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The Marshmallow Test Today

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

The Science Behind Motivation and Discipline for Generation Z.

By: Naya Dukkipati

"Motivation gets you going, but discipline keeps you growing" John C. Maxwell.

We are known as the impulsive generation, the kids who rely on quick tidbits of information to sustain us -- likes, tweets, texts -- all instant gratification tools built to distract and retrain our brains for dopamine hits that we soon become addicted to. The worry of how these saboteurs of self-discipline are affecting our collective future, pushed me to research the fate of our generation further.

In 1972, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, developed one of the most famous social science experiments ever conducted. Children were given one marshmallow with the promise of receiving a second if they were able to wait 10 minutes without eating the first. This long term study followed up with the original test subjects in the 90’s to record how the results manifested in the quality of their lives. With great consistency, the children who had the discipline to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow, had higher SAT scores, more success in their careers and even better health. How do we interpret and apply these results to our lives? Well new research shows us a way.

The collected data from recently conducted experiments on middle school to graduate students conclusively reveals that “media distractions may be the new marshmallows." In an Education Week article by Liana Loewus, the many effects of our social media habits are outlined by psychologists. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, did a study with 263 students doing homework for 15 minutes. Even though they were being observed, their attention drifted to checking texts and Facebook posts after 2 minutes. In the end, they spent only 65% of their time on their work. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, states that the problem with such multitasking is “the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time...listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.” Researchers discovered that the work takes longer, is more likely to have mistakes, will not be remembered as well, and whatever is learned may not transfer to other tasks.

The students with the ability to delay gratification, Rosen cites,”are likely to perform better than their peers.” This overwhelming evidence on the relationship between managing distractions and productivity outcomes leads us to understanding the roles of motivation and discipline. The motive may establish the action, but it is discipline that sees it through. The motivation to enjoy two marshmallows drove the discipline to sit through 10 minutes of waiting, the motivation to increase study performance and double free time afterwards, will drive the discipline to refrain from social media while studying. Since motivation is just the starting point and is fleeting, you have to build discipline around habits. This extends to every area of life. It is established that creating a new habit requires anywhere from 21 to 80 days according to a brain pickings article by Maria Popova. This is the difficult repeated conscious choice that needs to be made, motivated by the reward we seek, until it becomes an unconscious part of us. “At some point,"as Steven Pressfield says, "the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”

The plan to master delayed gratification is built upon a system of motivation and discipline, the yin and yang of productivity. Motivation is the noun describing the strong reason to act, discipline is the verb describing the training of that act. Start with a motivation, have that lead you to self-discipline, practice it to build a habit, and you will create a path to a life of freedom.

Free from distraction, full of metaphorical marshmallows.


Highly recommended reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear to build upon these concepts. Comment your thoughts!

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