “chocolate and radish” experiment in 1996 that our conception of willpower was changed forever. 


In the following sections, I want to take a deep dive into the world of willpower and self-discipline. Our exploration will unearth transformative leadership principles that any leader can leverage in their own lives and in the life of their team.


The Changing Conception of Willpower

In the last 20 years our understanding of self-discipline and the willpower has changed dramatically. 


Roy Baumeister’s landmark “chocolate and radish” experiment became the launchpad for a torrent of research that has fundamentally shifted our understanding of willpower.


According to Baumeister, before 1996 there were three dominant psychological theories about self-control:


“One was that it was a kind of information processing: the mind knows what’s up, figures out what to do, and does it. A second was that it was a kind of energy or strength, akin to the folk notion of willpower. And the third was that it was a skill. This last one was favored by child psychologists, who think of children growing up and acquiring skills little by little, with self-control being one of them.”


To simplify, before 1996 we thought that willpower was either:

  • Information Processing 
  • Energy or Strength
  • A Learned Skill


Baumeister shot holes in all three theories when he designed his radish and chocolate experiment in 1996. His experiment was designed to test the limits of our willpower by placing people in contrasting circumstances that would force them to exercise self-control.


Baumeister first brought his participants into a room that was filled with the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were on display for everyone to see with other chocolate treats placed on tables around the room. In the experiment, Baumeister allowed some of the participants to eat chocolate chip cookies, while the others were forced to eat radishes (yuck!).


Immediately after the consumption of the radishes and cookies, the entire group was given a “persistence-testing puzzle” which would again test the willpower of the participants.


Guess what happened?


The difference between the two groups was dramatic. The cookie group spent a much greater amount of time trying to solve the puzzle (i.e. displaying strong willpower), while the ‘radish group’ gave up trying to solve the puzzle relatively quickly (i.e. displaying weak willpower).


So why is this important? 


The results of the experiment suggested that willpower is not dependent on acquiring information, an innate ability, or a learned skill as previously thought. Instead, we should think of willpower as a muscle.


This was the genius of the experiment. 


Baumeister had forced the radish group to exercise a huge amount of willpower in abstaining from the cookies. The radish group was bombarded with an attack on their senses as soon as they walked into the room (immediately forcing them to start using their willpower). They could smell and see the cookies, but were not permitted to satisfy their cravings. What made it worse for the radish group, was that there was no legitimate reason why they were forced to eat a foul-tasting vegetable while their counterparts enjoyed freshly-baked cookies.


The radish group’s collective willpower took a brutal beating. Their willpower muscles were weakened to the point of fatigue, and that is why they displayed a small amount of willpower on the persistence puzzle.


The Willpower Muscle

Muscles can be strengthened and fatigued, but ultimately there is a limit to their capacity. When you walk into a weight room, you can only do so many bicep curls before the energy stores in your muscles have been depleted. 



Twenty minuets in to a bicep workout you are unable to lift the same amount of weight or perform the same amount of reps that you could do twenty minutes before. 


This is how willpower works.


When we use our willpower to make difficult choices, there is a greater likelihood of losing self-discipline at a later point because our willpower tank has been depleted.


Here are a few more key findings about the specific environments and situations that negatively effect the relationship between willpower and self-discipline:


1. Mind over Body

Willpower studies have taken groups of people who are physically fatigued (i.e. staying up all night) and tested them against other groups that were mentally fatigued (i.e. after a public speaking engagement) and found that physical fatigue did not play a significant role in willpower depletion. 


Instead, events such as: visiting inlaws, public speaking, maintaining relationships, dealing with criticism, and intense social interactions were all more likely to negatively effect a person’s willpower than simply, ‘being tired’.


2. Deadly Volition

Decision making (especially in a stressful environment) seems to be one of the strongest deterrents in our search for self-discipline. The process of analyzing a situation and making a subsequent rash of decisions seems to be the primary culprit in the mystery of willpower depletion. 


High pressure situations that are perceived as stressful to an individual are deadly when it comes to willpower depletion. 


3. Context is Key

In the bizarre and confusing battlefield of weight loss, researchers are constantly looking to give people an advantage in their fight against the “lbs”. This has led to the discovery that perception of an activity plays a huge role in the ability to exercise self-discipline. 


For example, if your perception of going to the gym is largely negative (i.e. “going to the gym is boring” or “I hate going to the gym”) you will be less likely to remain on a disciplined gym schedule. In contrast, someone who thinks about the gym going experience as a fun, rewarding activity will be more likely to exercise regularly. A person who puts going to the gym in a positive, fun context will ultimately have less trouble making the decision to go. 


But why is this?


Imagine that you are at work all day and you’ve made a few decisions that have tested your willpower (i.e. abstaining from cake in the break room, choosing a salad for lunch, avoiding social media to finish a work-related project). 


Then after work you have to make a decision on whether or not you are going to exercise. If going to the gym is a difficult decision (because you think of exercising as a negative activity) you will have a lower likelihood of remaining disciplined. But, if your context for working out is framed in a positive, fun mindset then this decision will become much easier. A decision to do something that you perceive as fun or beneficial means that you will have to exercise less willpower in making this decision (giving you a greater chance of making the right decision).

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Growth Exercise 

Finding Your Marshmallows


The “Marshmallow” experiment has given us a powerful anecdote for personal growth. When you are four or five years old life is more simple. The world is mostly organized into “good” and “bad” categories. 


However, as we grow older our worlds become more complex. Gray seeps into our rose-colored glasses as the lines between good and bad, essential and non-essential, become more indistinguishable.


It becomes increasingly difficult to identify the marshmallows in our lives. Not only because we can’t decide whether or not we still like the taste of marshmallows, but because the candy aisle is so overwhelming. Our choice is not a decision between chocolate and radishes, but between swiss chocolate and milk chocolate. 


Highly functioning adults learn to choose between good, better, and best. This is what it means to have discipline. 


The bottom line is that, candy can’t be enjoyed with a mouth full of cavities. In order to enjoy the sweet treats of the future we must learn to do the hard work of brushing our teeth today. 


Let’s find our marshmallows.


Here’s the exercise:

1. Finish these 3 Statements


  • In 1 year I can say that …
  • In 1 year I want to have…
  • In 1 year I want to become…


The answers to these statements are your marshmallows. You can change the time frame to reflect shorter/longer term goals.


Here are my answers to these three statements:

  • In 1 year I can say that… “I have written 52 blog posts on leadership”
  • In 1 year I want to have… “Read 30 books”
  • In 1 year I want to become… “A better steward of my finances”


2. Find the Corresponding Bad Habit

Take each statement (marshmallow) and find one habit that directly inhibits you from reaching your stated goal. Be specific.


Marshmallow 1 – Write 52 Posts

Bad Habit: Easily get distracted with social media


Marshmallow 2 – Read 30 Books

Bad Habit: Watch TV series instead of read


Marshmallow 3 – Become a better money manager

Bad Habit: Don’t know what I spend my money on.


Now write down one specific step that you will take that will delay your gratification today, so you can enjoy more marshmallows tomorrow.


3. Action Steps

Marshmallow 1 – Commit to writing 30 minutes 6 days a week. Disable social media/internet whenever it is time to write. Put cellphone in a separate place so you’re not tempted to check it during writing time.


Marshmallow 2 – Limit of one TV episode per day


Marshmallow 3 – Track budget every week. Write down every purchase and set weekly spending goals.



To Keep Willpower from Flagging, Remember the F-Word: ‘Fun’


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