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Is the marshmallow method useful?

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The marshmallow method is based on the experiments conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1972. Mischel gave children the option of eating a marshmallow immediately or waiting for 15 minutes, at the end of which the child would receive two marshmallows. Subsequent studies showed that the ability to delay gratification by waiting for the second marshmallow was strongly correlated with various types of academic and professional success in later life.

The marshmallow method involves identifying a point at which you have a choice between instant or delayed gratification (or, conversely, delayed or instant dissatisfaction) and choosing the latter by envisaging the consequences later. For instance, you are in bed and do not want to get up. Your alarm goes off and you are tempted to hit "snooze." However, you envisage yourself arriving at work in good time and enjoying a productive day, as opposed to being late and feeling anxious, and this makes you decide to get up.

The Stanford marshmallow experiments are now almost fifty years old and they have generated an immense amount of literature, much of it supportive of Mischel's findings but also including plenty of studies that find delayed gratification is a much less important predictor of success than Mischel thought. This division suggests that the utility of the marshmallow method will vary substantially from person to person. Fortunately, it is very easy to conduct your own experiment to ascertain whether it is useful for you. A week of envisaging the results of delayed gratification, followed by a week of simply following your instincts and a comparison of the results, should make it clear how useful the method is in your own case.

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