Wouldn’t we all like to get more disciplined? How can we master self-control and achieve anything we want? Having self-discipline goes far beyond saying no to a piece of chocolate or doing exercise at least three times a week. Imagine a student with no self-discipline. He wakes up whenever he wants, doesn’t do any exercise, eats whatever he wants and never finishes his assignments. Dream life or pathway to failure? You decide.
What does delayed gratification mean?
What self-discipline is all about is actually the ability to say no something that might feel good in the moment but will not benefit you in the long-term. The psychological term for this is delayed gratification. Remember this one if you ever want to look super smart at a party.
What is the Marshmallow Test?
But now it's time for more serious topics. Marshmallows. It's not a joke. The Marshmallow test is an experiment that a couple of psychologists conducted with pre-school children. The kids were given two options. Eat one marshmallow now or get two in 15 minutes. If the child said he would like the two marshmallows later, he would be left alone in the room with the one marshmallow for 15 minutes. If after the return of the psychologist the first marshmallow was still on the table untouched, the child would get the second treat.
If the child was able to make it through the 15 minutes without gobbling up the sweet in front of him, it proved that he was capable of delaying gratification. Give up something in the moment to benefit even more in the future. Some children chose to eat the marshmallow right away, some chose to wait but couldn’t resist the temptation and some waited successfully and got their well-deserved two treats.
The most interesting part about this test, however, were its implication for future life. The lives of the children were followed even after the experiment up until the participants were about 25 to 30 years old. And here's what's fascinating! The results of the marshmallow test seemed to predict how well the participants would do in life. The ones who were able to delay gratification back in pre-school seemed to be able to pursue and reach long-term goals, they reached higher educational levels and had significantly lower body mass index. They were even better at maintaining close relationships.
But what if a child doesn’t pass the marshmallow test? Are they doomed forever? No, of course not. Self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification is much more complex than one psychology experiment.
Self-control and the brain
The limbic system regulates basic drives and emotions crucial for our survival such as anger, fear, hunger or sex. The most important brain structure to consider here is the amygdala. It plays a key role in fear response, appetite and sexual behavior. It is able to rapidly mobilize the body for action and it does not take into account long-term consequences. This system is also known as hot and emotional.
However, on the other side of our impulsive emotions is our ability to think. The cool cognitive system is located primarily in the prefrontal cortex. It’s crucial for making future-oriented decisions and it is actually our most evolved region of the brain. It regulates our thoughts and emotions. It’s also the source of our creativity and imagination and it plays an important role in preventing behaviours that interfere with the pursuit of your long-term goals such as not eating junk food when you’re on a diet or not cheating on your partner when you’re in a committed relationship.
Stress weakens your willpower
Self-discipline is not something we either can or cannot do. Environmental factors such as stress also play a role in whether we use our hot emotional or our cool cognitive system to make decisions. The more stressed we are, the more we use our emotional & irrational self. This however means that we are not thinking about our long-term benefit, remember? It may lead us to buy that pair of shoes we don’t need or eat a bag of crisps late at night. None of these solutions are helping our stressed state or will make us feel better in the long-term.
Tips for increasing self-discipline and boosting willpower
So what can we do to become more self-disciplined? First of all, if you made to this point of the video: great job! You’ve actually done a part of the work already. Research suggests that by knowing how your mind and how self-discipline works, you have better chances at regulating your behavior and delaying gratification when facing temptation. Just think of the people who clicked away at the beginning, you’re already way ahead of them!
Another way of increasing your self-discipline is optimism. Whether it comes to saving money or sticking to a diet, the “I believe I can” attitude will do wonders. If you are convinced of something a hundred percent, you will also be able to make it through the tough times when challenges arise.
Thinking of your future self is also a great way of keeping your present time behavior in check. Imagine yourself in one month, year or even 10 years. What do you want your future self to look back on? Let’s take an example of a student facing his final exams. Do you think he would prefer to repeat the same exam in a couple of months or to be proudly holding a diploma at his graduation?
We have evolved to be smarter, to be able to use our cool cognitive system and to able to resist temptation when we are faced with it. Self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification is an inseparable part of living a successful and fulfilling life.